Life in the United States, and Its Trade-Offs

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 25, 1999 | Go to article overview

Life in the United States, and Its Trade-Offs


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Now that we have been bombing Yugoslavia for almost a month with virtual impunity, but at home have lost 16 dead and 20-odd wounded in one Colorado high school, people will again be asking the question posed in this new book's title, "Is America Breaking Apart?"

John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm are, respectively, professors of sociology at McGill and anthropology at Boston Universities. Mr. Hall knows something about Northern Ireland and the world after communism, while Mr. Lindholm has worked in the Middle East. Both men have seen disintegrating societies at close quarters. In their book, they consider the state of the Union.

Their answer is a clear no, America is not coming undone at the seams - to the contrary. But at the same time, in a book notable for its evenhandedness and eschewing of rhetoric, the authors occasionally say disconcerting things, such as that "there may not be another Colin Powell."

Mr. Hall's and Mr. Lindholm's overall intention is to show how the United States has held together since the Founding, why it shows every promise of continuing to do so, and what are the positive and negative aspects of that history and present state of affairs. The people and the country that the two writers, one British and the other American, limn are immediately recognizable:

". . . a society that imagines itself to be made up of diverse and autonomous individuals, while ignoring fundamental realities of hierarchy and class distinction; a society that asserts the equality of all, and still is stained by racism; a society that is in fact the most powerful and stable in the world, yet is perennially shaken by self-doubt and moral anguish."

The America of Mr. Hall and Mr. Lindholm is a good place, but one that could be better. It is internally very strong but could, over its course of its 200 or so years, have gone in other directions than it did. That thought is one of the the more interesting ones the authors offer and is the basis of the first half of their book, in which they claim four historic turning points in the republic's history.

The first was the Union's holding together at the end of the 18th century and early in the 19th, when Federalists pushing for a strong central power struggled with minds, like that of Thomas Jefferson, more disposed to agrarian life and states' rights, when the War of 1812 undermined the Northern states' economic relations with Britain and, later, when the populist Andrew Jackson came upon the scene.

A factor of significance during those early years were the varying attitudes toward religion represented by religious freedom in Virginia, the open-mindedness of the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the dispersal of New England's more fanatical Puritan communities. As a result there did not occur the "layering" of contentious issues - in that instance religious and political ones - that Mr. Hall and Mr. Lindholm find required for intrasocietal friction of a truly damaging kind.

Such "layering" was present in the runup to the Civil War, the second of the authors' decisive moments and following logically from their first, as they see it. Among the factors were the very different societies represented by the Northern and Southern states and the undermining of economic opportunities for white pioneers and settlers caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act's extension of slavery into the Western territories. But the war left in American minds such a horror of civil conflict that it strengthened the Union in the long run.

Third was the uniquely "dramatic and brutal industrialization" in the second half of the last century. At its start, class and hierarchy in America were not so different from countries of Western Europe, but by the end they were. Marked labor unrest had been defused by a combination of force - after one such display, Andrew Carnegie declared life to be worth living again - and by broad social conditions. …

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