Civilization Still Has Its Discontents A Civil Assembly of Books about the Nature of Citizenship and The

By Rubin, Merle | The Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Civilization Still Has Its Discontents A Civil Assembly of Books about the Nature of Citizenship and The


Rubin, Merle, The Christian Science Monitor


IS AMERICA BREAKING APART? By John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm Princeton University Press 162 pp., $19.95.

THE SECRET LIVES OF CITIZENS: PURSUING THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE By Thomas Geoghegan Pantheon Books 241 pp., $25

FREEDOM IN CHAINS: THE RISE OF THE STATE AND THE DEMISE OF THE CITIZEN By James Bovard St. Martin's 326 pp., $26.95. CIVIL SOCIETY: THE UNDERPINNINGS OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY By Brian O'Connell University Press of New England 148 pp., $30 COUNTRY OF EXILES: THE DESTRUCTION OF PLACE IN AMERICAN LIFE By William Leach Pantheon Books 274 pp., $24 It is hard to decide which is more dismaying: the low standard of ethics that seems prevalent in much of America's public life or the cheap cynicism of a public that is prepared to tolerate such low standards. Many people are distressed by the loss of civility in our daily lives: endemic rudeness, road rage, talk-show revelations, and a general lack of respect. What is less often remarked on is the relationship between civility and citizenship. For, if many people have lost their faith in public, collective enterprises and retreated to the narrower concerns of their private lives, it should not surprise us that they are less prepared to show consideration for others in their quest for self-advancement at any cost. Posing the question Is America Breaking Apart?, two professors, sociologist John A. Hall and anthropologist Charles Lindholm, answer their own query with a qualified "No." The authors seek to allay the fear that the rise of group identities - racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural - could be turning America into a nation of warring factions. The arguments they present, however, are not as reassuring as one would hope. Some of their points are worth bearing in mind: Conflict, they remind us, is not necessarily a sign of irreparable divisions, but part of a process of negotiation. Americans join groups to work for certain goals and to get a feeling of belonging. But American group allegiances are fluid, shifting, and not likely to lead to the kind of intransigent conflicts that occur between European groups. Unfortunately, the authors offer almost no evidence to support their case, although their book is written in a kind of faux- objective style that masks its essential insubstantiality. Indeed, this brief book is so full of social-science jargon and hair- splitting arguments that it's not likely to afford much reassurance to anyone worried about the serious issue it raises. A more dispiriting picture is painted by Thomas Geoghegan in The Secret Lives of Citizens. A lawyer, essayist, and former civil servant, Geoghegan considers himself a child of the New Deal. In this impressionistic, highly personal, and distinctly offbeat blend of memoir and social commentary, he tries to figure out what might be done to recapture what the influential progressive thinker Herbert Croly called "The Promise of American Life." Geoghegan went to work in Washington because he hoped to follow in the footsteps of the New Dealers, using a strong federal government to improve the lives of ordinary people by regulating big business, strengthening labor unions, and counterbalancing the power of the corporate elite. What he found instead was an overwhelming trend toward deregulation, devolution of power from the federal government to the states, and a worship of the bottom line. He visits public schools where teachers boast of plans to equip students with hightech skills for the job market. But he points out that there is actually a greater demand for unskilled labor. Inevitably, a sizable portion of the population will be employed as busboys, custodians, store clerks, fast-food servers. The real problem is not to train everyone to be an engineer, but to ensure that all working people receive a living wage. …

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