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
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
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
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. …