Is America Breaking Apart?

By John A. Hall; Charles Lindholm | Go to book overview

6
Conceptual baselines

One of the most powerful founding arguments of sociology was made in the opening pages of Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.1 Immanuel Kant was wrong, Durkheim insisted, to suggest that our conceptual equipment comes from the structure of our minds; to the contrary, our notions of time, space, and causation are given to us by our society. In this section we will outline three American ways of grasping the world. The first is abstraction and vagueness in relation to political theory, the second is a pragmatic modular approach to reality, and the third is a faith that the self can be transformed. We concentrate on these factors rather than offering a complete account of the conceptual framework of the American worldview, because each is conducive to social homogeneity and antithetical to animosity and fragmentation.2

One thing that has often been held to characterize Americans is the ambiguity, confusion, and “contagious vagueness” of their understanding of political theory.3 Americans may know, for example, that citizens have rights, but are extremely unclear about what those rights might be; they know Americans are supposed to be free, but not how freedom is limited, or what freedoms are permitted; they know that “all men are created equal,” but cannot reconcile that precept with the protection of property.4 In other words, most Americans are very proud indeed of the principles that their country is built upon,

____________________
1
E. Durkheim, Introduction to The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (reprint, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1965).
2
Tocqueville attempted such a complete picture in the second volume of Democracy in America.
3
The term is from D. Boorstin, “The Mythologizing of George Washington,” in R. Boorstin, ed., The Daniel J. Boorstin Reader (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 184.
4
For some characteristic American confusions on these topics, see J. Hochschild, What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

-83-

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Is America Breaking Apart?
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Is America Breaking Apart? *
  • Contents *
  • Preface xi
  • Is America Breaking Apart? *
  • Introduction 3
  • Part One - The Growth of Political Stability 11
  • 1 - The State and the People 15
  • 2 - The National Question 31
  • 3 - The Challenge of Class 47
  • 4 - The World in America, America in the World 61
  • 5 - Reprise 75
  • Part Two - Sociability in America 79
  • 6 - Conceptual Baselines 83
  • 7 - Sacred Values 91
  • 8 - Anti-Politics in America 109
  • 9 - Ambivalence about Association 121
  • 10 - Ethnicity as Choice, Race as Destiny 129
  • 11 - Two Cheers for Homogeneity 145
  • Conclusion 149
  • Index 155
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