The main idea of this book is to trace how unique American culture and mentality developed over the time and what are main characteristics of this culture. After reviewing history and specific traits of Americans the main feature of this culture presented as self-control of individuals with continuously growing freedom, security, choices, and quality of life. It is also specific to Americans that they tend to belong to voluntary associations and persistently work on self-understanding and self-improvement in pursuit of happiness.
1 THE STORIES WE TELL
This is about stories that make people American and what that means. In short it is combination of culture and character of independence and sociability. It is also about contrast between Americans of past who were fighting for mere survival and Americans of today who live in the land of plenty. This is also about myths of American social story with example of Christmas holiday, which was never a holiday of deep religious meaning. So here are some of myths and their debunking:
- Americans used to move around less than now: Actually Americans used to move around a lot more in previous centuries
- Americans moved away from religion: Actually proportionally more Americans belong to churches now
- Americans become more violent: Actually crime is down consistently despite temporary spikes in the second half of XX century
- Americans become alienated from their jobs: Actually most move to more interesting and creative jobs away from agricultural and industrial drudgery
- Americans become indifferent to the needy: Actually needy now are a lot better off than they used to be even if it is via government programs
The point of this book is to show how much American culture changed or did not change in the last hundred years in most important areas of live: security, goods, groups, public spaces, and mentality. The main thesis is that all these areas greatly improves and instead of changing American national character expanded it and provided opportunity for many people become more “American”. There is also a word about “American exceptionalism”. Author rejects its denial as well as meanings of “Exceptionally good” or “Exceptionally evil”. He defines it just as “significantly unusual” and it is hard to deny that America is very unusual country and the most unusual is its middle class mainstream, whish despite everything is still alive, well, and continue to expand including more and more people.
2 The SECURITY
This chapter reviews history and provides facts of tremendous improvement of American’s security. It goes step by step through all major security issues:
- Security from death and disease: dramatic improvement in life expectancy and quality of life
- Security from One Another: despite violent inheritance of American population this kind of security also has been dramatically improved. Despite periodic spikes of violence and crime overall trend is significant decrease in crime.
- Security from Privation: This is more complicated case to make because early Americans by the time of revolution were the wealthiest people in the world due to easy availability of land. This wealth was partially lost due to industrialization when many Americans become employees of somebody else. However American salaries always remained materially higher than anywhere in the world. The difficult problem in this new environment of dependence on job market with insecurity of unemployment was partially resolved via safety net of social security, unemployment and disability benefits, and welfare.
This chapter about American love / hate affair with consumerism and materialism. There is a very interesting dynamics here: American who have little want more material goods and work hard to get them, but then their children who grew up in relative luxury reject it and strive to live non-material simple live. Well, it seems to be only while they are young and careless. The bottom line is that by now average American family moves about 3 tons of staff while relocating, which is a lot more than it would ever be before. Actually more goods means more possibilities in pursuit of happiness and that is all what America is about.
This chapter is about American tradition of forming groups and cooperating in all things conceivable. Contrary to typical in other cultures attitude to individual as a member of a group based on birth, Americans see individual as independent entity who voluntarily joins community of other individuals in order to achieve all kinds of objectives not achievable on his/her own. The chapter goes into details of history of cooperation specifically analyzing the puritan community as being tightly connected religious group with strict religious norms really unusual for America of “born free” people. Overall the foundation of American culture was in remote small households’ voluntary cooperation and dependency on similar nearby households for support in all things conceivable including defense. With growth of population density, cities, and overall interactions between individuals this tradition grew into multiple societies either religious or secular for mutual help and support with one thing being common: voluntary character of participation. Author points out to multiple research of decline of American associations in late XX century, but he seems to be not sure that it will not follow by resurrection of this tradition and possibly in a new form.
5 PUBLIC SPACES
This chapter is about role of public spaces in American culture. It starts with opening ceremony for new department store in 1895 as symbol of expansion of public spaces in American life. The in goes to review how it came about Initial period of American development was characterized by mainly secluded way of life of farmers interrupted only by attendance of churches, taverns, and markets all of which were not that close to living spaces. Only later in XIX century when Americans moved to the cities and new technology like street car become widely available cutting down effort needed to access public spaces, the role of such spaces started to grow. Many activities that used to be home based such as entertainment, political gatherings, and even dining moved to public spaces of movie theaters, restaurants, bawling alleys, and such. It lasted up until new technologies of late XX century such as TVs and computers attracted people back to their homes and, while keeping them there opened infinite opportunities to communicate with everybody everywhere over Internet. This chapter also reviews political development between all politics being local and low significance of political issues to politics being of national and even international significance and formation of virtual congregation of individuals based on their political believes and inclinations, while not related to locality at all.
6 The MENTALITY
This is probably the most interesting part of the book that relates to American mentality and its changes over time. Two things identify American attitudes to all things mental: tight link to pursuit of happiness and approaches that were changing all the time going through tremendous number of fads, scientific, semi-scientific, and just plain weird theories many of which were expressed in actions in typically American way. These attitudes were expressed as many other things American in life and writings of Ben Franklin with his inherited from puritan forefathers need and love for introspection and following actions on self-perfection. There were and there are lots of ways to express this typical American need: diaries, behavior manuals, lectures, discussion clubs, and everything else conceivable including services of shrinks to improve mental wellbeing and achieve self-improvement. Obviously to improve oneself, a person should find this self and this is another ongoing concern of many Americans. The chapter reviews many areas of mentality, but the main feature of Americans’ thinking is their nearly universal believe in individual being the driver of his/her live and external circumstances being just limitations or opportunities. It is contrasting with many other cultures when circumstances are driving individual live from beginning to the end. Also there is very interesting discussion about rationality of Americans based on everyday documentation such as farmers’ ledgers, debt letters and similar things. Another unusual trait of Americans is their religiosity that somehow very comfortably coexists with rationality. One more typically American mental trait is ability and habit to deal with multiple choices. The variety of choices in all conceivable areas of human existence is and had always been hugely outstanding characteristic of American life so ability to deal with it effectively is a huge part of American mentality very poorly understood if at all by people from other cultures. At the end of chapter author promote an interesting idea that a lot in American mentality could be explained via metaphor of bookkeeping, that is bookkeeping of happiness in live.
The final chapter is restating of main ides of this book that there is exceptionality in American culture and there is continuity to it despite all changes in population, technology, believes, and everything else. As to the question if life got better the answer is always ambivalent because people tend to beautify the past and discount the present. However the answer could be found in response to two questions: 1. Was the past better? The vast majority believe that yes, the past was better. 2. Would you agree to move to the past if you have access to time machine? The same vast majority would not agree to go back and live in the past.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I am in agreement with main ideas of this book and found it quite fascinating to go through history of different aspects of American life and culture to get better understanding of how we got to situation we are today. The only thing that is missing is about public spaces. I think that new technologically created public spaces such as Internet with variety of virtual communities that are forming now will not only substitute local organizations of old, but greatly increase coherence and political power of regular middle class Americans, by allowing mass movements from home and by doing so getting lots more people involved in political activities.