Made in America (Anglais) Relié – 23 avril 2010
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The author aggregates his subject matter into five big themes relating to American culture and character: security (economic and physical), goods (consumption), groups (families, neighborhoods, churches, etc.), public spaces (both physical and virtual), and mentality (self concepts and feelings).
Fischer concludes that the modern American character is remarkably similar to that of our ancestors. "What seemed socially distinctive about America in the eighteenth century still seems distinctive in the twenty-first," he writes. The fundamental difference is that today we generally have more, "more time on Earth, more wealth, more things, more information, more power, more acquaintances, and so many more choices." He believes that "the expansion of material security and comfort enabled early American social patterns and culture to expand," that "with growth more people could participate in that distinctive culture more fully and could become `more American'."
Fischer applies the notion of "volunteerism" -- he observes that Americans generally behave as if they are sovereign individuals, individuals who succeed through fellowship. They are not disconnected, but tend to prefer choice in their group affiliations. This notion contrasts with the underlying assumption in many societies that individuals are only parts of a social whole, acting out predetermined roles.
Along the way Fischer debunks what he claims are various myths about our history, such as the beliefs that we have become more violent or less religious (sometimes we have misconceptions about the past, sometimes the present, and sometimes both).
That he generally finds consensus and continuity is not surprising since he focuses primarily on the "mainstream" -- he suggests that middle and working class Northern white Protestants have represented "the dominant character of the society." Fischer claims the "assimilative pull" of that center is powerful and distinctive, and his story stresses its widening over time to include others. The obvious criticism of this point of view is that it leaves out too many for too long. African Americans, immigrant groups, and many others come across as late-joiners rather than as important contributors and shapers.
Fischer also appears to be a "lumper" rather than a "splitter," and that too disposes him to see continuities where others might perceive important differences. For instance, he stresses that constructing a "better self" has been an American project for centuries, and this broad conclusion overrides the significant evidence he presents of historical shifts in the focus of our self-improvement obsessions. But doesn't the content of the improvement objectives matter (for example, good manners, versus weight control, versus business success, versus inner peace, and so on) and say something important about our "character"?
He does not always discern straight-lines in the historical evidence, though. Notably, he often perceives the 1960s and 1970s to have been eras of discontinuity, disrupting the course of the mainstream. In spite of the alarmist fears of some, however, Fischer reassures that "Americans did not turn into free lovers, free thinkers, ramblers, rebels, or anarchists; they remained by Western standards remarkably committed to family, church, community, job, and nation -- quite bourgeois."
It should be apparent that Fischer does not shy away from controversial assertions. Historians and sociologists will recognize many long-standing debates where the author has taken sides, and are likely to often disagree. Yet that is the charm of this book: it stimulates.
Students of American social history at all levels are likely to find Made in America worth the investment. Among its virtues are the endnotes and the "Works Cited" bibliography, each over 100 pages.
Fischer's study is based upon extensive work of social historians in researching the everyday life of people in the United States before the availablity of surveys and means of scientific studies. The book is full of stories, diaries, letters, and anecdotes. Fischer has also read extensively about contemporary America. His book offers a generous, optimistic vision of the United States. Broadly speaking, Fischer concludes that there is a distinctively American character. He argues that this character can be determined most clearly by studying the development of the American middle class and the continued expansion of this class over the years to include African Americans, women, the aged, immigrants, among others. Fischer denies that concluding that the American experience is distinct exposes him to a charge of promoting American "exceptionalism". The claim that an experience is unique does not mean that it is somehow privileged over other experiences or that the experience is not subject to historical laws or conditions.
The larger part of the book is devoted to setting out the nature of American culture and character. Fischer finds it largely in voluntarism, a term he defines and explores in several contexts in the study. For Fischer, voluntarism is a path between the excessive individualism or the communalism that frequently are used to define portions of the American experience. Fischer best states the nature of voluntarism while introducing his study of Americans and their relationship to various groups. He states: "The American solution to the tension between the individual and the group is to assume that a person best reaches his or her personal ends with others in freely chosen fellowship." (p. 95) Earlier, he offers a more detailed, two pronged definition of voluntarism (p.10):
"The first key element of voluntarism is believing and behaving as if each person is a sovereign individual: unique, independent, self-reliant, self-governing, and ultimately self-responsible."
"The second key element of voluntarism is believing and behaving as if individuals succeed through fellowship-- not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities."
Voluntarism blends individualism and communitarianism in the free choices of persons to decide what matters to them in their lives. Fischer argues that the early American experience was voluntaristic but limited by economic condititions. As the United States has developed, voluntarism has become more open.
There is an underlying economic theme to Fischer's presentation. He argues that even in the face of harsh economic conditions, America has been a land of plenty. As the country developed and its economic bounty grew, an increasing number of people were able to feel more secure in life and pursue other ends than bare sustenance. Thus, in the second chapter of his book, Fischer describes in broad terms the zig-zag growth of American economic security, with some tensions and regressions beginning in the 1970s. Importantly and provocatively, Fischer denies the often repeated charges that Americans are a "materialist" or "consumerist" people. He argues that at all times Americans have sought out the good things in life which have been on the whole plentiful in the nation. The use and benefits that people make of material goods, Fischer maintains, does not support often-levelled charges of philistinism. Rather, the increasing availablity of material goods have allowed Americans to expand their voluntaristic activities in pursuing their own ends.
In a chapter called "groups", Fischer focuses on the changes in the American family and on the role of women to a position of independence and equality. The family becomes a key instance of Fischer's analysis of how individuals relate to groups: they are sources of identiy and purpose but they also can be left when they fail to meet their purpose. With this broad form of analysis, Fisher examines American's religious commitments and concludes that Americans have remained an essentially religious people. He examines clubs, social organizations, the work place, neighborhoods and friendships to conclude that voluntarism has been and remains a critical component of American life and character.
In a chapter called "public spaces", Fischer examines American participation in the public sphere, from main street to the voting booth and in the private sphere. He finds that in recent years, Americans participation in voting and other public activities has fallen off as Americans have tended to pursue more private ends, based in part on the television and the Internet.
In a chapter called, "Mentality", Fischer examines the passions Americans have displayed for self-help and self-improvement. There is a tension in American life between the expectations people have of themeselves and of others on the one hand and liberty on the other hand. As in marriages, freedom has resulted in raised expectations which often cannot be met, people being fallible and imperfect. Nevertheless, Fischer finds claims that American life has become more tense or mentally unstable unproven and overstated. He concludes that contemporary Americans are on the whole happier than were their predecessors.
This is a detailed book consisting of about 250 pages of text followed by and almost equally set of endnotes and bibliography. The author convinced me of his efforts at even-handedness. He has written a book that touches upon some of the divisions in current American life but that takes no particular side. The writing can be dry. This is a thoughtful, provocative book for readers interested in considering and understanding the nature of the American experience.
Here's an example of why I call this book head-snapping. Here are five assumptions millions of us share in casual conversation about our country and culture and communities:
Until recently, American families routinely shared dinners together.
Americans have become increasingly rootless, moving more and more often.
Americans have become less religious over time.
Americans have become more violent.
Americans have become less concerned about the needy.
As it turns out, based on data that Fischer describes in this new book, all five assumptions amount to myths about America. Not only am I now enjoying Fischer's work, as an individual who is interested in accurately seeing and understanding our culture, but I can see there are seeds in this book for great small-group discussion. Definitely 5 stars.