They Dream the Possible Dream

Book cover
American Mythosby Robert Wuthnow

Princeton Univ. Press. 304p $29.95

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I cannot sufficiently praise and recommend American Mythos. In its supple mining of data and its perspicacity about American culture and institutions, it ranks with Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone as ground-breaking interpretative social science. I say this because Robert Wuthnow is soprolific (a book, sometimes two, a year since the mid-1980’s) he almost makes the competition seem slack! While I have never been disappointed by a Wuthnow book, not many have attained the stature and weight of this one.

At one, modest level, American Mythos reports results of a survey studying elite new immigrants (many of them adherents to non-Christian religions) and their accounts of their transformation in the United States. At a more profound level, Wuthnow asks how their stories mesh with deeper cultural narratives that Americans tell themselves about themselves: stories of privilege and responsibilities, and the place of America in the world.

We think we deserve our enormous privileges and link them to narratives of suffering and hard work. The stories we tell ourselves, though partially true, also skew our perceptions. Americans think, for example, we are more authentically religious than we really are and assume we can more easily escape consumerism than we can. Culture serves as an impediment to needed social change because our strongest, taken-for-granted assumptions are often difficult to recognize and, hence, to challenge. Implicit in this book’s carefully parsed and balanced assessment of American culture are a set of “zingers” about ways American culture today needs confrontation and revision.

Thus Wuthnow can assert: “We have become a society in which the narrow self-interest that Tocqueville warned about has become so rampant that we find it difficult to work together for the common good.” Again, “Too much inequality is tantamount to rule by oligarchy, whether the wealthy actually hold offices or simply manipulate public officials behind the scenes.” Our perennial narratives about self-made men in America relate only part of the truth and conveniently eclipse other, less sanguine, parts of the story. Many of our deep assumptions about ourselves make us fall short on a number of fronts:

The extent to which we value our individual freedom is one. How we legitimate our predominance as a world power is another. The proverbial rags-to-riches imagery that in new guises still undergirds our belief in the universal possibilities of individual success is yet another. So are our assumptions that ethnic and religious diversity have been working smoothly to provide equality and thoroughly grounded spiritual expressions for all….

In an early chapter, Wuthnow examines the quandaries of individualism, probing how sociologists in the 1950’s pushed for heightened individation against mass conformity and the “organization man” and later, in the 1990’s, decried an individualism run rampant—which eviscerated communal loyalties. He espouses the notion of “a strong self,” negotiating shifting social networks and loose ties, to make choices that are, nevertheless, tempered by true conviction and layered loyalties. A chapter on the persistent Horatio Alger stories notes how such narratives eschew the uncertainties and tragedies of life or blind us to a glaring and growing inequality in American life. Most narratives of self-made men are thoroughly decontextualized, conveniently omitting mention of mentors, family connections and social situations that make success possible.

Central to American Mythos are the issues of American religion, ethnic diversity and materialism. As the book’s findings attest, we pride ourselves on being deeply religious, but too often forget the ways religion is increasingly excluded from the public square. Americans abide by tacit but strong norms against making too public a display of one’s religion. When religion functions mainly to fulfill personal needs (“I am spiritual and do not need a church”), the prophetic voice gets muted and religion loses its authority to make any claims in the public arena on behalf of specific teachings. One virtue of some evangelical claims is that they do purport to be about “truth,” and thus force opponents to respond in kind.

Americans, as the Irish rock singer Bono said recently at a presidential prayer breakfast, are great on charity but thin on justice. Philanthropy is seen to consist of purely voluntary, benevolent acts. Some of them may not agree with Wuthnow’s matter-of-fact assertion: “Possessions acquired that produce injustice or become ends in themselves are normatively problematic.”

America is now more diverse in ethnicity and religion than it was before the immigration reforms of 1965. Over the years, Americans have grown more tolerant of that diversity. Nonetheless, as we hear in this book, new immigrants still recount episodes of discrimination based on skin color or religion (especially among Muslims). Most poignant and challenging to me were the ways the new immigrants say they came to America in search of “success” and “opportunity”—but at the cost of “losing home.” Theirs is not just the typical nostalgia for a bygone home-country network of dense loyalties, but a sense that in America the inevitable price for success is never really having a home (in the sense of genuine rooted communities that foster trust).

Wuthnow ends American Mythos with a chapter on what he calls reflective democracy. In it he pleads for venues and forums that would allow for deeper deliberation about culture, and questions what kind of individuals make up a good society. Further, he considers how the ambience of our daily life derives increasingly from the mass media and the interests of large and powerful corporations. Democracy, Wuthnow claims, requires individual and collective examination of when and how our cultural narratives tell only part of the story. Unfortunately, American deliberative discourse too often focuses on short-term goals and policies.

We will need greater efforts to achieve reflective forums on key issues if our best intentions are not to fall short.

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