Sunday, May 16, 2010

Claude S. Fischer's "Made in America"

Claude S. Fischer is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of many books, including Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years and America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, and reported the following:
The context here is a discussion of how Americans are not really individualists, but community “voluntarists,” taking as a key example the evangelical Protestant congregation. Page 99:
gotta go there by yourself.”) Crucially, however, the believer finds salvation not in a hermitage, a desert, or a lonesome valley, but in a church, together with others of the faithful, testifying to his or her rebirth. This theology and this form of church, as political scientist James Block well argues, shaped American culture: the “new idiom of religion—combining individualism with elective community—becomes the American character.” A modern, mundane parallel is the gated community. Virtually anyone with the money can join or leave, but residents must accept strict limitations on what color they paint their homes, where they park their cars, and so forth in order to enjoy the benefits of the association. A third, more complex example is contemporary marriage. Easier to enter and easier to leave than it was generations ago, marriage remains to almost all Americans central to personal fulfillment. As Emersonian as Americans sometimes seem, they are committing themselves to churches, neighborhoods, and marriages—but only insofar as they choose those groups and are not shackled to them. The individualism remains in the insistence on free entry and exit.

“Contractualism” or “covenantalism” is central to American voluntarism. Individuals make this implicit contract by joining the group: I am free to stay or leave, but while belonging I owe fealty to the group. One might also call this the “love it or leave it” rule. Modern American marriage has this character: Americans believe that a person should be free to choose to marry or not and should be free to choose to leave an unhappy marriage or not, but so long as a marriage continues, the spouse must be faithful. (Americans have little taste for discreet adultery à la française.) Similarly, many Americans switch religions or denominations, but those who do are at least as devoted to their newly chosen faiths as are those who stay in their parents’ churches. This is also how local activists in the San Diego area understood their commitments to their towns, as explained by sociologist Richard Madsen:
To be a member of a community means to fulfill the social dimensions of one’s humanity through interaction with others. Belonging to a community does not, though, entail the sacrifice of oneself for the good of the group.... [A]n individual must resist the twin temptations of submerging oneself in the group and of denying one’s responsibilities toward the group.
Such activists do not feel obligated, for example, to stay forever—that would be to sacrifice the self—but when they move, they feel obliged to become activists in their new towns. This implicit contract helps explain the conformism that many observers have historically charged to Americans: conformity is part of the deal. It also helps explain why Americans are neither anarchists nor free lovers—positions one would expect of true libertarians—and why they more often defer to groups and group leaders than other Westerners do.
The page 99 test is fair enough for me. It reveals some of the key ideas of the book. What it does not show is that most of the book's roughly 250pp of text are devoted to concretely recounting the lives, relationships, and thinking of ordinary Americans from the colonial to the modern era -- such as men striving for success in the new cities, women trying to establish church and civility on the frontier, parents coping in different ways with the deaths of infants, farmers dealing with the decline of farming, and young adults trying to fashion their own characters to be both boldly confident and emotionally sensitive.
Read an excerpt from Made in America and visit the book's official website.

--Marshal Zeringue