Thursday, November 2, 2017

Francesco Duina's "Broke and Patriotic"

Francesco Duina is Professor of Sociology at Bates College, as well as Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and Visiting Professor of Business and Politics at the Copenhagen Business School. He is the author of several books, including Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession.

Duina applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Indeed, if anything, the system—the country, the government, and society in general—helps you take advantage of America’s opportunities. This, too, is part of the attractiveness of the country. I asked Sam if he felt that the country did enough for him. He replied:
The country does enough.... They feed you, they give you free housing, they give you food stamps ... the country does a lot for their people. The United States do a lot for their people. If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it nowhere.... If you can’t make it here, you ... you ... there’s something wrong with you ... there’s something terribly wrong with you. ... Yeah, he [my father] taught me that. It’s the land of opportunity to be what you wanna be. I helped you so far, and you have to help yourself.
I paused to think about the words “there’s something terribly wrong with you” if you don’t make it in America. It was as if America really gives people everything they need to succeed. Angie, in the same bus station in Birmingham, stated something nearly identical: “If you check into anything like college, you want a good job ... there’s the government, there’s funds, there’s programs, there’s no obstacles if you know how to go get what you want, what you need. There’s something always out there to help you.” What is necessary on the individual’s part is the will to progress. “If you, if you work for it,” she added, “you can have what you want here. You go to school and do what you want. Before I had a wreck and broke my back and wound up on disability . . . I was a real estate agent making close to one hundred thousand dollars a year.” The help extends even to criminals. In Sam’s words, “Even in the prison they, they got programs in the prison. Trying to reprogram them, you know.”
Page 99 is one of many where the reader hears the thoughts and beliefs of some of America’s economically worst-off people as they describe their intense love of country. This is Chapter 3, where the attention turns to the widely-held conviction that America is great – indeed superior to other countries – because it is so wealthy and because anyone can make it there. When I questioned my interviewees about their own, often very difficult, trajectories in life, the answer was consistently one of personal responsibility: their dire circumstances were the results of their own choices, they told me, not anyone else’s – much like wealthy people have become so because they have earned it. So, why blame the country for anything? On the contrary, they expressed gratitude to the many organizations that help them eat and sleep with a roof over their heads.

The other core chapters of the book explore two parallel ideas driving the intense patriotism of America’s most impoverished citizens. The first is a sense that America represents hope for mankind in general and, in turn, for themselves individually. When nearly everything else has gone wrong in life, pride in being American can give one a powerful sense of dignity. This is the land where every person counts, every human being is sacred. The second idea involves freedom. America is the land of physical and mental freedom. The extent of that freedom, according to them, is unique. Here, discussions about God (freedom of religion) and guns often came up.

Misconceptions about other countries, and America itself, certainly abounded. The lessons I learned from my travels and conversations, however, made clear to me that those were not really very relevant for my interviewee’s devotion to their country. In the end, the most important thing was something else: it was a sense that this country (still) belongs to the people.
Learn more about Broke and Patriotic at the Stanford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Winning.

--Marshal Zeringue