America was built on stories: tales of grateful immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, Horatio Alger-style transformations, self-made men, and the Protestant work ethic. In this new book, renowned sociologist Robert Wuthnow examines these most American of stories--narratives about individualism, immigration, success, religion, and ethnicity--through the eyes of recent immigrants. In doing so, he demonstrates how the "American mythos" has both legitimized American society and prevented it from fully realizing its ideals.
This magisterial work is a reflection and meditation on the national consciousness. It details how Americans have traditionally relied on narratives to address what it means to be strong, morally responsible individuals and to explain why some people are more successful than others--in short, to help us make sense of our lives. But it argues that these narratives have done little to help us confront new challenges. We pass laws to end racial discrimination, yet lack the resolve to create a more equitable society. We welcome the idea of pluralism in religion and values, yet we are shaken by the difficulties immigration presents. We champion prosperity for all, but live in a country where families are still homeless.
American Mythos aptly documents this disconnect between the stories we tell and the reality we face. Examining how cultural narratives may not, and often do not, reflect the reality of today's society, it challenges readers to become more reflective about what it means to live up to the American ideal.
Of the books reviewed here, this is the most stimulating and perhaps the most disturbing because it challenges the reader to confront some unsettling truths about who we are, what we believe, and what we must do if we are truly to become a great nation. Wuthnow (sociology and director, Ctr. for the Study of Religion, Princeton Univ.; America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity) assumes that a people convey their political values via stories or narratives. Americans have oft-repeated rags-to-riches tales in which initiative and hard work bring success. We believe that we are a melting pot, a colorblind society, and highly tolerant of those among us who are different. Yet, Wuthnow believes, Americans have become complacent because they no longer reflect upon the meaning of the stories: a serious disconnect exists between what Americans think they believe and what they actually believe. To test his ideas, he conducted 200 in-depth interviews with successful first- and second-generation immigrants and then studied how they understood individualism, religion, materialism, and ethnicity. By comparing the stories of these immigrants with those that are part of our mythos, Wuthnow uncovers deficiencies in the value scheme of the average American. The consequence, he argues, is that laws passed to solve problems apparently fail to deliver on their promise; in fact, it is the public that fails to understand the real problems because it fails to understand what it aspires to be. Wuthnow concludes with a call for Americans to engage in reflective democracy, thinking deeply about our values, and how we might better live by them. Highly recommended for all libraries. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Princeton University Press
August 02, 2008
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Excerpt from American Mythos by Robert Wuthnow
The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose and identity are so firmly inscribed in our culture that we usually accept them without thinking much about them. These are the stories we tell ourselves about the moral responsibilities of individuals and about success and failure, about immigration and diversity. Through them we find easy ways of believing that the enormous privileges we enjoy as Americans are privileges we deserve. The deep meanings of these stories provide us with common ways of thinking about who we are. At the same time, they bias our perceptions. For instance, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we really are. They result in ideas about how to escape from materialism and consumerism that are usually more wishful than effective.
This is the first premise of the book. The second is that we would be a better nation if we paid closer attention to these stories, understanding their effect on us and how they constrain our efforts to be better as a nation--to adhere more closely to the ideals we profess.
How do we identify these stories? Thoughtful observers have had much to say about them and--from Alexis de Tocqueville to David Riesman to more recent observers such as Robert Bellah, Herbert Gans, and Robert Putnam--have produced a long tradition of scholarly inquiry. Beyond this literature, though, stand the stories of recent immigrants, which are particularly illuminating. Through their distinctive voices, immigrants make the familiar strange. The stories they tell come with different accents and valences, but they are thoroughly American. They reveal anew why we think America is good and why we are so often unable to move beyond the shortcomings of its past.
That we ignore these deeper stories isn't to say that we don't reflect at all. Far from it. Much of our public discourse is devoted to examining the state of American democracy. In many ways, the United States has gotten better. Take, for example, the fact that since 1965 approximately 22 million immigrants have entered the United States legally (perhaps 7 to 10 million more if all immigrants are counted). The American population is consequently much more diverse than it was. The number of Latinos has risen threefold, the number of Muslims and Hindus fourfold, and the number of Asian Americans fivefold. During the same period, we have undergone a major shift in values. We have become more accepting of diversity. Prejudice against Catholics and Jews has dropped dramatically. Racial discrimination has declined; interethnic and interracial marriage and friendships have increased. Gender equality has expanded. The number of women in the paid labor force has risen. We have also become a society in which individual rights are championed on an unprecedented scale.
In view of these changes, it would be appropriate to say that American culture has undergone the kind of democratic renewal that observers from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville imagined as necessary to keep democracies strong. This period of reinvention has brought us closer to our ideals. We are a more inclusive nation, a nation that more nearly upholds the rights of minorities, and that more actively pursues equality and justice for all.
At the same time, a quick look at newspapers, magazines, and blogs reveals observers at both ends of the political spectrum arguing that American democracy is in danger. The threat is not just from foreign powers or terrorists. It is internal. It stems from complacency, from declining civic participation, and from self-interest.
Culprits are not hard to find. Some blame traditionalists dragging their feet. Or the untutored, the bigots, and fundamentalists, who have managed to avoid enlightenment. Others argue that reforms were too idealistic in the first place or carried unforeseen consequences that caused people to think twice. Other culprits share the spotlight: political gridlock, a sluggish economy, poor planning, partisan polarization, and diverted resources, such as those poured into national security. A case can be made for any and all of these. Yet to focus only on explanations such as these is to miss the most essential consideration.
That consideration is the deep character of our culture itself--what we might call the American mythos. The reason our best efforts to become more inclusive, more diverse, and more democratic have fallen short, I argue, is that our collective thinking is grounded in widely accepted narratives that almost always go unexamined. These are the deep meanings of which our culture is composed, the tacit knowledge we use to make sense of our worlds. They are fundamentally about morality. Not a list of dos and don'ts but rather one of expectations, of rights and responsibilities.