American Nightmares: Social Problems in an Anxious World, by Joel Best

This attempt to dissipate our anxiety reads like an interesting collection of essays rather than a coherent argument, writes Deborah D. Rogers

May 21, 2018
Donald Trump in New York

Nightmares aren’t what they used to be. Sociologist Joel Best uses the notion of a dream that has become a nightmare to describe fears that things are getting worse, that future generations will be unable to replicate, let alone surpass, their parents’ lives. They despair of achieving the American Dream, which is based on the myth that hard work entitles everyone to an equal shot at happiness, education, social mobility and a fat pay cheque.

Situating himself as an optimistic middle-class American whose parents lived The Dream, Best considers apocalyptic predictions of the decay of social institutions that support it. Hysteria about the corrosion of schools, healthcare, Social Security and housing gives rise to our collective nightmares: “Instead of believing that the future is bright, we worry that it will be dark. American Nightmares are fears that middle America’s way of life is threatened.”

But not to worry.

Nightmares may not go as far as other recent optimistic books that argue that the world is actually getting better. (Consider, for example, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.) But Best does argue that things are less dire than we imagine.

Fuelled by alarmist rhetoric, exaggerated nightmares that middle-class America is imperilled are old hat: Americans “have always been able to find lots of new things to fear”. Examples such as the colonial-era fear of witches and the Cold War fear of Communism demonstrate that time diminishes our anxiety.

Over time, we discover that “yet again, our worries were overblown”, that “the world did not end on Y2K, “the population bomb failed to explode”, and wake from the nightmare to find it “exaggerated, overwrought, and rather silly”.

Except when it’s not.

If Best argues that our excessive anxiety is nothing new, he ignores functional anxieties that may forecast real disasters. After all, the World Trade Towers did fall.

Besides an attempt to allay our anxiety, Best’s book is an indictment of the field of sociology for its constructs of social problems that are unsympathetic to the middle class. Criticising sociology for contributing to the nightmare by exaggerating dangers, by focusing on the poor and by using narrow case studies, Best urges a thorough revamping of the field: “I am calling for an expanded sociological mandate” based on “a broader perspective [that] can make our American Nightmares seem less alarming”.

Although this book is very readable and Best has interesting things to say on a variety of topics such as “popular hazards”, predictions, symbols and a comparison of economists and sociologists, it seems pieced together – like a collection of essays rather than a coherent argument. Running through it is the attempt to dissipate our pervasive sense of anxiety by constantly urging us to “step back from our worries”. Instead of exaggerating dangers, we need to “step back from the urgency about whatever the anxiety of the day may be”.

In Trumpworld, however, sometimes anxiety is as good as it gets.

Deborah D. Rogers is professor of English at the University of Maine. Her latest book, co-written with Howard Segal, Becoming Modern: The University of Maine, 1965-2015, should be published later this year.


American Nightmares: Social Problems in an Anxious World
By Joel Best
University of California Press 
256pp, £66.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780520296343 and 9780520296350
Published 23 January 2018

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