The union held together

Is America Breaking Apart?
November 26, 1999

In the current state of public affairs, this little book seems almost a surrealist contribution to the debate. On the one hand the broadsheets treat us to regular analyses of the extraordinary American economic boom, "now in its ninth glorious year", and on the other we are daily assailed with images of a society that was almost literally being razed to the ground.

John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm could hardly have foreseen the war in the Balkans when they chose the unfortunate title for their book, which seems designed for those who take a professional interest in the course of American civilisation.

The authors, in fact, do not believe that the United States is breaking apart, a view they impute to others who apparently lament the "broken state of the union". The publisher's blurb accompanying the book insists that "pessimism and panic about the future of America abound", and that recent "shrill doomsaying" has "infiltrated the population and engendered a fear that the social fabric of the United States is disintegrating".

Hall and Lindholm are determined to rebut these misbegotten prophets who have been panicking their fellow Americans into reaching for their comfort blankets. But who are they? Arthur Schlesinger Jr's The Disuniting of America and Robert Hughes's The Culture of Complaint are cited as "eloquent" examples of the admonitory genre, yet these were hardly apocalyptic treatises. Schlesinger avowed his "impression that the holistic forces driving toward 'one people' have not lost their power", which is pretty much the message of Hall and Lindholm, while Hughes's subtitle was "the fraying of America": a worrying image, perhaps, but not one suggesting impending doom.

Others have written in shriller terms, though one wonders who takes notice of them.

Still, discontents in the cultural realm do have implications for the political, but, like a pair of Corporal Joneses, historical sociologist Hall and anthropologist Lindholm are crying "Don't panic!"

The United States, they believe, is a highly resilient polity and Americans are a sociable people, well able to rub along with one another. Their first 68 pages seek to show how the United States has historically seen off threats to its polity. In withstanding such dangers as sectional division and class insurgency, American institutions have not only survived but have been strengthened.

Part two examines the forms of American sociability. Americans are not the atomistic loners, the "caged individuals" of some analyses, but rather are responsible individuals who seek to express their values in community activity, in what Max Weber called "the sect spirit".

Possessing more in common than they often realise, Americans are assisted by such traits as ideological vagueness, a pervasive belief in self transformation and a worship of an idealised history. Trusting that citizens of goodwill share much the same beliefs, they are reluctant to interfere in the lives of others, and they search for fulfilment by moving from group to group.

For many white Americans, even ethnicity is something of a choice, identification with an ethnic group being akin to membership of other voluntary associations. This choice, tragically, is not open to African-Americans imprisoned in the cage of race.

Hall and Lindholm conclude that American cultural values disguise profound economic and social inequities. This is not a particularly novel observation, and their talents might have been better employed in a closer analysis of those inequities than in this extended essay on the comforting homogenising elements in American society.

M. J. Heale is professor of American history, University of Lancaster.

Is America Breaking Apart?

Author - John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm
ISBN - 0 691 00410 2
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £11.95
Pages - 162

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