American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short

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Overview

"The power of America's deep unspoken culture, tied as it is to our dominant institutions, has never been analyzed more profoundly than in Robert Wuthnow's stunning new book American Mythos. Taking a sample of highly successful recent immigrants as his database, he illustrates just how quickly these taken-for-granted assumptions are absorbed. Even more important, he shows us how what at one level seems to be a remarkable success story turns out at another level to be the source of deep and unresolved issues that call that success into question. This book should have a wide readership among scholars and laypeople, and indeed anyone concerned with the future of our deeply troubled society."—Robert N. Bellah, coauthor, Habits of the Heart

"This is a truly great book. It makes use of Wuthnow's encyclopedic knowledge to point us to the true culprits in our inability to achieve our societal aspirations."—John H. Evans, University of California, San Diego

"Thoughtful, lucid and accessibly written. Robert Wuthnow has been one of the sanest, most insightful, and most balanced observers of the American scene in the past two decades, and this book is a perfect example. His approach to culture and society is both respectful and critical, always seeking to transcend passing partisan alignments and to reinforce standards of fundamental civility—the enabling virtue without which sound criticism is unlikely to be heard."—Wilfred McClay, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

"Robert Wuthnow is one of the most prolific and thoughtful observers of contemporary American society. In this latest book he raises his sights to encompass much of our history and our culture. What he has to say, especially about the importance of narratives and cultural myths, and about immigrants and religion and ethnicity, merits the attention of all of us who would like America to be a better nation."—Robert Putnam, Harvard University, author of Bowling Alone

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Editorial Reviews

Commonweal - Robert K. Vischer
In American Mythos, Wuthnow provides an important reminder that amid the din of the culture wars, our storytelling matters; and that America is a story best told from the bottom up.
America - John A. Coleman
I cannot sufficiently praise and recommend American Mythos. In its supple mining of data and its perspicacity about American culture and institutions, it ranks with Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone as ground-breaking interpretive social science.
European Legacy - Donald J. Dietrich
Robert Wuthnow carefully examines the narratives that have been instrumental in constructing the cultural identity of the United States....[He] presents a study of the cultural dynamics of American culture that could serve as a model for the studies of other cultures.
Perspectives on Politics - David Fott
This book contains keen reflections that make it well worth reading. Wuthnow gives a compelling account of the transformation of American society from an era of conformity in the 1950s to an era of good feelings today... American Mythos is a significant contribution, especially to the current debate over immigration.
Theology Today - Manuel A. Vasquez
American Mythos provides a very thoughtful and insightful analysis of contemporary American national identity. Wuthnow shows a keen sensitivity . . . that allows him to get to the core of what it means to become American. The lessons learned are enormously illuminating.
Theology Today - Manuel A. Vásquez
American Mythos provides a very thoughtful and insightful analysis of contemporary American national identity. Wuthnow shows a keen sensitivity . . . that allows him to get to the core of what it means to become American. The lessons learned are enormously illuminating.
From the Publisher
"In American Mythos, Wuthnow provides an important reminder that amid the din of the culture wars, our storytelling matters; and that America is a story best told from the bottom up."—Robert K. Vischer, Commonweal

"Stimulating and . . . 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 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."—Thomas J. Baldino, Library Journal

"I cannot sufficiently praise and recommend American Mythos. In its supple mining of data and its perspicacity about American culture and institutions, it ranks with Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone as ground-breaking interpretive social science."—John A. Coleman, America

"Robert Wuthnow carefully examines the narratives that have been instrumental in constructing the cultural identity of the United States....[He] presents a study of the cultural dynamics of American culture that could serve as a model for the studies of other cultures."—Donald J. Dietrich, European Legacy

"This book contains keen reflections that make it well worth reading. Wuthnow gives a compelling account of the transformation of American society from an era of conformity in the 1950s to an era of good feelings today... American Mythos is a significant contribution, especially to the current debate over immigration."—David Fott, Perspectives on Politics

"American Mythos provides a very thoughtful and insightful analysis of contemporary American national identity. Wuthnow shows a keen sensitivity . . . that allows him to get to the core of what it means to become American. The lessons learned are enormously illuminating."—Manuel A. Vsquez, Theology Today

Commonweal
In American Mythos, Wuthnow provides an important reminder that amid the din of the culture wars, our storytelling matters; and that America is a story best told from the bottom up.
— Robert K. Vischer
America
I cannot sufficiently praise and recommend American Mythos. In its supple mining of data and its perspicacity about American culture and institutions, it ranks with Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone as ground-breaking interpretive social science.
— John A. Coleman
European Legacy
Robert Wuthnow carefully examines the narratives that have been instrumental in constructing the cultural identity of the United States....[He] presents a study of the cultural dynamics of American culture that could serve as a model for the studies of other cultures.
— Donald J. Dietrich
Perspectives on Politics
This book contains keen reflections that make it well worth reading. Wuthnow gives a compelling account of the transformation of American society from an era of conformity in the 1950s to an era of good feelings today... American Mythos is a significant contribution, especially to the current debate over immigration.
— David Fott
Theology Today
American Mythos provides a very thoughtful and insightful analysis of contemporary American national identity. Wuthnow shows a keen sensitivity . . . that allows him to get to the core of what it means to become American. The lessons learned are enormously illuminating.
— Manuel A. Vásquez
Library Journal
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691138558
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Wuthnow is Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. His recent books include "America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity" and "Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society" (both Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

American Mythos

Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short
By Robert Wuthnow

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12504-X


Introduction

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 toDavid 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. They are seldom spelled out explicitly in rational arguments. They are instead stories-stories about individual success, about why immigrants flocked to America, about ethnicity and religious pluralism, and about how to divert our attention from materialism. They are the stock of political rhetoric but also of our private understandings of our nation. They vary among different ethnic groups and from one region to another, and yet they provide us with common narratives about our shared existence. They tell us what it means to be Americans, how America is good, and why some people are more successful than others. They reassure us that our privileges as individuals and as a nation are well-deserved. They tell us how to worship and how to identify ourselves ethnically and racially. They help us understand our love-hate relationship with material possessions-and keep us from doing much to change this relationship. On the surface, there is a lot of talk about these issues. Such talk, though, tends to remain on the surface.

There are also deeper assumptions implicit in these stories that merit closer examination. For better or worse, these assumptions keep us from changing quite as much as we wish. They keep us from realizing our ideals as a nation and as a people. This is the focus of American Mythos.

Cultural narratives and collective mythologies play such a powerful role in the shaping of social life that we must be more reflective about them. This idea differs from one standard way of thinking about democracy. In that view, the deep symbolism of which narrative and myth are composed is a kind of sideshow-the focus of cheap political rhetoric, television, and uninformed public opinion-while the real work of democracy is carried out in enlightened circles, presumably by canny bureaucrats and legal experts. Proponents of this view seldom give serious attention to the way ordinary people think about their lives. In the alternative view suggested by the term "reflective democracy," it becomes important to bring the two forms of public discourse together. The mythic dimensions of culture need to be taken seriously enough for us to reflect on their meaning. In doing so, we gain the chance to decide whether these are the assumptions we want to govern our lives. We can more effectively seize opportunities to renew our nation and ourselves.

My discussion of the deep narratives of American culture begins with an examination of what it means to engage in democratic renewal. Chapter 1 traces the history of calls for democratic renewal and shows how these calls necessarily raise questions about the basic cultural assumptions that come into play when people try to renew their society. Chapter 2 examines the changing arguments that have been made about the role of the individual in American culture. Social scientists and other social observers are conflicted about how much and what kinds of attention to focus on the individual. For instance, Robert N. Bellah and his associates argued in Habits of the Heart that there is an overweening emphasis on the individual in our society. In their view, we need to pay a great deal of attention to the role of the individual, if only to demonstrate in the end that we should de-emphasize this role and focus more on groups, communities, and institutions. Robert Putnam takes that perspective a step further, focusing almost entirely on communities and the attachments of individuals to their communities, rather than dealing very much with the individuals who make up those communities. Yet in the final analysis, he reveals that it is impossible to escape making the individual central: he argues that the renewal of communities will happen most basically through moral decisions made by individuals (such as deciding to watch less television).

Other social scientists take quite different approaches. It has become common in my discipline, sociology, to argue that social arrangements matter much more than anything done by individuals. If people buy widgets, it is not because they choose to do so, but because there is a market for widgets and this market is embedded in social arrangements. Through similar logic, inequities in job opportunities and income between African Americans and white European Americans are not the result of racism or anything that individual decisions might influence; rather they are macro processes evident only in patterns of residence and job location and thus remedied only through public policy. Still, there has been a rebirth of interest in questions about human agency and the self in recent years, and social scientists who propose policy solutions to the macro problems they study implicitly acknowledge that policies are made and supported or opposed by individuals. My discussion of the individual aims not simply to show that individuals are important but also to suggest that our culture is imbued with certain understandings of the individual. These enduring understandings constitute one of the reasons that efforts to renew and improve the society often turn out to reproduce the status quo.

In chapters 3 through 6, I take as an extended case study the ways in which new immigration has renewed-and failed to renew-American culture. Immigration is oddly similar, in terms of its potential effects on a society, to the birth of new generations. Just as new cohorts of citizens need to be socialized into the society's ideals and yet bring fresh ideas of their own, so do immigrants become absorbed into the dominant culture and at the same time challenge it by bringing in new perspectives. As a society of immigrants, the United States has been especially influenced by thinking about how and to what extent American democracy was renewed by the inclusion of immigrants. "I have heard people say that the reason for America's greatness, in fact probably the reason for America's greatness other than the founding values, is the immigrants," says a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. He subscribes to the long-held belief in American culture that new blood brings added vitality. He goes on, "The constant influx of people who take the risks and are resilient and bring in new challenges with them challenges the rest of the society."

The inevitable downward trajectory that Plato imagined is, in this view, a function of people's becoming too complacent or lethargic. Just as large business firms become lazy and need to be challenged by upstart competitors, so, too, does the general population. Its members become soft and begin to think too much alike, as Tocqueville predicted. The comforts of middle-class life and the opportunities provided by democratic government eventually become so commonplace that people no longer work as hard to attain them or preserve them. Immigrants have experienced hardship. They renew the culture by appreciating it more. "When you become comfortable," the man from Pakistan says, "you just start taking things for granted. You need the new blood to keep it going." Immigration is thus a challenge, as some argue, because it brings in new people who have not been exposed to the same values as native-born Americans. To an even greater degree, it represents possibilities for renewal because of greater diversity and fresh ideas. Recent immigration to the United States also offers chances to get it right, so to speak, by transcending the nativism of the past and by providing greater opportunities for inclusion and upward mobility.

The sheer act of coming to America, I argue in chapter 3, is rich in cultural connotations about renewal. Coming to America represents a decision to leave something behind in the hope of finding a better life. The transition itself is sometimes a passage fraught with danger and accomplished at considerable cost. American history is of course filled with narratives about immigrants who undertook such trips, and these narratives have become the basis for myths about the deep meaning of our nation. They tell us why people sought to become citizens and what hardships they were willing to undergo in order to live in the United States. As such, these stories are capable of functioning like the sorts of renewal rituals that interested Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of modern studies of society. Through the telling and retelling of these stories, we remind ourselves that America is a place that attracts newcomers. Such stories offer a way to examine in some detail how narratives are constructed and to see how tacit understandings are embedded in these narratives. I rely on interviews with immigrants and children of immigrants, as well as on published accounts, to examine the content of such stories. These sources provide a rare vantage point from which to see the cultural assumptions about America that we so commonly take for granted. The question is whether these accounts, which are often rich in imagery of renewal and new life, replicate old patterns, leaving the meaning of America much the same, or whether they include significant new elements. One clue, for instance, is the fact that journeys to America in recent decades are (with some notable exceptions) seldom as dangerous as they were a century ago for immigrants who crossed oceans in steerage. Does that difference, though, result in significantly different narratives?

The stories immigrants tell about success once they are here provide another way of understanding how culture influences our efforts to be a good society. We may have grown familiar with such stories, reading about them through historians' accounts or the legends fictionalized by Horatio Alger a century ago. But now we can consider them afresh through the words of Muslims and Latinos and Korean Americans who have come to the United States in recent years to make their fortunes. Newcomers' ability to achieve their dreams is an ideal that has long been associated with the meaning of America. People who work their way from rags to riches demonstrate that America is an open society, a place that rewards hard work and moral virtue. At least those were the connotations of rags-to-riches stories a century ago. If even some of the millions of immigrants who have come to America in recent decades can be the subject of such stories, then we can collectively reassure ourselves that America is still a land of opportunity. Or better. Perhaps America is now more accepting of racial and ethnic diversity than in the past, less fraught with discrimination, and more willing to embrace cultural pluralism. Both the fact of upward mobility and the stories that can be told about it, therefore, are ways of renewing our society. But what happens if the path to success is different now from in the past-if, for instance, those who make it into the upper echelons of their respective fields were already successful in their countries of origin? Or had special advantages? Or prospered by virtue of education instead of moral luck? Are we in the process of inventing new myths about American prosperity?

(Continues...)



Excerpted from American Mythos by Robert Wuthnow Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
CHAPTER 1: Deep Culture and Democratic Renewal 12
CHAPTER 2: Quandaries of Individualism 38
CHAPTER 3: The Justice of Privilege 79
CHAPTER 4: Self-Made Men and Women 104
CHAPTER 5: In America,All Religions Are True 128
CHAPTER 6: Ethnic Ties That Bind (Loosely) 163
CHAPTER 7: Saving Ourselves from Materialism 192
CHAPTER 8: Venues for Reflective Democracy 218
Appendix 235
Notes 239
Selected Bibliography 263
Index 277

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