The Cracked Bell - America and the Afflictions of Liberty by Dr. Tristram Riley-Smith, 2010
[May 2010] This book is an interesting and nostalgic review through American history pointing out a variety of paradoxes in American society, attitudes and operations. It is a great test of one's cultural literacy - can you explain all of the historical and cultural references? The examples and references jammed into this book include Kerouac's On The Road, Walt Whitman and other famous people past and present, and numerous movies, television shows and books. The author does a good job of making you think about what is shaping our lives and those of our children. The author finds that America is experiencing an economic and identity crisis.
The author describes aspects of the American paradox via the following angles with a chapter devoted to each:
1. Race, culture and multiculturalism
3. Secular versus sacred
5. Sense of wilderness
6. War and the military
I'll describe a bit of some of these paradoxes portrayed in selected chapters. Regarding consumerism, the author describes how malls are sacred temples to Americans and notes that 2/3 of America's economic activity is consumer spending. He observes that American society "celebrates immediate, rather than deferred, gratification" (p. 68) and that consumerism is "not just business - it is belief, and it is hard-wired into the nation's value system" (p 75). He offers lots of examples. It is hard to think of anything he overlooked. One consumerism item that came to mind for me is what seems to be a growing trend of buying expensive clothes for dogs. Perhaps another aspect of the paradox - some US dogs have more clothes than millions of people in the world. What does that say about Americans and our real values and beliefs?
Innovation explores not only business development as a hallmark of American society, but also the widespread use of a variety of interest groups that can create inequities. The author mentions lobbyists, big business and unions. "Time and time again, we see Americans bridling at the perceived inequity of interest-groups distorting the level surface of the playing field" (p 141).
Wilderness explores our relationship with the outdoors (and even outer space) and our long history of owning land. One ambiguity pointed out here is how we might try to bring the wilderness into our lives, such as a bed and breakfast with a cowboy motif. But we miss the point by adding signs such as to be sure to take your shoes off inside and don't smoke. Another paradox is technology keeping us indoors more - or us letting it do so. In the final chapter, the author also notes that while Americans may act like nature is important, they are in a continual process of destroying it.
The discussion of war and the military focuses on the US foundation of liberty and peace while also deploying military power.
In the final paradox chapter on freedom, the author points out a few areas where there is no clear consensus on how gun rights, abortion, and tolerance should be viewed to reflect US values of freedom and liberty. Despite American talk of freedom and liberty, the author notes that in some US neighborhoods, not all people are welcome.
A final chapter makes various comparisons between the US and the UK (the author is British) - perhaps reminding the reader of a much earlier book - Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In similarities, the author lists multiculturalism. Differences noted include a US focus on shopping as an experience versus a UK focus on customer needs and service, and US focus on innovation versus a UK focus on retrospection.
Two aspects of the book that were troubling for me - but just slightly. First, there was a lot of data, but no footnotes. There are extensive references in the back, but I'd like to see how some of them were used. But I know many people find footnotes distracting. Second, there seemed to be too many examples a few times which delayed getting to the point of why they were being offered. The discussion of Greek fraternities and common street names seemed a bit tedious for example, but all led to good points.
This book is a good read. It is a great review of US history in the context of helping us be aware of paradoxes that define America and its society and culture. It will make you think about how beliefs and actions in today's society don't always jive and makes you think where are we headed as a society and economy. You'll likely also come up with examples of your own because we really do have a lot of paradoxes. One that perhaps the author could explore in the future and that is shaping up now is our green society where buying carbon offsets is a permissible way to allow us to keep producing greenhouse gases! So - having come up with a paradox of my own, inspired by the book, I'd rate the book a success - it is deep, interesting and it gets us thinking about what really shapes America and what it means for the future of society and the US economy.
* Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher.
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