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The Insecure American

The Insecure American: How We Got Here and What We Should Do About It

Hugh Gusterson
Catherine Besteman
Foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    The Insecure American
    Book Description:

    Americans are feeling insecure. They are retreating to gated communities in record numbers, fearing for their jobs and their 401(k)s, nervous about their health insurance and their debt levels, worrying about terrorist attacks and immigrants. In this innovative volume, editors Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman gather essays from nineteen leading ethnographers to create a unique portrait of an anxious country and to furnish valuable insights into the nation's possible future. With an incisive foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich, the contributors draw on their deep knowledge of different facets of American life to map the impact of the new economy, the "war on terror," the "war on drugs," racial resentments, a fraying safety net, undocumented immigration, a health care system in crisis, and much more. In laying out a range of views on the forces that unsettle us,The Insecure Americandemonstrates the singular power of an anthropological perspective for grasping the impact of corporate profit on democratic life, charting the links between policy and vulnerability, and envisioning alternatives to life as an insecure American.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94508-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Barbara Ehrenreich

    Fifty or sixty years ago, the wordinsecuritymost commonly referred to a psychological condition. Some people suffered from “insecurities”; otherwise, though, Americans were self-confident to the point of cockiness. Public intellectuals worried over the “problem” of affluence, which was believed to be making us too soft and contented. They held forums to consider the growing challenge of leisure, never imagining that their own children and grandchildren would become accustomed to ten-hour workdays. Yes, there remained a few “social problems” for sociologists to study—poverty, which was “discovered” by the nonpoor in the early sixties, and racial inequality—but it...

    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)
    Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson

    It was a bad year for Steve and Sarah Schober.

    Steve Schober had worked as an industrial designer for Maytag in Iowa for twenty-five years. He had several patents to his name. Earning in the low six figures, he lived in an expansive Tudor-style home with his wife, Sarah, and his two teenage children. Then Maytag was bought by Whirlpool. Maytag’s unionized plant in Iowa was closed, and the jobs moved to plants with lower wages in Mexico and Ohio. That was when Steve Schober, at fifty-two years old, found himself looking for a new job.

    Steve considered taking a...


    • 1 A Nation of Gated Communities
      (pp. 27-44)
      Setha M. Low

      On our first visit to my sister’s new home in San Antonio, Texas, my husband, Joel, and I are amazed to find two corral gates blocking the entrance to her development. I push an intercom button on the visitors’ side. Getting no response, I hit the button repeatedly, finally rousing a disembodied voice that asks whom we want to see. I shout Anna and Bob’s last name. The entrance gate swings open, and we accelerate through onto a divided drive enclosed by a six-foot wall covered with bougain-villea and heavenly bamboo.

      Inside, large homes loom beside small vacant lots with...

    • 2 Warmaking as the American Way of Life
      (pp. 45-62)
      Catherine Lutz

      Sometimes a people’s problems are as visible as their rivers coughing up multitudes of dead fish, or homeless women and men lying on sidewalks like trash. Other troubles are more deeply hidden and so likely to persist without names or solutions. So it is with America’s permanent and massive mobilization for war. Long before 9/11, nearly every aspect of the American way of life began to depend on, entwine with, or suffer from a massive investment in arms and armies. The evolution from a nation that enshrined its suspicion of the militarist states of eighteenth-century Europe in its constitution to...

    • 3 Republic of Fear: The Rise of Punitive Governance in America
      (pp. 63-76)
      Roger N. Lancaster

      A number of recent publications take the proper view that something has gone terribly wrong in American society. Public intellectuals and prominent scholars have discerned “the end of America,” “the last days of the republic,” “the subversion of democracy,” and the specter of a new form of totalitarianism.¹ But many of these broadsides incorrectly date the undemocratic turn to the 2000 judicial coup, which stopped the Florida vote recount and thereby installed an unelected president in the White House, or to the days after September 11, 2001, when right-wingers hostile to civil liberties seized the initiative both in drafting new...


    • 4 Neoliberalism, or The Bureaucratization of the World
      (pp. 79-96)
      David Graeber

      Americans often find it difficult to talk about politics with people from other parts of the world. Consider three quotes culled, more or less at random, from world newswires around the end of December 2005. In Bolivia, newly elected president Evo Morales declared that in his victory “the people have defeated the neoliberals.” “We want to change the neoliberal model,” he added. In Germany, Lothar Bisky announced the creation of a new political party that, he hoped, would “contribute to creating a democratic alternative to oppose the damage caused by neoliberalism to social cohesion.” Around the same time, a pan-African...

    • 5 The Age of Wal-Mart
      (pp. 97-112)
      Jane L. Collins

      Quarrels about Wal-Mart are everywhere these days, from theWall Street Journalto the smallest local newspaper, on the Internet, in the blogosphere, and in statehouses and local planning commissions across the nation. The debates are fueled by a handful of vociferous watchdog groups, such as Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, whose research supports labor and community battles against the company, and by the firm’s own advocacy groups, such as Working Families for Wal-Mart, established to counter public criticism. Wal-Mart’s detractors argue that its size, success, and political influence enable it “to rezone our cities, determine the real minimum...

    • 6 Deindustrializing Chicago: A Daughter’s Story
      (pp. 113-139)
      Christine J. Walley

      When I was fourteen, my world was turned upside down. My mom entered my bedroom and shook my shoulder as I lay sleeping. She said quietly, “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay. They called the ore boat back, but it’ll be all right.” I was puzzled why we should be worrying about an “oar boat” but drowsily accepted her reassurances. Only later did I learn that the recall of the ore boat meant that the financial lenders to the Wisconsin Steel Works, where my father worked in a rolling mill, had foreclosed on the property, sending it into bankruptcy. It was...

    • 7 Racism, Risk, and the New Color of Dirty Jobs
      (pp. 140-160)
      Lee D. Baker

      Springtime in North Carolina is stunning. In mid-April 2006, I was driving west on I-40 between Raleigh and Durham. It was bright, sunny, and sixty-nine degrees. Various work crews were out along the highway—picking up litter, doing construction, mowing medians, and planting flowers. Of all the states in the Union, North Carolina is second only to Texas in miles of state-maintained highways—each mile is well maintained. As traffic slowed along a narrow strip near Research Triangle Park, I noticed two crews on opposite sides of the highway, each comprising about a dozen men. I distinctly remember how the...


    • 8 Normal Insecurities, Healthy Insecurities
      (pp. 163-181)
      Joseph Dumit

      There is a cartoon of a doctor talking to a man in an examining room with the caption: “Your blood pressure is off the chart, you’re overweight and out of shape, and your cholesterol is god-awful. In short, I find you perfectly normal.” The same cartoon also has a different caption: “The good news is that your cholesterol level hasn’t gone up. The bad news is that the guidelines have changed.” In this essay I want to tell a story of how the health industry works such that both of these captions make sense. They are both funny, and their...

    • 9 Cultivating Insecurity: How Marketers Are Commercializing Childhood
      (pp. 182-204)
      Juliet B. Schor

      I write these words in the opening days of a new school year. For adults, this may conjure up nostalgic visions of walking through leaf piles, carefully sharpening a few pencils, and wondering whether one’s teacher will be “nice” or “strict.” For today’s children, the rituals are very different. They will have already gone through the August “back to school” shopping season, now the second-largest buying extravaganza of the year (after the December holiday season). The purchases are no longer no-name basics, according to aNew York Timesarticle that chronicled the rise of intense fashion awareness among children as...


    • 10 Uneasy Street
      (pp. 207-223)
      T. M. Luhrmann

      Freedom, equality, and independence are the bold ideas of our culture, and as a society we do more or less well in creating institutions that enact these values. Perhaps we do less well in more settings than many of us would like, but our values nonetheless seep into the bedrock of our characters and culture. They shape the laws we pass, the institutions we create, and our fundamental expectations of how to live a life. Americans expect, for example, that people should be independent of their families and responsible for their own lives. We expect people to work, either outside...

    • 11 Body and Soul: Profits from Poverty
      (pp. 224-237)
      Brett Williams

      During the years I have lived and worked in Washington, D.C., I have grown to know many sick and indebted people. In the 1980s I grew close to an extended family I called the Harpers. I wrote about the Harpers inUpscaling Downtown(1988) because their experiences reflected those of many other D.C. residents: they came to Washington after World War II, following kin who helped them find jobs and places to stay. Gentrification twenty years later scattered the Harpers east of the Anacostia River, into the inner D.C. suburbs, and into shelters, hospitals, and the streets. By 2000 almost...

    • 12 Useless Suffering: The War on Homeless Drug Addicts
      (pp. 238-254)
      Philippe Bourgois

      When mentally ill men and women flooded onto city streets throughout the United States during the 1960s and 1970s with the closing of state-funded psychiatric facilities, the “able-bodied” homeless were not yet a common sight. Deindustrialization, the gentrification of skid row neighborhoods, the loss of affordable housing, the increased criminalization of the poor (especially ethnic minorities), and the gutting of the welfare safety net since the 1980s turned homelessness into a regular feature of U.S. cityscapes.¹ In November 1994, with the help of a public health needle exchange volunteer, I befriended a group of homeless men and women who lived...

    • 13 Walling Out Immigrants
      (pp. 255-270)
      Peter Kwong

      Migration has always been a part of human experience—throughout history, people have moved to places that offered better conditions for survival. In doing so, new immigrant groups have typically had to confront the hostility of the groups that arrived earlier because newcomers are always seen as competitors for resources and jobs. In the United States, immigrant bashing has become a ready-made tool used by politicians to stir up popular support and distract attention from problems that are much more difficult to resolve. And since new immigrants tend to be a small minority without political representation, attacking them is a...


    • 14 Compounding Insecurity: What the Neocon Core Reveals about America Today
      (pp. 273-291)
      Janine R. Wedel

      Since 2002, much debate in America has focused on the decision to go to war in Iraq and the course of the occupation. The “neoconservatives”—working to pursue their goal of remaking the world in their image of America—have won mainstream media recognition as never before. Names such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith—chief architects of the war—have easily rolled off the tongues of television commentators. And although there is considerable awareness of the influence of these figures in shaping the Bush administration’s policies toward Iraq and the Middle East, how and why their views...

    • 15 Deploying Law as a Weapon in America’s War on Terror
      (pp. 292-314)
      Susan F. Hirsch

      Five weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, I watched as a judge sentenced four men convicted of crimes related to the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. For me the legal proceeding was a milestone along a painful journey that began when I survived the embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, only to find that my husband, Abdulrahman Abdallah, had been killed. He had waited outside the embassy while I entered to run an errand. Simultaneous blasts in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi killed over two hundred...


    • 16 Death and Dying in Anxious America
      (pp. 317-344)
      Nancy Scheper-Hughes

      Claude Lévi-Strauss predicted that once anthropologists ran out of “exotics” to study they would be forced back on their own societies to study the margins of human life—the domains of the homeless, the mad, the exile, and the refugee, to be sure, but also the changing dimensions of birth and death.¹ In this chapter I will reflect on the “cultures” of death and dying in anxious America today, the place of death in our social imaginary, and the impact of biotechnology, bioethics, and bio-markets on the meanings of death and dying for ourselves and for those we love. While...

    • 17 Get Religion
      (pp. 345-361)
      Susan Harding

      GetReligion is a blog managed by two evangelical Christian journalists. They gather “ghosts,” “religious images that are hidden in news stories,” to educate other journalists about the religious backstories that they miss as they report the daily news. The GetReligion bloggers are theologically conservative biblical inerrantists, and they speak modern journalist discourse with perfect pitch, but from a point of view that is different from and in ways opposed to that of their secular counterparts.¹

      In this same sense, white, theologically and socially conservative Protestants have been “getting” secular culture for several decades: not as the GetReligion bloggers say they...

  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 362-366)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 367-371)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 372-372)