The American Paradox

The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty

Foreword by Martin E. Marty
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 430
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  • Book Info
    The American Paradox
    Book Description:

    For Americans entering the twenty-first century, it is the best of times and the worst of times. Material wealth is at record levels, yet disturbing social problems reflect a deep spiritual poverty. In this compelling book, well-known social psychologist David G. Myers asks how this paradox has come to be and, more important, how we can spark social renewal and dream a new American dream.Myers explores the research on social ills from the 1960s through the 1990s and concludes that the materialism and radical individualism of this period have cost us dearly, imperiling our children, corroding general civility, and diminishing our happiness. However, in the voices of public figures and ordinary citizens he now hears a spirit of optimism. The national dialogue is shifting-away from the expansion of personal rights and toward enhancement of communal civility, away from efforts to raise self-esteem and toward attempts to arouse social responsibility, away from "whose values?" and toward "our values." Myers analyzes in detail the research on educational and other programs that deal with social problems, explaining which seem to work and why. He then offers positive and well-reasoned advice, suggesting that a renewed social ecology for America will rest on policies that balance "me thinking" with "we thinking."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13029-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Martin E. Marty

    A first reading ofThe American Paradoxmay lead some readers—as it led me—to think, now and then, “Why don’t Americans make up their minds?” Behind that there might even be another thought: “Why doesn’t David Myers make up his mind?” If Americans and author Myers would simply and clearly have done that, the picture presented here would be more consistent than it appears to be. And the task of Professor Myers would have been simpler.

    The story of how Americans live is, however, to say the least, mixed. Or as Myers so appropriately condenses it in his...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
    (pp. 1-12)

    We Americans embody a paradox. We read and hear it all around us. There are those who rightly claim, “We’ve never had it so good. Things are goinggreatin this country!” And they are right. But then there are those who wring their hands and just as rightly worry that our civilization could collapse on its decaying moral infrastructure. The best of times, the worst of times. Wisdom, foolishness. Light, darkness. Hope, despair. Dickens’ words fit.

    What are we to make of this seeming paradox? How can this be both the best and worst of times? And where do...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Sexual Swing
    (pp. 13-35)

    In 1974, a virtuous Jimmy Carter told Department of Housing and Urban Development employees, “Those of you who are living in sin—I hope you’ll get married.” Some people hooted at Carter’s fatherly advice, others admired his fidelity and integrity. By 1998, the president’s fidelity and integrity seemed less an issue. Polls showed that only onethird of Americans believed Bill Clinton’s initial denial of a sexual affair with 21-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Yet nearly two-thirds judged his personal moral behavior “not relevant” to how he should be judged in office. (My point concerns public attitudes, not the president’s...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Past and Future of Marriage
    (pp. 36-59)

    Across time and place, human societies have nearly always included a relatively monogamous bond between men and women, and a bond between parents and their children. Despite the more indiscriminate sexual interests of human males, polygamy, though tolerated by many cultures, is the exception. Monogamy is the rule. Across the world, reports the United Nations’Demographic Yearbook,more than 9 in 10 people eventually marry.

    “Pair-bonding is a trademark of the human animal,” anthropologist Helen Fisher explains. Three recent national surveys by Gallup and the National Opinion Research Center, protecting respondents’ anonymity, reveal low levels of infidelity. Contrary to speculation...

  8. CHAPTER 4 America’s Children
    (pp. 60-97)

    Imagine that in 1960 a latter-day Rip Van Winkle lay down for a long sleep, knowing that when he awakened in the late 1990s, Americans would be enjoying doubled average incomes (in inflation-adjusted dollars), rising education, exciting new technologies, and a 50 percent increase in the proportion of adults available to provide and care for children (from fewer than two adults for every child to today’s 3 to 1 ratio). Should problems arise, parents could seek help from a growing army of psychologists, social workers, and counselors, or from new drug therapies. With all this good news—more affluence, time,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Violence
    (pp. 98-125)

    “Dear Mr. Clinton,

    “I want you to stop the killing in the city. People is dead and I think that somebody might kill me. So would you please stop the people from deading. I’m asking you nicely to stop it. I know you can do it. Do it. I now you could. Your friend, James.”

    So wrote 9-year-old James Darby from New Orleans on April 29,1994. On May 8, James was killed in a drive-by shooting. As he walked home from a Mother’s Day picnic with friends and family, Joseph Nor-fleet, 19, pulled his car alongside James and shot him...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Money and Misery
    (pp. 126-160)

    We have pondered four dramatic trends that have marked our cultural life since 1960: the sexual revolution, the decline of marriage, the diminishing well-being of children, and the long-term increase and shortterm decrease in violence. These trends have coincided with a fifth trend: strikingly increased materialism and affluence. More and more we value having more. Compared with 1960, most of us do have more fiscal fitness. Life today is therefore paradoxical—very, very good in some ways, while distressing in others.

    Does money buy happiness? Few of us would agree. But ask us a different question—“Would alittlemore...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Individualism and Community
    (pp. 161-194)

    Individualism is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and the fourth of July. We are a nation created by individualists. Those who willfully came here forsook their homelands and kin seeking something better for themselves. They came to found a new political order rooted in personal freedom. They came to realize the promise of individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Once here, their individualism, and ours, has been expressed in stories of such rugged individualists as Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone, Horatio Alger, the Lone Ranger, Luke Skywalker.

    In songs: Sammy Davis, Jr., singing, “I gotta be...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Media, Minds, and the Public Good
    (pp. 195-234)

    Few things these days evoke more parental outrage than images of 3d graders watching MTV, 6th graders listening to rap lyrics glamorizing “f—— ing the bitch,” 9th graders learning human relations fromRamboandRobocop,or 12th graders getting their sex and intimacy education fromThe Young and the Restless,Jerry Springer trash talk, andFreshman Fantasiespornography. That outrage became a national obsession after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold reportedly spent hours playing splatter games such as Doom and watching two crazy kids commit carnage inNatural Born Killers,prior to committing carnage at Littleton’s Columbine High School.“All our...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Educating for a Moral Compass
    (pp. 235-256)

    Informed people argue causes and solutions, but they no longer dispute the facts. Since 1960, Americans have been soaring materially and, until recently, sinking socially. We enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity, liberty and longevity, technology and tolerance. We fly places we used to drive, e-mail those we used to hand write, and enjoy air-conditioned comfort where we used to swelter. And we have more children of children, more suicidal and violent teens, more demoralized and incarcerated adults, diminished civility and trust, and fewer and unhappier marriages. Voila, the American paradox.

    We can attribute the social recession partly to an extreme...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Faith and Society
    (pp. 257-291)

    Convinced that something is awry with modern life, America’s First Lady yearned for a new reformation of the human spirit. There is a “sleeping sickness of the soul,” she declared in her speech at the University of Texas. We enjoy economic growth, yet paradoxically “we lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, that sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another, that community means that we have a place where we belong no matter who we are.” Underneath the “hopeless girls with babies and angry...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 292-296)

    At the dawn of a new millennium we stand where two roads diverge. One continues down the well-traveled track of radical individualism and materialism leading toward a deepened cultural crisis. As “me thinking” continues to prevail over “we thinking,” as the rich-poor gap continues to widen, as the media continue to promote coercive human relations and uncommitted sex, as marriage continues to disintegrate, as children’s well-being continues to nosedive, and if violence rebounds with the next recession, calls for imposed order will likely increase.

    But this 1960-to-early-1990s trajectory is not our inevitable destiny, as demonstrated by past efforts to project...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 297-400)
  17. Index
    (pp. 401-414)