Books by John A. Hall

Released: April 1, 1999

Amid the clamor of multiculturalism and "difference" politics, Americans wonder if their country can remain a cohesive whole. Hall (Sociology/McGill Univ., Canada) and Lindholm (Anthropology/Boston Univ.) argue that our concerns are unfounded and not all that new; for better, and sometimes for worse, we will survive. American unity derives from both historically conditioned institutional patterns and shared cultural values. Historically, oppositional forces coalesced within a flexible and stable two-party system quite early on and citizenship rights steadily if selectively expanded. At the same time, threatening social alternatives—be they the antebellum South or late 19th-century socialist radicalism—were, often quite violently, eliminated. What emerged from all this was a society of core homogeneity, but a homogeneity of a peculiar sort. In the authors' words, we have achieved "homogenization by the extension of the American values of individual choice." While we may all think alike, we think in terms of individual autonomy, uniqueness, and justice. This does make of us the atomized herd described by so many observers of America. We do value community quite strongly, but only as the voluntary cooperation of equals. Therein lies the rub, for free individuals can always withdraw support from a community. And so we worry. Yet, on the other hand, the tolerant and pragmatic nature of American cultural values, the willingness to forego deep-seated ideological beliefs that demand conformity, paradoxically keeps us together. Much of what the authors say is not that unique, but it is their ambivalence that intrigues. Certainly, a stable society is to be preferred to one constantly in turmoil, but at what price stability? Was not the labor struggle of the late 19th century a legitimate social alternative? Does not a culture of equality mask enormous economic as well asp racial inequalities of the US? Still, the authors find hope in the enduring tensions between American ideals and reality. A slim but very thoughtful volume that is well worth reading. Read full book review >