A wide-reaching survey regarding the moral ramifications of “the way we live now”—which, as always, seems fraught with compromise and lonely abnegations.
Sociologist Wolfe (One Nation After All, 1998, etc.) wanted to find out what ordinary Americans would reveal, given the opportunity “to speak at length about the issues that are central to the debate over America’s moral condition.” He relied on two different surveys, one an opinion poll that was examined last year in the New York Times Magazine, and then another series of in-depth interviews with subjects from eight communities chosen to represent geographical diversity. These interviews are excerpted frequently, providing a faceted, sometimes jarring sense of a conflicted citizenry (“Don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead”) discussing issues as simultaneously abstract and personalized as loyalty, virtue, and forgiveness (“The Unappreciated Virtue”) in a world that seems to debase all three. In broad ways, his subjects’ inner lives are less than surprising: San Francisco gays and lesbians prize fluidity in personal relationships, while “born again” midwestern hedons look severely at the drinking, drugging, and bed-hopping they once endured. Wolfe depicts this as a strategy of “Eating Dessert First” and repenting later in life through spiritual or domestic responsibility. Certain themes are resoundingly confirmed: Americans aspire to difficult levels of moral purity, yet are paradoxically abashed when it comes to “judging” others. The author does a good job assembling philosophies of thought to explain his subjects’ seemingly contradictory moral responses, but his prose is not sufficiently sharpened to keep these in-depth arguments from becoming mushy or repetitive.
A provocative examination that suffers from a want of focus.