An expansive work of political theory on the decline of American civic life.
Nadin’s (The Privilege of Memories, 2011, etc.) main contention in this ambitious work is that America is in decline—economically, militarily, socially—but that Americans themselves are to blame. Instead of rising to the occasion and overcoming these obstacles, people remain ignorant about their history and apathetic to their current conditions. According to the author, this attitude has resulted in a somewhat ironic state of affairs: Americans are more dependent on government as their skepticism of it grows. As Nadin sees it, Americans have been “conditioned to be less responsible for themselves than were their forebears.” Consequently, “today’s Americans are seduced by increased dependency on the government—while (demagogically) opposing such increases.” For him, this contradiction is the leading cause of America’s downfall, proof of which he sees in almost everything, from its mammoth debt to the breakdown of cultural norms, like marriage. Especially well-versed in the economic and political history of America, he essentially tracks this decline in Americans’ sense of responsibility for themselves. Of particular note is a section on media and the decay of civic life. He offers especially fresh takes on the idea of attention, suggesting that while the “public bids with its attention—on American idols, friends, movies, messages,” such action is only a pale imitation of real civic responsibility. Unfortunately, despite these positive elements, the book is unwieldy, and certain chapters feel tangential, like one on the general uselessness of lawyers. It can also be hard to gauge Nadin’s tone; he seems to sympathize with the downtrodden and those on the “losing” side of America’s unequal distribution of wealth, but he also has no qualms about making sweeping, insensitive generalizations about the poor. For instance, he characterizes school dropouts as those who simply think that others owe them, when in fact many factors contribute to such a decision. In other words, a good edit and a more balanced, respectful treatment of opposing views would have served the book well. Despite these shortcomings, it’s still a unique, well-researched contribution to the history and present state of civic life in America.
An interesting, if slightly overwrought, book on responsibility and the role of government in America.