An overview of six utopian dreams that have defined American society, beginning with the first European settlers and concluding with the present-day New Economy and our Internet-obsessed culture.
Karabell (The Last Campaign, 2000) argues that Americans are convinced that the construction of an ideal society meeting every need is possible; we need only, we believe, find the right vision. As each American dream is supplanted by another, decades of accumulated wisdom are cast aside in our rush to embrace the new guiding paradigm. Puritans striving to create an Edenic City on a Hill were eclipsed by colonists promoting the principles of liberty, freedom, and independence. The colonial vision of individualism was surpassed by the image of national unity, commerce, and industry. After the Civil War, the paradigm of unity gave way to one of territorial expansion, which in turn led to the apex of governmental activism. Distrust of big government then prefaced the present New Economy. Karabell sets a difficult task for himself in describing four centuries of utopian thought: the chapter regarding the rise of government gets especially short shrift, meriting only 32 pages and covering roughly 150 years. (The 1950s, for example, are summed up in a single paragraph.) Conversely, the New Economy and Internet sections take up nearly half the work. The author believes that the New Economy will collapse because it does not offer spiritual fulfillment; this will lead to a seventh stage of “techgnosis” (a blending of science and spirituality). Unfortunately, too many facts and not enough depth hamper the author’s intriguing premise: the dot-coms, for example, collapsed not because they lacked a spiritual component but because the market had to correct the abnormal dominance of speculative ventures. Additionally, there is no mention of the growing fundamentalist Christian population within the information-technology community.
Some compelling insights, combined with sketchy details, make for an uneasy historical mix.