Pick one of the prompts below and write a formal academic essay in response.  (Formal writing means structure [introà body paragraphsà conclusion], development of argument [thesis, claims supported by evidence, logical argument], formal English, and footnotes[1] for citation.) Also, double-space and use proper margins. You will submit this assignment through Canvas(click on the essay assignment).
Trend argues that the United States is an “unfinished project.” [2] How does he mean this claim with respect to the United States having an aspirational culture?  How does he understand it to include the potential for outsiders to belong to American culture?
Trend argues that culture helps frame boundaries for including or excluding certain subjectivities. With respect to at least two distinct groups, how does Trend suggest these groups struggled to change their status from “not belonging” to “belonging”? 

Trend wonders what might happen if the notion of “identity” was treated as nothing more than “fiction.”[3] Discuss the ways in which at least one identity you claim has become important to your sense of belonging (or lack thereof) in some aspect of your life.  In what ways is that identity a basis for you activism/engagement with the world.  How is it more than a fiction? 
Arguments about religion and morality lie at the heart of much conflict in contemporary society. Describe three issues profiled by Trend that have matters of faith at the core of the conflict.
[1] Footnotes should follow either the Turabian or (the nearly indistinguishable) Chicago style. For a convenient guide to footnote citation systems, please consult either of these websites.  They present the same information but package it different ways so rely on the one you find easier to comprehend. Alternatively, look at how Trend organizes his citations and copy what he did.  A simple example (citing a book by a single author) is fn. 7 (p. 28).  https://www.library.georgetown.edu/tutorials/research-guides/turabian-footnote-guide (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.) OR http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/turabian/turabian_citationguide.html (Links to an external site.)
[2] David Trend, Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary American Culture (Routledge, 2016), 99.  [This is how a first citation of a book with one author should look.].
[3] Trend, 123.  Trend follows up that speculation by sourly observing that such thinking amounts to “utopian silliness.” This passage from Chapter 6 thus seeds his discussion of this country’s utopian aspirationalism in Chapter 12. [This footnote models how a second citation of a previously cited source should look.  The next two sentences demonstrate the footnote’s other function, as a place to expand upon an idea raised in the main text.]This is a terrific book—smart, provocative, engaging, and clearly written. It offers a memorable set of readings for students and
scholars alike. Each chapter is a gem of organization, integration, and argument. Trend’s essays lead the reader through a maze
of countervailing theories and positions leaving them with a much stron-ger sense of the complexity of our present time. Trend’s
book is less about critique (though the critique is powerful) and more about a kind of hope that is restrained yet feasible.
Richard A. Quantz, Professor, Miami University
Trend is a lucid writer able to unmask the internal contractions of the neoliberal order with theoretical and conceptual clarity, as
he writes with urgency to make sense of a fractured America in a changing world economy.
Rodolfo D. Torres, Professor, University of California, Irvine, and
former Adam Smith Fellow, University of Glasgow
Elsewhere in America offers a prescient, non-dialectical approach to alterity, deftly revealing the hidden paradoxes inherent to
so-called positions of “center” and “margin” within current media-driven polemics. Skirting binary logic, Trend offers a series of
daring new formulations for hybrid positionalities—neither uto-pian nor dystopian—that afford theory to be transposed
effectively into practice. Elsewhere in America will sit on my bookshelf along side Chantal Mouffe and Henry A. Giroux as an
invaluable go-to source for artists and writers rethinking democracy in this age of political extremism.
Juli Carson, Professor, Univesity of California, Irvine
Elsewhere in America
Americans think of their country as a welcoming place where everyone has equal opportunity.
Yet historical baggage and anxious times can restrain these possibilities. Newcomers often find
that civic belonging comes with strings attached––riddled with limitations or legally punitive
rites of passage. For those already here, new challenges to civic belonging emerge on the basis
of belief, behavior, or heritage. This book uses the term “elsewhere” in describing conditions
that exile so many citizens to “some other place” through prejudice, competition, or discordant
belief. Yet in another way, “elsewhere” evokes an undefined “not yet” ripe with potential. In
the face of America’s daunting challenges, can “elsewhere” point to optimism, hope, and
common purpose?
Through 12 detailed chapters, the book applies critical theory in the humanities and social
sciences to examine recurring crises of social inclusion in the U.S. After two centuries of
incremental “progress” in securing human dignity, today the U.S. finds itself torn by new
conflicts over reproductive rights, immigration, health care, religious extremism, sexual
orientation, mental illness, and fear of terrorists. Is there a way of explaining this recurring
tendency of Americans to turn against each other? Elsewhere in America engages these
questions, charting the ever-changing faces of dif-ference (manifest in contested landscapes of
sex and race to such areas as disability and mental health), their spectral and intersectional
character (recent discourses on performativity, normativity, and queer theory), and the grounds
on which categories are manifest in ideation and movement politics (metapolitics,
cosmopolitanism, dismodernism).
David Trend is Chair of the Department of Art at the University of California, Irvine. He holds
a PhD in Curriculum Theory and an MFA in Visual Studies. His books include Worlding:
Identity, Media, and Imagination in a Digital Age (2013), The End of Reading (2010), A
Culture Divided (2009), Everyday Culture (2008), and The Myth of Media Violence (2007),
among others. Honored as a Getty Scholar, Trend is the author of over 200 essays and a former
editor of the journals Afterimage and Socialist Review. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Politics, Culture, and the Promise of Democracy
Edited by Henry A. Giroux, Susan Searls Giroux, and Kenneth J. Saltman
Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability
By Henry A. Giroux (2011)
Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future
By Henry A. Giroux (2012)
The Failure of Corporate School Reform
By Kenneth J. Saltman (2012)
Toward a New Common School Movement
By Noah De Lissovoy, Alexander J. Means, and Kenneth J. Saltman (2015)
The Great Inequality
By Michael D. Yates (2016)
Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary Culture
By David Trend (2016)
The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary Culture
David Trend
First published 2016
by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
and by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2016 Taylor & Francis
The right of David Trend to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78
of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical,
or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for
identification and explanation without intent to infringe.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Names: Trend, David.
Title: Elsewhere in America : the crisis of belonging in contemporary culture / David Trend.
Description: New York : Routledge- Taylor & Francis, 2016. | Series: Critical interventions
Identifiers: LCCN 2015042876| ISBN 9781138654433 (hardback) | ISBN 9781138654440 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781315623245 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: United States–Social conditions–1980- | Politics and culture–United States. | Neoliberalism–United States.
Classification: LCC HN65 .T73 1997 | DDC 306.0973–dc23
LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015042876
ISBN: 978-1-138-65443-3 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-138-65444-0 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-62324-5 (ebk)
Belonging Where? Introduction
Belonging There: People like Us
Makers-and-Takers: When More Is Not Enough
True Believers: Spiritual Life in a Secular Age
Ordinary People: The Normal and the Pathological
Homeland Insecurities: Expecting the Worst
Belonging Somewhere: Blurred Boundaries
Reality Is Broken: Neoliberalism and the Virtual Economy
Mistaken Identities: From Color Blindness to Gender Bending
No Body Is Perfect: Disability in a Posthuman Age
On the Spectrum: America’s Mental Health Disorder
Belonging Elsewhere: The Subject of Utopia
Gaming the System: Competition and Its Discontents
To Affinity and Beyond: The Cyborg and the Cosmopolitan
Medicating the Problem: America’s New Pharmakon
The One and the Many: The Ethics of Uncertainty
Belonging Where?
Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack
Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a
perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties
since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report
issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African
Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where some months previously law enforcement
officers had killed an unarmed black teenager.1 “We know the march is not yet over. We know
the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed
destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.”2
Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary Culture describes the
nation’s ongoing pursuit of that blessed destination. Like many utopian quests, this search says
as much about current problems as it does about future aspirations. This book uses the term
“elsewhere” to discuss these two Americas. In the first sense, elsewhere references existing
conditions that exile so many citizens to “some other place” through prejudice, competition, or
discordant belief. Even as “diversity” has become the official norm in American society, the
country continues to fragment along new lines that pit citizens against their government, each
other, and even themselves. Yet in another way, elsewhere evokes an undefined “not yet” that is
ripe with potential. While the journey may be difficult, elsewhere can point to optimism, hope,
and common purpose. It was in this latter spirit that Obama spoke of a nation eternally
venturing into unfamiliar ground. “America is a constant work in progress,” he said. “We were
born of change.”3
Obama’s expansive rhetoric was hardly innocent in its appeal to “American” values.
Modern nations define themselves through mythic ideals as much as through land or
populations. Philosophically speaking, the problem with ideals lies in the very abstraction that
gives them broad appeal. In a heterogeneous society like the U.S., familiar terms like
“freedom” and “equality” are understood in radically different ways from region to region, and
from group to group. America always has struggled with such contests of meaning, as grand
ideals of unity and inclusion nearly always forget someone. Behind the country’s mythic open
door, newcomers often find that civic belonging comes with strings attached––riddled with
conditions, limitations, and in some instances, punitive rites of passage. And for those already
here, new rationales emerge to challenge civic belonging on the basis of belief, behavior, or
heritage––as the idealized blessed destination is endlessly deferred.
Before the Beginning
In its original Latin, the word Americus described a kind of “elsewhere”—in denoting a
Mundus Novus (New World). This idea soon assumed a magical meaning for explorers,
synonymous with unknown territory and boundless possibilities–ideas that fit perfectly into a
European view of the known world as something to be examined and cultivated. The very
newness of the Americas seemed to offer unimagined potential, but its strange qualities also
made settlers anxious. The unknown can have this effect, as the unfamiliar leaves one open to
anticipation, speculation, and irrationality. Wonder can easily turn to fear, especially when it is
undergirded by material need, habits of power, and religious rivalries. As Elsewhere in
America explores this conflicted mindset, the larger question of the book concerns the way in
which people fashion worlds relationally, and the difficulty of such “worlding” amid the push
and pull of inherited oppositions. It looks at the way belonging locates between known and
unknown, between recognized and invisible, between the friend and stranger in everyone—and
in no one. Elsewhere in America is about finding ways through these perplexing paradoxes.
Contradictions were built into America from the start—most notably the tension between
individual and community. And since the nation’s founding, certain unresolved conflicts have
animated debates in nearly every sector of society. Enlightenment ideals of autonomous agency
invested “choice” and volition in American citizenship and national identity. It was thought that
reason would modulate the marriage of democracy and capitalism in the new land, even in the
face of cultural difference. But the colonists also brought with them histories of
intergenerational rivalry, conflict, and trauma––which they soon began to replicate consciously
or unconsciously. Hence the American self found itself burdened with epistemological
baggage––manifest in the terms of subjectivity so often posed as familiar oppositions:
one/many, inside/outside, them/us, etc.
It’s no secret how this history unfolded––and that throughout its existence the United States
has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a
vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting
crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity,
economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and
“outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature? Or
is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.? Could it be that prejudice is the
real legacy of the “American exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of
indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of
immigrants, and the more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of
I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture
Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George
W. Bush presidency.4 Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common
ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession.
Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization.5 Opinions
varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media
sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those
asserting that the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in
the middle of the curve on most issues. My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem”
shouldn’t be regarded as a problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––
through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand. But as a
book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience of
America’s compulsive divisiveness.6
Elsewhere in America brings new specificity and depth to this issue, especially as cultural
fragmentation finds fresh and unexpected form in a neoliberal landscape. While recognizing the
benefits of nationalist belonging, Elsewhere in America charts the ever-changing faces of
difference (manifest in topics ranging from sex and race to such areas as disability and mental
health), their spectral and intersectional character (as seen in the new discourses on antinormativity and cosmopolitanism), and the grounds on which categories are manifest in
ideation and actions (seen in theories of performativity, post-identity, queer and dismodern
theory). Through this range of conceptual approaches, Elsewhere in America attempts to
mitigate the solipsism and appropriating tendencies of singular discourses or schools of
thought––while also recognizing that complete escape is neither possible nor advisable.
Mapping Elsewhere
Elsewhere in America is arranged in three sections, each with a different conceptual
orientation. Discussion mixes theory with concrete detail in exploring themes of opposition,
fragmentation, and dissolution. A certain degree of historical counterpoint also informs
discussion of the nation’s continuing struggle to understand its ever-changing present moment.
Part I (“Belonging There”) describes historically grounded attitudes of certainty and apparent
clarity in defining conventional American values and identities, even as these embody certain
contradictions (such as the tension between individual and community). Part II (“Blurred
Boundaries”) looks at ways that such certainties have come unraveled as the diversity and
multiplicities of American society have become more complex and contested (identity and
“post” movements). Part III (“Belonging Elsewhere”) then explores ways of moving forward
through syntheses, new models of subjectivity (hybridities and singular-pluralities, for
example), or yet-unknown possibilities.
Part I: “Belonging There: People like Us” looks at frequently contentious efforts to define
(or redefine) America through the lenses of commerce, belief, conformity, and national
security––recognizing the linkages of democratic capitalism with the enlightenment humanism
of the founding era. The opening chapter, “Makers-and-Takers: When More Is Not Enough,”
examines the role of individualism and private property in notions of belonging, linking these
to principles of the voluntary association and objective possession so central to American
ideology, as well as the resulting exclusion, inequity, and paranoia they continue to generate.
The following chapter, “True Believers: Spiritual Life in a Secular Age,” extends this
discussion with an examination of religion in the U.S., especially the remarkable dominance of
Protestantism and its recurrent themes of persecution, redemption, and competitive
proselytizing. Next, “Ordinary People: The Normal and the Pathological” looks at ideals of
health and scientific rationalism, as well as practices of population management, which
underlie utopian impulses to standardize bodies and behaviors of many kinds, but often betray
long-standing power asymmetries in the process. Issues of power also inform the final chapter
in this section, “Homeland Insecurities: Expecting the Worst,” discussing perennial American
worries about external threats and internal subversion. Many of these anxieties seem hardwired in a nation with profound ambivalence about “belonging” to a global community.
Then discussion turns to ways that dividing lines have blurred in recent decades between
such categories as public and private, fact and fiction, sameness and difference, wellness and
disease. Key to this analysis are ways that distinctions between who belongs and who doesn’t
are shifting from visible differences to more subtle matters of mind, behavior, and identity.
Hence, characteristics like national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and mental
health are rising to a new prominence in debates over “mainstream values” or “common
sense”–– as long-standing patterns of exclusion, stigma, and discrimination find new
expression. And while many of these are cultural issues or “matters of mind,” their material
consequences are very real indeed––resulting in legal decisions, institutional policies, and
resource transfers––not to mention new antipathies of citizens toward one another.
Part II: “Belonging Somewhere: Blurred Boundaries” looks at the complexities of meaning
and identity in an age of digital representation and cultural diversity. In the new millennium,
America yearns for modernist ideals of certainty and security––even as it finds itself beset by a
world of ambiguity and instability. The section’s first chapter, “Reality Is Broken:
Neoliberalism and the Virtual Economy,” discusses the intersecting effects of Internet
technology, simulated experience, financialized capital, and globalization in the ways that
postmodern culture affects belonging. Next, “Mistaken Identities: From Color Blindness to
Gender Bending” takes on issues of equality and equity in relation to identity, post-identity, and
subsequent discussions. “No Body Is Perfect: Disability in a Posthuman Age” extends the
discussions of normativity from Part I in considerations of the body, identity performance,
ableism, and disability. And finally, the chapter “On the Spectrum: America’s Mental Health
Disorder” extends this topic further into topics of mental health and privacy rights.
From this, the question becomes what to do about it all. Is it ever possible to overcome
America’s seemingly “natural” patterns of conflict without getting lost in blurred meaning and
indeterminacy? Would this even be desirable in a society that places so high a premium on
personal autonomy, group identity, and democratic principles? In this spirit, Elsewhere in
America reengages the paradox of oppositional thought, as well as emerging strategies to
analyze its pernicious hold on U.S. society. Discussion in the book’s next section focuses on
such principles as irreconcilability, indivisibility, and hybridity––without recourse to either
pessimism or optimism in their consideration.
Part III: “Belonging Elsewhere: The Subject of Utopia,” reckons with the nondialectical as
the ongoing challenge of the current moment, whether this involves holding simultaneous
opposing ideas or struggling with the unconscious. To add specificity to the discussions,
“Gaming the System: Competition and its Discontents” explores the collective “madness” of
America’s libidinous consumerism as a symptom of competitive desire. The next chapter, “To
Affinity and Beyond: The Cyborg and the Cosmopolitan” also explores conciliatory belonging
through models ranging from cyborg feminism to cosmopolitanism––referencing tensions
between specific and general. “Medicating the Problem: The New American Pharmakon”
addresses addiction and a medicated society in a literal sense, as well as the pharmakon as a
metaphysical model. The book’s closing chapter, “The One and the Many: The Ethics of
Uncertainty” reengages the issue of American intersubjectivity in both reflective and
speculative terms.
Living with contradictions certainly isn’t easy, especially in difficult moments. But if there
is such a thing as an ethics in conflicted times, it may well lie in a willingness to look beyond
familiar guideposts. While it’s commonplace to approach a problem with the tools one has at
hand, the trickiest ones resist known methods––or more specifically, the methods one has at the
time. In this sense, difficult problems require either help from someone else (relational
knowledge) or a leap of faith (experimental knowledge). In either case, there is a moment of
uncertainly or perhaps even failure, as one navigates the interval of “solving for an unknown.”7
The key lies in the willingness, courage, or humility to face this unknowing, and still proceed
into the void––which is also the space of the possible.8
“Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (Mar. 4, 2015)
(accessed Apr. 2, 2015).
Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches,” (Mar. 7, 2015)
(accessed Mar. 21, 2015).
David Trend, A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009).
Ira Schor, Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration, 1969–1985 (London and New York:
Routledge, 1986); Geoffrey Hartman, Minor Prophesies: The Literacy Essay in the Culture Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1991); James Jefferson Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: HarperCollins,
1991); Henry Louis Gates, Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Gerald
Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: W.W.
Norton, 1992); Margaret Heins, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy (New York: The New Press, 1993); Fred Whitehead, Culture Wars:
Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1994); Russell Jacoby, Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars
Divert Education and Distract America (New York: Doubleday, 1994); Elaine Rapping, Media-tions: Forays into the
Culture and Gender Wars (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1994).
See, for example, Montserrat Guibernau, Belonging: Solidarity and Division in Modern Societies (Cambridge: Polity, 2013);
Natalie Masuoka and Jane Dunn, The Politics of Belonging: Race, Public Opinion, and Immigration (Chicago, IL: Chicago
University Press, 2013); David Jacobson, Place and Elsewhere in America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press,
2001); Constance Perin, Elsewhere in America: Reading Between the Lines (Madison, WI: Wisconsin University Press,
1988); Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2011); Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political
(Cambridge: Polity, 2013); Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2010); and Henry A. Giroux, The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutiot (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993) p. 15.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism, and the Boundary Event (New York and London:
Routledge, 2011).
Part I
Belonging There
People like Us
Nations are defined by the stories they tell about themselves, as well as the ways others see
them. Part I: “Belonging There: People like Us” examines some of America’s national stories,
as their generalities often unravel in the contemporary United States. In principle, such broad
narratives are seen as holding national societies together, giving them a sense of unity, common
history, and singular purpose. But there is a problem. While the idea of a unifying story may
have worked in some early tribal societies, the complexities of modern nation states frustrate
narrative reduction (which itself has epistemological limitations), thus producing forms of
civic tension in contemporary America. This section’s title, “Belonging There,” evokes the
certainty with which some parties locate themselves with like-minded compatriots
—“belonging” in neighborhoods, political parties, interest groups, or online communities.
Individual chapters in this section specify ways that broad categories of national belonging
are undermined by discordant attitudes toward the economy, faith, normalcy, and security.
Tensions between general and specific perspectives work against the ideal of perfect
consensus in most modern nations, as does the self-limiting character of any single story.
Conflicts inevitably result, as divergent opinions compete with nationalistic yearnings for
wholeness and belonging. As Homi K. Bhabha wrote two decades ago in Nation and
Narration, often these tensions become manifest in disagreements over the national “story”
itself, which is doomed to an endless lack of closure. While these contests generate certain
forms of discomfort, their dynamism also can produce moments of possibility. Bhabha writes
that if the struggle for closure “questions the ‘totalization’ of national culture, then its positive
value lies in displaying the wide dissemination through which we construct fields of meaning
and symbols associated with national life.”1
As a country with a relatively brief history, the United States hungers for a belonging
mythology—with disparate interests vying for its authorship. Myths are more than simple
stories. Whether representing tradition or ideology, mythology provides a connotative structure
for social meanings manifest inside and outside of “language” per se. This is why certain myths
are hard to contain, as Roland Barthes famously pointed out in his 1957 book Mythologies.2
Myths of masculinity don’t only come into use through classical tales of heroism, but also
through the prosaic rituals of sports culture, militarism, and school bullying, for example. In
common parlance today, a “myth” is widely understood to be a familiar belief that is false,
such as the myth that money always brings happiness. As in advertising, such beliefs may not
be true in a literal sense, but they often appeal to unconscious desires. This is what led Barthes
to conclude that myths often function politically on some level, with this process unfolding in a
most insidious way. On the surface myths appear to be transparent, “hiding nothing” even as
they convey distortions. But at a deeper level, “myth transforms history into nature,” Barthes
observed, making its meanings seem as though they were always there. And of course many
people do indeed subscribe to myths. This is where the obfuscations of myth become
dangerous, with its ideations regarded “not as a motive, but as reason.”3 The naturalization of
myth obscures its intentionality and ideology, creating the illusion that it is neutral and
Myth’s sleight of hand can become especially potent when attached to notions of origins,
authenticity, and other ideals of nationalist belonging. Keep in mind that America started out
mired in contradictions—between public and private interests, between state and national
governance—not to mention the divisions between separatists and loyalists, which persisted
well past colonial times. The halcyon days of revolutionary unity always have been a
convenient trope. In more practical terms, the term “United States of America” is better seen as
a coalition of opposition, predicated upon a “new” egalitarian horizontality rather than an
“old” aristocratic verticality. In this way, this purportedly “reasoned” revolutionary impulse in
many ways replicated its “idealized” precursor in philosophical terms. Yet U.S. democracy
always was more of a dream than a reality, even as particularized in constitutional and
representative terms. This temporal slippage became glaringly obvious with the elision of the
name United States of America to the nickname “America”—a term later recognized throughout
the world as a synonym for U.S. imperialism.
Old habits die hard. If one looks at the current state of belonging and not belonging in the
United States, there is plenty of repetition, denial, and repressed memory to inform the inquiry.
Despite its enormous wealth and military might, the United States lumbers its way through the
21st century with a pervasive sense of insecurity—always worrying about external enemies or
internal subversives. Some say this is a symptom of decline or a nagging fear of impending
loss. Regardless of its origins, the U.S. counters its insecurities with grand assertions of power
and ethical purpose—of the nation’s unique role in history and global affairs. This is the
mythology of “American exceptionalism”, a tale of a heroic nation with a unique role in global
affairs and human history. The problem is that any long view of civilization shows that this
American mythology is far from exceptional. It’s the same story great empires have told
themselves throughout time. But as a relatively new empire the U.S. has less experience with
historical memory, and if you haven’t noticed, arguments over American history undergird
many of the nation’s recent cultural conflicts—with one side or another claiming a privileged
access to the “truth” about founding principles, citizenship, marriage, and so on.
Behind this selective memory is a particular pathology that, while not unique to the U.S.,
assumes a certain potency given the nation’s age and origins. If recent history teaches one
anything, it shows a repeating cycle of unity and division, inclusion and exclusion, security and
worry—in other words a continual return to certain narratives of desire and fear—from which
the country seems unable to escape. The U.S. shares with other immigrant nations a longing for
a sense of origins or home—a longing often twinged with nostalgic imaginings. But America
still struggles with coming to terms with these yearnings. This may partly explain why a figure
like Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly chooses to look back only a decade or so to
proclaim “the end of America as we know it” in his tirades about immigration and marriage
Another overarching conceit of these appeals to mythical idealism lies in their claim to
exceed partisan politics or disputes over values. Presumably, it is argued, there is something
“united” about the states of America. Like most mythic constructions, this story is instructive
for its elisions and repressed elements. Settlers arriving in the U.S. from all parts of the world
carried with them the residue of former ways of life (consciously or unconsciously). Prior
hierarchical habits often proved very difficult to set aside. Perhaps most significantly,
transition to the new world was often marked by trauma. Remember that huge numbers of early
immigrants left their homelands under duress, with many dying in transit or entering lives of
servitude upon arrival. Then the brutality of settling the new land began—with a genocidal
program to exterminate indigenous populations. Next came a violent revolution, decades of
internal conflict, a massive slave trade, battles over borders and land, the Civil War, and the
horrific military conflagrations of the 20th century.
Much more is understood today than ever before about the intergenerational character of
suffering and loss. But little has been written into common accounts of American history of the
grief, depression, confusion, distrust, denial, guilt, anger, and revenge impulses buried in the
collective American psyche. Again and again, the U.S. seems to relive such repressed memory
as contemporary experience. Images from the past resurface into the present, attaching
themselves to a changing array of heroes and villains at home and abroad. This failure to find
closure means that the object is always deferred—and never actually found. What remains is a
continual search for truth, manifest in an anxious struggle for meaning.
Homi K. Bhabha, “Introduction: Narrating the Nation,” Nation and Narration (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) p. 3.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), trans. Annette Lavers (London: Paladin, 1972).
Mythologies, p. 128
Bill O’Reilly, “Fox News Election Coverage,” (Nov. 6, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peiANkiO1qQ (accessed May
5, 2014).
When More Is Not Enough
To most middle-class Americans, a yearly income of $400,000 probably sounds like pretty
good money. It’s nearly eight times the average family income and surely a fantasy for the 50
million Americans living in poverty. But hold on a minute. According to the Wall Street
Journal, it’s practically impossible to scrape by with such a six-figure income. “You’re just
breaking even,” explained WSJ Wealth Advisor Veronica Dagher in a video segment on the
journal’s website. What with vacations, the country club, and the mortgage on that $1.2 million
house—not to mention those pesky taxes on income, property, and purchases—high earners
“feel like they are just nearly getting by.”1 Under such financial duress, is it any wonder that
publications like the WSJ report that the nation’s upper class increasingly feels under assault?
Obviously these sentiments are striking at a number of levels, and illustrative of America’s
twisted thinking about wealth and poverty. In historical terms, the country has promoted itself
as a land of freedom and opportunity, where people rise and fall on their own merits. Yet
within this thinking a certain normative logic has tended to hold sway, with too much or too
little money seen as undesirable. The mythical figure of the “Average American” persists in the
country’s infatuation with its celebrated middle class. But now these once-balanced sentiments
are getting more ideologically charged. Despite the banking scandals of the early 2000s,
conservatives again insist that wealth should be seen as virtue in its own right in a “post-civil
rights” era. Even liberals are beginning to reconsider previous approaches to income
redistribution and government assistance. Ironically these shifts are paralleling a shrinkage of
the American middle class in every state in America.2 While the gap between the haves and the
have-nots is no secret, statisticians see such stratification intensifying even as the recession of
the early 2000s winds down.
Still, it’s the attitudinal hardening that is so striking—a growing disregard for those left
behind in a winner-takes-all America. Explanations abound for this shift: lingering bias and
structural inequality; rising tides of competitive individualism; a loss of connection and
community concern; and a decline in faith and altruism are often cited. Sociologists have long
written of commodity fetishism, conspicuous consumption, and other performances of class
status in societies that place high premiums on upward mobility. But in more immediate terms,
the recent recession brought money worries to most American families, even wealthy ones.
Beset by feelings of insecurity, many yearn for reason and certainty as they anticipate the
future. And so has returned the Darwinian figure of the “undeserving poor” as a concept that
justifies affluence while obfuscating more difficult questions.3 Some even say that the wealthy
assuage their guilt with beliefs that poor people bring hardship on themselves.
In this context, the expression “makers-and-takers” has entered popular discourse as a form
of shorthand for conflicting economic philosophies. Famously revealed in billionaire Mitt
Romney’s quip about America’s “47 percent,” makers and takers describes a nation divided
into two classes: one of producers, the other of parasites. As the U.S. still struggles with
recessionary aftereffects, this dichotomy continues to resonate with voters, rhetorically
drawing a line between a class of autonomous “job creators, entrepreneurs, and innovators”
and others “dependent on government, who believe they are victims.”4 Romney’s divisive
populism played well in conservative circles, as it collapsed a swath of issues into familiar
tropes of success and failure. Hinging on the premise that values emerge from economic
relationships, a similar ontology (somewhat ironically) defined Marx’s dialectical
Credit for the capitalist version of this philosophy often goes to Ayn Rand, specifically as
espoused in her 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. The book depicts a dystopian America in which
the titans of industry have their successes crushed by government regulators—and consequently
“shrug” off their ambitions and dreams. Rand termed her metaphoric anticommunism “moral
objectivism”—setting forth an absolutist agenda of “rational self-interest” and acquisitive
impulses as sacred values. These ideas played well in the Cold War era by pitting individual
“freedom” against collectivist “tyranny.” As she put it, “No rights can exist without the right to
translate one’s rights into reality—to think, to work and to keep the results—which means: the
right of property.”6 Rand disciples would argue that society should be seen as a collection of
individuals in constant competition—with the virtuous wealthy (makers) naturally prevailing
over the undeserving poor (takers).
Ironically Rand herself never framed making and taking in such simplistic terms. Instead she
saw both forces coalescing against the real enemy: big government. In this view, producing and
consuming are not opposed to each other, but instead represent the highest of personal values.
Rand’s free market vision attached no guilt in the honest making/taking of goods or
maximization of wealth. Thus, when society’s individualized maker/takers run into trouble they
are completely justified in finding new ways of operating: fresh territories to tame, markets to
occupy, or populations to dispossess. Dispossession can assume many forms—ranging from
the material belongings or resources of the vulnerable, to the very sense of belonging
associated with membership in the acquisitive economy. In this view, dispossession has both
physical and metaphysical dimensions—unified by certain principles: the disposability of
individuals and groups, the privatization and commodification of what is public, and the moral
righteousness of neoliberal modernity.
The Wealth of Nations
The makers-and-takers debate has deep roots in the American psyche. Democracy may not
require a market economy, but capitalism inheres in democracy’s Euro-American history. A
tension between private and public interest was built into the U.S. economic system from the
beginning, owing to 18th-century beliefs that this balance would self-regulate—much as it was
thought that gun ownership required no oversight. As initially conceived by Adam Smith, the
“invisible hand” of the private marketplace required little more than modest taxation for the
public good. Somewhat forgotten today, Smith fully advocated the appropriate role of
government in such things as the funding of schools, the building of bridges and roads, and of
course the maintenance of the national military. Smith’s The Wealth of Nations set forth a
philosophy of economic principles based on newly recognized Enlightenment ideals of
individualism. Set against the backdrop of oligarchical tyranny, Smith and others saw a
collective benefit in the unleashing of self-interest—with the broader society enjoying the
fruits of personal agency and innovation as a new land was being settled and a new nation
built. This was termed at the time a “liberal” approach to governance and economics. Smith
truly believed that personal interest indirectly promotes the public good when he wrote that the
individual “intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an
invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse
for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that
of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”7
There is no understating the role of property in early American formulations of democracy,
capitalism, and citizenship itself. While Western society didn’t invent the idea of private
property, it would refine this principle into ideals of free market competition and the liberal
state, allowing many “makers” to innovate and build while also collecting more than their fair
share of benefit. Unfortunately this free market utopia couldn’t keep the makers happy for very
long. It seems that for all the property and privilege they accumulated, more was never enough,
even in the good times. Shortly before America’s founding, John Locke had written of the
individual as “the proprietor of his own person,” giving a materialist inflection to prior notions
of self-mastery. Philosophers of the time had been wrestling with the ponderous questions of
being and self-consciousness. But the idea of self-ownership had a particular appeal to
populations arriving in the Americas. “Subjects” in the new land could own themselves, as
well as other goods. And just as importantly, they could possess land and homes: private
domains. Let’s not overlook the noteworthy contradictions in this new scheme—that voting
citizenship was linked to land ownership, that citizens also could own other people as
indentured servants or slaves, and that most of the population (notably, women and indigenous
people) also fell outside the bounds of self-ownership. Nor should one forget the linguistic
embeddedness of owning in expressing autonomy, affiliation, or relationship: myself, my
country, my friends, I-take-thee, and so on. All of this suggests a level of abstraction in
ownership as it links to personal identity.8
The appeal of individualism isn’t exactly rocket science, owing to widely held beliefs that a
“self” set apart from others is a crucial building block of subjectivity. This lonely soul often
receives credit for the gifts of reason, literacy, scientific empiricism—and ultimately, the
concepts of democracy and capitalism. Even this idea was suppressed by religious
determinism until the 1700s. In pre-Enlightenment days the idea of an autonomous subject was
largely discounted in favor of supernatural beliefs in predestination. Remember that in
political terms, Western secular democracy emerged as a novel expression of human agency.
Decision-making became vested in the reasoning abilities of individual agents, presumably
able to assess truth claims. But the emerging concept of the American “citizen” had two sides:
private and public. Private citizenship entailed the freedom to serve one’s own interests,
acquire benefits, and advocate one’s views without undo interference. Public citizenship
entailed similar freedoms to vote, participate in governance, and to join others for collective
From the beginning, America’s founders envisioned a productive tension between public
and private interests. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson saw discord and disagreement
as healthy antidotes to prior political systems based on uniform beliefs or brute
authoritarianism. Private motivation was a vital force in this formulation, but it was only half
of the equation. Without public interest the system would lose both its purpose and its
dynamism. Faith in the rational abilities of ordinary people defined a novel form of politics
based on the “consent of the governed.” The so-called Age of Reason and its recognition of a
distinctly “human” mind said that people could find their own way in the world. Democracy
constituted the crowning achievement of this fresh way of thinking.
The emerging democratic impulse famously advanced a novel paradigm in human affairs:
that an informed citizenry could be the sovereign power of the land. For the first time in
history, faith was vested in the ability of common citizens to use their own knowledge as a
source of power. Not that everybody thought it would work. People inside and outside the
American colonies worried that such an arrangement would end in chaos and anarchy. After
all, for centuries people around the world had accepted the premise that leadership came from
some higher intelligence. They weren’t entirely wrong. The American Revolution took a long
time to garner consensus, with colonists and loyalists deeply divided in the decades leading up
to 1776. Nor did the cessation of fighting settle the matter for good. Unrest continued for
decades to follow, setting in place a legacy of political division within the United States that
persists even to this day. While it is commonplace in contemporary U.S. political discourse to
lament the fraying of national unity and a purported lack of common purpose, the notion of a
contentious polity was anticipated from the start. The founders recognized this in embracing a
political philosophy in which disagreement was not suppressed—as in oligarchic or despotic
regimes—but instead was celebrated in the continual testing and revaluation of ideas. This is
why the nation’s founders took great pains to protect the open marketplace of ideas through
freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press.
Fundamental to these values was the interplay of knowledge and opinion—an exchange
famously advanced during the Enlightenment era by new forms of communication, among other
factors. Undoubtedly, the European development of the printing press contributed to expanding
literacy rates, along with a growing mercantile culture and a burgeoning Protestant movement.
Most importantly, the proliferation of printed texts enabled a broad-based expansion of
reading, which in turn further escalated the demand for printed materials. The literacy boom
gave “ordinary” people unprecedented access to knowledge of all sorts. Both The Wealth of
Nations and America’s Declaration of Independence described a citizenry capable of rational
decisions—whether in the marketplace or the polling place. The two founding documents were
predicated on the existence of the public sphere animated by reasoned exchange.
Expressed in the language of democracy, American capitalism is a system in which citizens
literally vote with their money. A patron walks into a store selling various kinds of shoes, and
discerns one kind to be better than the others. The purchase of one brand of shoes discourages
the making of others. And as this pattern is replicated, the market’s “invisible hand” raises the
quality of footwear. Many people still believe this quaint theory. Unfortunately, Smith and his
contemporaries were unable to foresee the way in which modern corporations would later
aggregate consumers and optimize profit making. Smith couldn’t predict how a mechanized
shoe factory could multiply the reward system in geometric terms. But by the next century
G.W.F. Hegel would begin to figure things out, noting in The Philosophy of Right the
tendencies of bourgeois societies to generate an over-accumulation of wealth, a concomitant
class of paupers, and means of advancing their interests through trade and colonization.9
A student of Hegel, Karl Marx later would excoriate the “surplus” profits generated by
industrialization, not to mention its effects on workers and consumers.10 And so in the mid1800s the critique of capitalistic excess would begin. As today, advocates for businesses
would claim that profits translated into more jobs, wages, and spending—in an endlessly
upward spiral. Of course the problem was that factory owners weren’t satisfied with simply
selling more goods and hiring more workers. With growing numbers of urban job seekers,
factory owners applied competitive market principles in the hiring and retention of employees.
Marx called this the commodification of labor—as the activity of work became abstracted as a
mere cost of industrial production. Class-consciousness was born as laborers came to
understand and communicate about their collective exploitation.
Strikes occurred, unions were formed, and collective bargaining emerged—eventually
prompting the government to step in. Over time regulatory measures would contain the labor
market, as well as the not-so-invisible hands of monopolies. Just as representative democracy
organized collective decision making on a large scale, liberal economic principles sought to
rein in expansive capitalism. And before long, new communications technologies would
change democracy and capitalism. Exponential increases in the quality and quantity of
information would magnify differentials between private and public interests. As the pace of
media innovation accelerated, the government’s ability to modulate its influence could not keep
pace—especially in countries where historically free speech was politicized. Private interest
would come to trump public concern nearly everywhere in the American mediascape.
The Great Depression of the 1930s disproved the invisible hand theory. When markets are
left to their own devices extreme profits and losses get out of control, excessively rewarding
and punishing people as a consequence. During the Depression years, John Maynard Keynes
proposed that governments could keep economies from melting down again.11 Without
advocating absolute federal management of the economy (as in European socialist and
communist nations of the time) Keynes proposed correcting market problems with regulations,
taxes, and incentives. Herein lies a basic tension between current conservative and liberal
economic thinking. Proponents of Smith’s principles argue a laissez-faire approach in the
belief that a generalized free market is a self-correcting mechanism on all levels of scale.
Keynes differentiated between small “microeconomic” matters like consumer decisions and
larger “macroeconomic” ones like monetary policy, with the government playing an
appropriate role in the latter. Hence, to Keynes matters like federal control of interest rates, tax
policy, and infrastructure spending could be used to correct market excesses in what again
would be termed a “liberal” economic philosophy.
The premise of liberal economic mediation makes sense in theoretical terms, although to this
day staunch free market advocates will argue that any interference with the invisible hand
mucks up the system. The devastation of the Great Depression was widespread enough to
generate popular support for government intervention in macroeconomic matters. It worked
during the 1930s as the globe was lumbering toward World War II, during which the role of
federal spending, employment, and economic intervention largely went unquestioned. But the
American industrial war machine also blurred the lines between government and private
industry, creating what President Eisenhower in the 1950s would name “the military-industrial
During this period Chicago economist Milton Friedman alternately would use the terms
“neoliberalism” and “laissez-faire capitalism” in proposing a third way philosophy bent on
sustaining private sector interests in this heated environment. Friedman’s arguments easily
found traction in an era of Cold War anti-communist paranoia, especially as Friedman would
characterize growing government as the enemy of freedom and democracy. Of course Friedman
would never acknowledge that the booming postwar economy had benefited enormously from a
previous decade of massive government war spending followed by heavy federal infrastructure
expenditures on education, interstate highways, and an array of other programs. Nor perhaps
could Friedman foresee the way business interests would be able to insinuate themselves into
electoral politics, influence voting outcomes, lobby for legislation, and otherwise compromise
government. Neither did many free market apologists like Friedman fully account for world
economic systems, instead tending to view the United States as an isolated and “exceptional”
engine of boundless expansion.
But of course the postwar period of American economic expansion didn’t last forever.
Industrial production and consumer demand fell, tax revenues dwindled, infrastructure
spending shrank, and trade deficits followed—even as the U.S. was spending wildly on a
nuclear arms race and military adventures in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Eventually a
comprehensive oil embargo by OPEC members would force America to recognize its
vulnerability in the global economy, while reawakening attention to Middle East politics.
Critics of neoliberalism began framing the situation in global terms. Their logic was simple.
Like the great colonial powers of the past, American foreign policy was driven largely to
compensate for dwindling resources at home. In this sense, noble ideals touting the expansion
of democracy and freedom (and capitalism) around the globe served two purposes: one
political, the other economic. The first was aimed at containing the expansionist impulses of
the Soviet Union and China—and this was how public debate was framed regarding U.S.
military deployments. The second had to do with securing American interests in the developing
world, where natural resources and new consumer markets could serve to replenish the U.S.
economy. In a sense, the world’s two postwar industrial giants functioned as makers/takers on
a global scale.
As the binary balance of power has shifted since then, the U.S. has emerged as the world’s
dominant “taker” even as its role as the largest “maker” has been eclipsed by other nations.
Some would even argue that declines in U.S. exports and trade put further pressure on
America’s need to continue its foreign plunder. For instance, it’s no secret that as tobacco
consumption has dropped by 50 percent in the U.S., cigarette sales in Eastern Europe, Africa,
Asia, and Latin America are growing at astronomical rates—with American companies like
Philip Morris leading the way. Nations that receive American foreign policy attention
frequently become consumers of U.S. goods.12 These premises were outlined by David Harvey
in his frequently cited article entitled “The New Imperialism: Accumulation by
Dispossession,” in which he linked America’s declining economic hegemony to its
increasingly imperialist and militarized adventures around the globe. Harvey wrote that “the
inability to accumulate through expanded reproduction on a sustained basis has been paralleled
by a rise in attempts to accumulate by dispossession. This, I conclude, is the hallmark of what
some like to call ‘the new imperialism.’”13
My mention of Philip Morris is hardly incidental in this discussion. Naturally, the United
States sees its own citizens as worthy of good health, consumer safety, and government
intervention on their behalf. The same rules do not apply to those living in nations that are
perceived to be disposable—where life literally is regarded as having less value. There is a
variety of theories about how such attitudes of disposability arise. In general terms, people
who aren’t known, seen regularly, or brought to public attention in a coherent fashion easily
become reduced to abstractions. Decades of social theory have taught that such abstraction—or
objectification—is the first step in licensing harm or violence against someone. Hundreds may
die in a distant disaster or as the result of American military action, but these casualties lose
their humanity as they are reduced to statistical reports or journalistic sound bites. In a similar
way, the rising tide of cancer diagnoses, of families losing loved ones to illness, and other
forms of human suffering resulting from American tobacco sales abroad are hardly even known
to U.S. media consumers. In a recent article entitled “Are Some Lives Disposable?” Adrian
Parr and Brad Evans expand this discussion by asking “What about all the species that have
gone extinct as the climate changes and habitats disappear, and yet greenhouse gas emissions
persistently rise? What might we say about the malnourished and starving living with crippling
hunger pains and thirst on a daily basis while millions of tons of food waste enter landfills
each year?” They add, “Or for that matter the victim of psychological abuse who learns to live
with the torment such that the eventual physical blow becomes a relief from what is
imagined?”14 Parr and Evans link these issues to structural conditions enabling a neoliberal
economy to feed on the disposable while bureaucratically obfuscating its operations.
Just as objectification enables epistemic violence, disposability similarly licenses the kind
of structural dispossession visited on populations at home and abroad. People rendered
unimportant or invisible easily get labeled as parasitic “takers”—and deserving of disregard
and exploitation, as competing concerns or claims are relegated to the realm of scattered
noise.15 As Elizabeth A. Povinelli has recently observed, contradictions to this logic are rarely
directly discernable—and are often intentionally hidden, as in workplace discrimination,
police brutality, or military drone attacks. These operations do not register “as things in the
ordinary sense of the term but rather as actions like a sighting or citing. They exist insofar as
they are evoked to conjure, shape, aggregate, and evaluate a variety of social worlds, and each
of these conjurings, shapings, aggregations, and evaluations disperse liberalism as a global
This is the insidious nature of elite neoliberalism—rarely inflicting harm with the overt
brutality or explicit violence that finds its way into the headlines, but instead manifest in less
visible shifts in resources, attitudes, policies, and behaviors that allow its consequences to
become woven into the “ordinary” fabric of everyday life. An eroding minimum wage makes
life increasingly difficult, but in tiny increments. Government agencies and programs are not
eliminated, but they are gradually defunded. Colleges admit disadvantaged students, but offer
little to help them to graduate. Because these operations work in the background of everyday
life, those who are victimized frequently remain unable even to recognize what is wrong.
Something is getting in the way, holding them back, making life more difficult. But what is it?
To many such “abandoned” people the answer is to blame themselves.
Other People’s Money
It’s worth restating that the U.S. was still digging its way out of recession when makers-andtakers popped into the popular zeitgeist. Many of the nation’s so-called makers were finding
themselves with less, and they understandably looked for someone to blame. But one couldn’t
count on cable news to remind these maker/takers that the bogeyman of American government
collects fewer taxes than practically any other industrialized nation on earth, and that as a
consequence America’s social welfare system is one of the most stingy and punitive. Nor
would Fox & Co. want to acknowledge the productive character of low-income workers,
disability recipients, stay-at-home parents, the young, the elderly, and the other parasitic takers.
Forget that these disparaged populations consume goods, provide wage labor, pay sales tax,
and enrich society in innumerable ways, whether they are acquiring resources or not.
Philosophically speaking, it’s hard to avoid the familiar “self/other” paradigm in this
discussion. This fundamental opposition operates in the Western philosophical mind as a
primary engine of inclusion and exclusion. The so-called constitutive other denotes an entity
that is outside the self or that is in some way not the same. Dozens of models have been used to
explain this basic idea or to reflect critically on the processes of selfhood. In popular usage,
the term “subjectivity” denotes the organization of information within a person. Subjectivity
implies the existence of a self—or “subject”—that produces the experience of being. Classical
philosophy has long debated whether the subject is a stable or changing entity. But there is no
debate over the mutability of subjectivity, since so many factors (individuation, maturation,
socialization, life experience) influence the subject over time.
All this weighs heavily on the subject’s interactions with the world of people and things
around it—defined as external “objects.” Subjects and objects exist relationally and react to
each other, and as a consequence, subjectivity is continually confirmed, challenged, and
otherwise updated through the interplay with objects. Or put another way, the subject exists in
relationship to what is “other” than the self. Hegel was among the first to put the matter this
starkly—that people come to know themselves in comparison to what they are not.17 He
proposed that when two people meet, an essential tension is created as they recognize that they
are not the same. To resolve this tension, they incorporate aspects of each other into
themselves through a process he called “sublation.” In other words, they learn from each other.
But Hegel also shrewdly noted that sublation is rarely shared equally in a world of difference
and power. Hence, otherness becomes the basis for attitudes of superiority and inferiority.
The self/other formulation is useful as far as it goes. But it has a number of obvious flaws,
not the least of which is its categorical reductionism. Things get even messier when one looks
harder at the notion of the self. Martin Heidegger more or less demolished the notion of a
definitive self by saying that “being” was largely an open question—that the subject is always
transient.18 So where does this leave an America (or any modern nation) premised on a
presumption of consensus values? The answer is somewhere in between the stable and
transient self, between the closure of certainty and the instability of uncertainty. This becomes
manifest in public policy and political discourse through a continually contested definition of
otherness. The makers-and-takers debate restages the constitutive other opposition in economic
terms—although one also sees this shifting figure in various objects of public derision and fear
—as the terrorist replaces the communist, the immigrant supplants the welfare recipient, and
the mental patient becomes more worrisome than the criminal.
But a lot more is involved, obviously. Animating makers-and-takers discussions are the
deep divisions over the nature of citizenship and collectivity, autonomy and interdependence—
divisions that favor some over others, with a “traditional America” pitted against “changing
demographics.”19 There is a regrettable history of this kind of thinking in American dreams of
upward mobility, divine purpose, manifest destiny, exceptionalism, and world domination.
This terminology bespeaks an increasingly rigid demarcation in American ideological debate.
Conservatives argue that the U.S. government redistributes excessive amounts of money from a
diminishing pool of hard-working makers to a quickly expanding population of loafers.
Liberals contend that the government doesn’t redistribute enough because the tax system is
skewed in favor of the wealthy. According to a recent article in The Economist magazine,
neither of these positions is accurate.20 Wealthy people are supposed to pay more in a
progressive tax system, but most of them find ways to minimize these costs. Some low earners
pay no federal income tax, but most pay payroll tax, sales tax and sometimes property tax. In a
study analyzing all forms of taxation, tax credits, and subsidies for America’s poor, it turns out
that the United States is one of the least redistributive economies in the world.21
America’s income disparities are so widely acknowledged that they are a global cliché. Yet
only a few years ago conservatives were railing against the “class warfare” of liberals who
raised the issue. CBS News recently said that America’s top 1 percent control 36 percent of
wealth, which is shocking enough in its own right. Meanwhile, social mobility declines, the
workforce becomes less educated, innovation slows—as the U.S. becomes less and less able
to compete in the global marketplace. Poverty statistics are equally disturbing, with one in six
Americans living below the national poverty line (approximately $22,000 for a family of four)
—the highest rate in 50 years. But beyond this, the federally designated “low income” category
now includes an alarming 33 percent of working families. Unemployment numbers may move
up and down by fractional percentage points, but massive numbers of people who do work
simply don’t earn enough to get by.22
Systems that produce winners must also generate losers. The Italian economist Vilfredo
Pareto famously proposed this zero-sum game paradigm. In a world of monetary and material
limits, one person’s gain always occurs at the expense of another.23 In today’s economy, this
notion of limits informs policies ranging from redistributive taxation to energy cap-and-trade
rules. Pareto applied his thinking about systemic economies to both material wealth and human
capital.24 It’s a recognized economic fact that low-income workers put most of their earnings
back into the economy. People paying lower taxes, no taxes, or receiving some form of
assistance are hardly the segment of the population who park their money in real estate, futures
options, gold investments, or offshore accounts. Then one needs to consider the surplus value
of work itself and the economic reality that employees rarely receive the full value of their
labor. The working poor (and almost everyone else) lose a little in both the production and the
consumption ends of life. And this doesn’t begin to account for the economics of unpaid labor.
The Virtues of Selfishness
Unilateral taking goes by another name, of course. It’s called theft. In the critical discourse of
neoliberalism and class politics (i.e., “making and taking”) people are rarely so blunt as to
categorize predatory capitalism as stealing. It is now widely known that corrupt corporate
CEOs, greedy investment bankers, and even financiers who commit outright fraud, rarely go to
jail. And those who profit through exploiting the daily needs of poor and working-class
families never get accused of anything. The owners of payday loan services, overpriced
supermarkets in bombed-out neighborhoods, or fast food chains catering to overburdened
working parents—who questions their entrepreneurial energy? Meanwhile, rich kids caught
shoplifting never see a minute in jail, while America’s prison population swells with AfricanAmerican and Latino youth committing such inconsequential offenses as talking back to a
teacher or walking outside late at night. Crime does happen. People do indeed “take” things
illegally. But the number of such offenses has dropped every year for the past two decades.25
There are fewer burglaries and stolen cars, for example. But what has increased—and is
difficult to track sometimes in numerical terms—are illegal monetary transactions and
investment fraud. What has grown and continues to expand are the forms of theft sanctioned in
an economy in which concepts of making and taking become interchangeable.
Part of the problem lies in the mystification of monetary value itself, with the transition from
“industrial capital” to “financial capital.” In an age of credit cards, one-click buying, online
banking, and computer-driven stock market investments—money has become abstracted as
never before. Years ago it was hard to imagine leaving one’s house without carrying at least a
little cash. Nowadays many people go days or weeks at a time without even handling actual
currency. Needless to say, as money has become invisible some people have seen this as an
opportunity. Let’s bring this discussion down to a personal level. For some Americans,
completing yearly income tax forms is a simple matter of reporting income, checking off
deductions boxes, and either writing a check or getting a refund. But it’s no secret that for many
individuals—especially wealthy ones—tax filing is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game to fend
off government efforts to “take” what they “make.” Lots of people end up in a moral quandary
in this annual showdown between personal and collective interests. Tax filing is a perfect
example of how ethics become fuzzy in an age of monetary abstraction. It’s no grand logical
leap to see how self-interest can interfere with moral reasoning in the ethereal universe of
options and credit swaps. As a largely imaginary substance, exchange value is a product of the
Sociologists have looked at making and taking through the lenses of normativity, social
control, and deviance. These days almost everyone agrees that normality is a social construct,
varying across space and time, and contingent on changing values. And as will be detailed
later in this book, it’s long been recognized that statistical “deviation” is more frequently found
in nature than actual midpoints or average values. Nevertheless, some behavioral norms are
undeniable. This is why societies establish broad rules of conduct that are held in place by
behavioral habits, legal constraints, or other forms of social control. In the 1890s French
sociologist Émile Durkheim found that an insatiable demand for “more” drove people’s
ambitions and consumer behavior. This libidinous “anomie,” as Durkheim termed it, had to be
kept in check by conventions of normality and moral institutions like the family and religion.
In the 1930s American sociologist Robert K. Merton applied the idea of anomie in
explaining impulses of upward mobility and class envy in the U.S. Perhaps more importantly,
Merton looked at ways that norms and well-meaning public policies could negatively affect
individuals and groups via “unintended consequences.”26 In other words, many people were
not merely constrained by moral ideals, but often by “anomie strain” created by structures
within society itself. Pushing back against the causes of selective poverty and discrimination
might be considered “deviant” in a technical sense, but such opposition also was necessary to
advance the greater good. Following Merton, the field of sociology began to chart deviance in
a more open-ended way, noting its many pathways and inflections. Terms like “positive
deviance” and “resistant deviance” began to enter the picture, as sociologists also began to
look more closely at crime. Might it be possible that some of America’s most venerated values
support criminal attitudes as well? Arguments are mounting that mythical beliefs in limitless
opportunity are now coming in conflict with everyday reality. As Chris Hedges writes in Days
of Destruction, Days of Revolt:
The vaunted American dream, the idea that life will get better, that progress is inevitable if
we obey the rules and work hard, that material prosperity is assured, has been replaced by
a hard and bitter truth. The American dream, we now know, is a lie. We will all be
sacrificed. The virus of corporate abuse—the perverted belief that only corporate profit
matters—has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our
libraries, and plague our communities with foreclosures and unemployment.27
As individuals increasingly see their wages diminished and their futures put in doubt,
antisocial attitudes are making a Darwinian comeback. Criminality and theft are valorized in
movies like American Hustle (2013), Now You See Me (2013), and American Heist (2015)—
all of which celebrate hyperbolic theft on a large scale. These attitudes have no clearly
articulated politics.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements enflamed members with visions of
property theft or takeover. Not unlike the 1960s, the new millennium has brought with it a
populist licensing of the “civil disobedience” valorized by Henry David Thoreau against an
authoritarian “machine.” Thoreau never told people to steal things. But as the title of the book,
Crime and the American Dream implies, authors Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfield
find that dishonest “taking” comes surprisingly naturally in the land of the free. From their
perspective, most crime in the U.S. does not arise from the “sickness” of individual pathology
or the “evil” of moral failing—or even such conditions as poverty and discrimination,
ineffective law enforcement, or the lax punishment of criminals.
“Crime in America derives, in significant measure, from highly prized cultural conditions,”
Messner and Rosenfield write, explaining that “the American dream itself and the normal
social conditions engendered by it are deeply implicated in the problem of crime.”28
Specifically, they point to America’s preoccupation with success “at any cost,” with little
thought about how goals are pursued. This “creates and sustains social structures incapable of
restraining criminogenic cultural pressures.”29 The costs to American society are devastating.
Even though violent crime in the U.S. has decreased steadily in recent decades, the nation still
locks up plenty of people at a cost of $74 billion per year.30 Crime economists measure costs
of criminality in terms of the offense itself (damage/loss, law enforcement, insurance,
prosecution, and incarceration costs) and secondary impacts (long-term damage to victims,
decline in the quality of life, lowered property values, population migrations). An estimated
$1.7 trillon per year was lost to crime in the U.S. in the early 2000s, amounting to $1,686 for
every individual.31 With the rise of Internet crimes like identity scams and intellectual property
theft, an additional $400 billion has been added to these numbers.32
Cultures of Unreason
Maybe America is losing its mind. Predatory profiteering, out-of-control consumerism, and
nonsensical debates like makers-and-takers all seem to suggest that there is something wrong
with America’s collective thought processes. In a nation that finds itself evenly divided on
almost every major issue of the day, citizens and scholars are pondering America’s social
fragmentation. Is this simply a function of the massive scale and diversity of the U.S.? Or too
much media influence? Worries about an America in decline also seem to be everywhere these
days, as do popular explanations for the nation’s diminished status. How is it that this great
country seems to be coming unglued? More than one observer believes that the U.S. simply has
lost its grip on reality in a culture of fleeting images and short attention spans. A postmodern
failure of “reason” is a familiar theme in recent books ranging from Susan Jacoby’s The Age of
American Unreason (2007) and Dick Tavern’s The March of Unreason (2007) to more recent
works like Constructions of Neoliberal Reason by Jamie Peck (2010) and Dale Jamieson’s
Reason in a Dark Time (2015).33 A lot of these works use the concept of reason to bludgeon
someone else’s position or thought processes, while others simply impugn the intelligence of
the American public. One of the most widely read of these books was The Assault on Reason
(2007) by former Vice President Al Gore, which ranked number one on the New York Times
bestseller list for its first month in print.
“Why do reason, logic, and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America
now makes important decisions? How has a persistent preference for falsehoods come to
prevail even in the face of massive and well understood evidence to the contrary?” Gore
asks.34 How could the world’s most powerful military power plunge itself into a massive war
with a country like Iraq, which had not attacked us or threatened U.S. national interests? Why
was the country so willing so quickly to reverse its three-century prohibition against torturing
prisoners? Or more widely stated, how could America allow post-9/11 despair to be so
cynically manipulated? To Gore the answer is clear. An image-saturated society has lost the
ability to reason—largely because it has lost the knack of reading. Joining a long line of media
reactionaries, Gore decries what he sees as an atrophy in public literacy—leaving Americans
vulnerable to advertisers and political hucksters promising money, protection, or both. Gore
argues that a weird kind of “unreason” has begun to take over, largely driven by the ways
people now get their information about vital issues. The Assault on Reason cites recent
statistics about how movies, cell phones, iPods, instant messaging, and video games all
compete for people’s attention. Meanwhile, the average American still watches 2.8 hours of
television every day, despite the rise of online diversions.35 And by a three-to-one margin,
Americans still turn to Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the major networks for news—with
print and radio accounting for 9 percent and 6 percent, respectively.36
The Assault on Reason and similar books share certain common themes, not the least of
which is their uncritical media formalism. Privileging one form of communication (reading)
over another (television) neatly dodges issues of meaning and politics that infuse any text.
While some kinds of media certainly may be more immediate and ubiquitous than others, their
content is always written by someone—and those writers, producers, and their sponsors are
what really matters. But more to the point is the very paradigm of “reason” itself, whose
presumed supremacy has pushed alternative views to the side for centuries. The Age of Reason
replaced hierarchies based on superstition or inherited privilege with forms of authority based
on knowledge. Hence, the idea was born that reason separated humanity from other species,
that some humans had more reason than others, and that “reasonable” people could always find
their way to what is true.
History has shown how terribly wrong societies can go in the pursuit of reasonable
objectives—whether this entails the “reasonable” use of slave labor to build the U.S., to the
“reasonable” laws regulating women’s reproductive rights, to the “reasonable” pursuit of Al
Qaeda into the nation of Iraq. Not that any of this is news. Kant and Hegel both saw problems
in classical reason—although they reached different conclusions—in debates dating to
America’s founding decades. If the contemporary era has shown anything, it is that few
purportedly “reasonable” ideas hold true for all people and for all time. Ontologically,
proposals for a return to reason share much with the makers-and-takers debate—as concepts
including everyone and no one. Ideals of reason often have functioned as devices for
naturalizing social hierarchies and particular regimes. And in a U.S. political context, they now
replicate age-old phantasms of “real Americans” freely exercising rational choice in the voting
booth and the marketplace. Naturally, this appeal to a national “common sense” would exclude
the non-reasonable and nonproductive takers discussed above, and in doing so resurrects the
same exclusionary logic that has defined the U.S. since its earliest days.
But the popular discourse on reason makes one important point—that culture matters,
especially as normative values find their ways into people’s minds. Louis Althusser wrote
about this in the 1970s, using the term “ideology” to discuss the “imaginary relationship of
individuals to the real conditions of existence.”37 In saying this, Althusser was following
Jacques Lacan’s proposition that what is truly “real” can never be fully known, but at best
approximated in the imaginary realms of the mind (ideals) and their representations in
language. This is why people interpret events differently and develop discordant opinions. But
while ideology may reside in people’s heads, Althusser was quick to point out that it is
acquired through day-to-day experiences in the material world. This occurs on conscious and
on unconscious levels. Hence, even as one might deliberately choose a particular set of beliefs
(like being a “Republican,” for example), these conscious decisions often rest on unexamined
or preexisting assumptions (like being born a U.S. citizen). The point is that people’s belief
systems are but partially traceable and often are influenced by ideological “apparatuses” they
don’t fully apprehend. Families, nations, religions, legal systems, and communication networks
are some examples of these apparatuses. Needless to say, Althusser argued that people’s
behaviors and beliefs were too complicated to be explained by the principles of “reason” that
America’s founders so valued.
Following the work of Althusser and others, the how and why of ideology has received
considerable attention from academics, especially as it affects such fundamental activities as
working and spending money. Emerging from 20th-century Marxism, “cultural studies” were
part of a broader movement to turn the lens of intellectual analysis on the fabric of everyday
life. Beginning with a post–World War II interest in the British working class, writers like
Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, and Judith Williamson began to look at
how capitalism played out in the things people found important, the ways that media affected
them, and the manner in which material possessions gave meaning to their lives. Among others,
Paul Willis would assert the centrality of consumer culture in giving people a sense of
personal identity and agency in the world.38 Willis even went so far as to suggest that people
could see through the ideological manipulation of politicians and advertisers—accepting
whatever pitches they found credible and tossing the rest aside.
If only things were that simple. The process of ideology described by Althusser turns out to
be highly variable according to time and circumstance. Cultural messaging isn’t something that
can be turned on or off like a light switch. And certainly it doesn’t affect all demographic
groups the same way. Ideology works in the foreground and background, in the present moment
and over time, in one’s conscious mind and in the deep recesses of one’s senses, perceptions,
and affective responses. Its effects can be momentary, cumulative, partial, overlapping as
people accept, reject, negotiate, or unconsciously receive messages. Michel de Certeau wrote
about the indeterminacy of consumerism and spectatorship, noting that individuals at best
exercise partial control over what they see and the way that they interpret it.39 As de Certeau
adds, any conversation about the way viewers receive “the images broadcast by television
(representation) and the time spent watching television (behavior) should be complimented by
a study of what the consumer ‘makes’ or ‘does’ during this time and with these images.”40
It would seem that this leads back into the epistemological rabbit hole of subjectivity—
about the self and its relationship to what lies outside. Do audiences have agency in voting or
consuming, or does the process work in reverse? The obvious answer is that both processes
operate simultaneously, as reader response theorists pointed out some time ago. Citizens
certainly express a sense of “self” through their purchasing and voting decisions, but much of
the thinking attached to their preferences comes from the public sphere. Might one conclude
that the very image of a “self” that many feel they express derives largely from images coming
from elsewhere? Is this image-constructed self really an illusion? Should one conclude that
what gets called the self actually derives from external fabrications?
The answer is both and neither. On the one hand, the sense of freedom experienced in
selecting a purchase often is little more than a cruel illusion of choice. The marketplace has
already preselected the range of items available. Consumers get pleasure from the belief that
they “choose” from Amazon’s inventory, much like they vote for a candidate preselected by a
mainstream political party. On the other hand, it’s worth pondering that all life is a similar set
of choices from what is offered. Much of the time the line between actual and virtual isn’t
always clear. This isn’t always a bad thing. While one can argue that many people construct
their worlds from received images, the process still retains generative and creative aspects.
Philosophers of language have asserted that the idea of an “authentic” self is more of a fantasy
than a reality. Nevertheless, a hunger persists for an anchor. Hence, choosing among images or
commodities can be just as personal an act as naïvely believing one truly experiences reality.
All of this wreaks havoc on the makers-and-takers discussion. Remember that the original
premise of capitalism hinged on the presumed rationality of consumers to vote with their
money. This followed from the belief that a literate and informed citizenry was capable of
making decisions at the ballot box. But everyone knows that both buying and voting are heavily
influenced by irrationality of all kinds—and the apparatus of ideology is always working in
the background. Old-school social theory used to argue that unwitting masses were duped into
“false consciousness” by the chicanery of capitalist ideology. No doubt this is true to a certain
extent. But this model never gave people much credit for independent thinking. And it also
assumed that people’s only real desires were those they got tricked into having. More recent
theories of culture look at things somewhat differently, suggesting that ideology doesn’t so
much give people new ideas about what they want, but instead attaches to what they really
value—like interpersonal relationships, feelings of security, and optimism about the future.
And in turn, these valued substances link to deeper needs, desires, and drives, which many
people may not even recognize in themselves. Advertising and other forms of media convince
viewers that they can only get these things by behaving in certain ways or buying the right
things.41 This bait-and-switch game is the real genius of modern capitalism. It convinces
people that happiness and security lie in material possessions and superficial signs of success.
Through this process consuming is deeply linked to identity. A person needs to have the right
car or the right clothes to be admired, desired, or successful. And who doesn’t aspire to such
None of this would be quite so bad if the messaging of advertising and media conveyed a
modicum of cultural neutrality. But American capitalism seems to foster persistent worry about
impending loss, even in the absence of credible threat. This chapter’s discussion of the
makers-and-takers debate has detailed how these nagging anxieties fuel the distrust and
selfishness so common in today’s America, as well as some of the ways that symbols and
slogans can animate conflicts with historic roots in the American imagination. Nations and
other groups define themselves through symbolic economies of belonging, which bear a
tentative relationship to material participation, contribution, or benefit. In this sense,
citizenship in any nation always entails a degree of contradiction. Such ontological tensions
are especially likely in a nation such as the U.S., where the opposition of the individual to the
community is built into the very fabric of personal subjectivity and collective consciousness.
Veronica Dagher, “Do You Make $400,000 a Year but Feel Broke?” WSJ Video (Sept. 4, 2014) http://www.wsj.com/video/doyou-make-400000-a-year-but-feel-broke/387CA8E8-2C0F-449B-8F8F-7BBCF70EE954.html (accessed June 1, 2015).
Alicia Parlapiano, Robert Gebeloff, and Shan Carter, “The Shrinking American Middle Class,” New York Times (Jan. 26, 2015)
www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/01/25/upshot/shrinking-middle-class.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0 (accessed June 7, 2015).
Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty (Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989).
MoJo News Team, “Full Transcript of the Mitt Romney Secret Video,” Mother Jones (Sept. 19, 2012)
www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/full-transcript-mitt-romney-secret-video#47percent (accessed Nov. 2, 2014).
“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals
stand.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations for the Critique of Political Economy (1858) (Moscow: Progress Publishers,
1977) p. 265.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 35th Anniversary Edition (New York: Dutton, 1992) p. 1062.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776) (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) p. 456.
Étienne Balibar, “My Self and My Own,” in Bill Maurer and Gabrielle Schwab, eds. Accelerating Possession: Global Futures
of Property and Personhood (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) p. 27.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (1821), trans. Alan White, (New York: Hackett, 2015).
Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (1867), trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow:
Progress Publishers, 1887).
John Maynard Keynes, A Treatise on Money (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1930).
“Tobacco Industry: Market Research Reports, Statistics and Analysis,” Report Linker (October 2013)
http://www.reportlinker.com/ci02053/Tobacco.html (accessed May 18, 2014).
David Harvey, “The New Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register, 40 (2004) p. 69.
Adrian Parr and Brad Evans, “Are Some Lives Disposable?” Al Jazeera (Feb. 14, 2014)
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/02/are-some-lives-disposable-20142 1255735775353.html (accessed May 18,
Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham, NC and
London: Duke University Press, 2011) p. 18.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1977).
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008).
Bill O’Reilly, “Is Traditional America Gone for Good?” Fox News (Nov. 12, 2102)
http://www.foxnews.com/transcript/2012/11/13/bill-oreilly-traditional-america-gone- good/ (accessed Nov. 1, 2014).
“Makers and Takers: America’s Government Redistributes, but Not Well,” The Economist (Oct. 12, 2012)
http://www.economist.com/node/21564407 (accessed May 5, 2014).
Brandon Roberts, Deborah Povitch, and Mark Mather, “Low-Income Working Families: The Growing Economic Gap,” The
Working Poor Families Project (Winter 2012–2013) http://www.workingpoorfamilies.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Winter2012_2013-WPFP-Data-Brief.pdf (accessed Aug. 9, 2014).
Vilfredo Pareto, Manual of Political Economy, trans. Alfred N. Page (New York: A.M. Kelley, 1971).
Kathleen Miles, “Next Time Someone Argues for ‘Trickle-Down’ Economics, Show Them This,” Huffington Post (Feb. 17,
2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/06/rich-richer_n_4731408.html (accessed Nov. 1 2014).
“Violent and Property Crime in the US—Crime in America,” Crime in America (2014) http://www.crimeinamerica.net/crimerates-united-states/ (accessed Aug 9, 2015).
Robert K. Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” American Sociological Review, 1, no. 6
(Dec. 1936) pp. 894–904. http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jhamlin/4111/2111-home/CD/TheoryClass/Readings/MertonSocial
Action.pdf (accessed Aug. 14, 2015).
Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (New York: Nation Books, 2012) pp. 226–227.
Mark Twain, as quoted in Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfield, Crime and the American Dream, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth, 2011) p. 1.
Crime and the American Dream, p. 11
Robert J. Shapiro and Kevin A. Hassett, “The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime” (June 19, 2012) Center for
American Progress, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2012/06/19/11755/the-economic-benefits-of-redu
cing-violent-crime/ (accessed Aug. 14, 2014).
David. A. Anderson, “The Cost of Crime,” Foundations and Trends in Microeconomics 7, no. 3 (Sept. 2012)
http://ideas.repec.org/a/now/fntmic/0700000047.html (accessed Aug. 14, 2014).
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http://www.mcafee.com/us/resources/reports/rp-economic-impact-cybercrime.pdf (accessed Aug. 14, 2014).
Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2007); Dick Tavern, The March of Unreason: Science,
Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Jamie Peck,
Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Dale Jamieson, Reason in a
Dark Time: Why the Struggle for Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future (New York and Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2015).
Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (New York: Penguin 2008) p. 1.
“American Time Use Survey,” U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013)
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm (accessed July 18, 2013).
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http://www.gallup.com/poll/163412/americans-main-source-news.aspx (accessed July 18, 2013).
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Paul Willis, Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Culture of the Young (Boulder, CO: Westview Press,
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
The Practice of Everyday Life, p. xii.
Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Critical Essays (New York: Continuum, 1982).
True Believers
Spiritual Life in a Secular Age
When I first walked into Hobby Lobby more than a decade ago, the place didn’t seem
especially religious. I’d been traveling in the American South and the store’s dorky name had
made me curious. While the craft superstore didn’t seem particularly remarkable, it felt
strangely dislocated in time and place—a shrine to the gendered character of domestic
handiwork in certain pockets of American society, even in contemporary times. With areas
labeled “Floral,” “Fabric,” “Jewelry,” “Needle Work,” and “Wedding Goods” the store’s
promotional materials featured cheery female advisors offering helpful tips. As Hobby
Lobby’s upbeat web site put it: “From knitting, crocheting, sewing and bow making to floral
designs and seasonal decorations, our project guides and videos will take your projects from
drab to fab!”1 Seen in these terms, the $3.3 billion Hobby Lobby franchise makes a lot (or
most) of its money from women—a fact that adds a bitter irony to the company’s recent success
in convincing the Supreme Court that the religious beliefs of its male CEO were more
important than contraceptive insurance provisions for its female employees.2
The putative crux of the Hobby Lobby case was the separation of church and state, but with
a slightly paranoid constitutional twist. The company asserted that the Affordable Care Act had
violated its religious “freedom” (and that contraceptive coverage also would cost it millions).
While the case enraged feminists and women’s health advocates, it also left most Americans
scratching their heads over how such an antiquated view of reproductive rights could prevail
in the nation’s highest court. More generally, the decision raised troubling questions about the
rising political influence of faith in America at a time when religious practice is declining
statistically. While most in the U.S. still report that they “belong” to a church or other place of
worship, in growing numbers they no longer attend services.3
Beliefs and behaviors don’t always align in the contemporary U.S., as personal assertions of
faith become detached from collective practices of worship. Yet a residual sense of religious
affiliation persists, especially among those who see the U.S. as a land of unrestricted worship
—a nation founded by people who in many instances had been persecuted on the basis of
belief. Hence, many regard religious liberty as one of the country’s foundational values. But
even a casual look at American history reveals a peculiar tendency of newly arriving groups
establishing barriers against other faiths, even as religious “tolerance” was being written into
law. Of course competing belief systems are as old as humanity itself, often intersecting with
tribal and ethnic rivalries reinforced by geography or national boundaries. Persecution and
exile narratives have always been central in Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. And
Christian faiths (to which 77 percent of Americans subscribe) have had a particularly
contentious past, often manifest in intergroup antagonism and violence, not to mention
campaigns to conquer or convert non-Christians.4
Today’s most pressing political concern among religious Americans is the decline of faith
itself, with nearly three-quarters of believers expressing worry about an increasingly secular
society.5 As tensions rise between “believer…
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