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National Lies: The Truth About American Values Hardcover – March 16, 2009
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About the Author
Charles Churchyard has also written Arctic Critiques, which included the provocative essay “Politically Correct in the Arctic.” This piece appears on the author’s website: www.charleschurchyard.com
The site also contains generous excerpts from National Lies.
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Perhaps the biggest lie that the American people have come to believe is that the myth of the "rugged individualist". For generations working class parents have told their children that when the grow up "they can be anything they want to be". Of course these parents desperately want to believe this but the research shows otherwise. The reality is that very few people become wealthy who began life at or near the bottom of the social ladder. Children from upper middle class and affluent families have enormous advantages that those from the lower end of the economic spectrum can rarely overcome. Still the American people cling to this myth and Churchyard believes that this self-deception is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps to make us the most productive people on earth. In conjunction with that myth Churchyard also observes that the American people also firmly believe in the concept of individual freedom. We are all free agents, free to pursue our individual goals and ideals. Once again, Churchyard finds that the reality is that most people are truly deluding themselves. The fact of the matter is that the American people are far more likely to submit themselves to the influence and controls of groups than most people around the world. This is especially true in the workplace. On page 142 Churchyard notes: "Foreign visitors have often noticed that Americans of diverse backgrounds and occupations exhibit the same personal values and attitudes. On the basis of this homogeneity, some observers have declared that the nation contains no social classes but is one enormous middle class."
Throughout the pages of "National Lies: The Truth About American Values " Charles Churchyard discusses a number of other areas where the American people also seem to be deluding themselves. This really turns out to be a fascinating study. But in the final analysis Churchyard firmly believes that it is this ability to deceive ourselves that is a major factor in what make America and it's people productive and great. "National Lies" is an exceptionally well-written and meticulously researched book that held my attention from cover-to-cover. An extremely thought provoking study. Highly recommended.
The American Revolution was truly transformative. The semi-aristocratic society of the Founding Fathers, much to their chagrin, quickly gave way to an "ethos of egalitarianism." They found distressing "the low business practices, vile politics, wild religion, debased culture, and ugly manners" that became pervasive, certainly by the Age of Jackson. Eschewing social, collective constraints, men were now seen to be virtually free to pursue economic aims, limited only by their own capabilities. According to the author, underlying this economic individualism is a disingenuous set of "Panglossian" beliefs that holds that the things of the world, including people, are essentially good and are naturally inclined to interact in simplistic harmony without the need for control by collective bodies, like corporations or labor unions, or governments. The marketplace, as part of the Panglossian world, invariably rewards merit; failure has to be due to underlying personal deficiencies. Furthermore, in such a world, discord among groups, even nations, for reasons of ethnicity, economic interests, etc, are considered to be no more than minor misunderstandings easily resolved, a view that finds Europeans incredulous.
Of course, the workings of our society and economics, then and now, deviate substantially from that simplistic view. The idea of social class may be anathema in the popular mind, but effects of social class, though constantly downplayed (aren't we all just Americans?), are significant in most areas of life, such as in educational performance or in the workplace.
The concept of freedom is definitely problematic in American life. Even though, as the author points out, Americans are at best quasi-religious - seeing religion as primarily being a benefit either socially or in business, those who "freely" choose to be nonreligious are denounced as being un-American, or worse. It is part of the American ethos that the essential goodness and harmony of America is Godly-directed. To reject God is to reject America. Though Americans stand by their freedoms, the reality is that Americans are one of the most conformist modern societies in the world. We really are unwilling to acknowledge the subtle, coercive pressures that control our behavior, even our thinking, in social situations, including the workplace, preferring to understand those constraints as "choices."
The author suggests that the widely held belief in the freedom of economic individualism countered by thinly disguised social control can be viewed as a kind of formula where each side of the equation can expand or contract based on broad social conditions. For example, the 1950s, following the travails of the Great Depression and WWII, is seen as an era of conformity, where the "organization man" rose to prominence, which was then followed by the reaction of the Free Speech movement of the 1960s. "Entrepreneurialism" is the modern term for economic individualism. Since corporations dominate modernity, to maintain illusions of autonomy, it is necessary to emphasize the freedom to operate within them, not just CEOs, but also employees, so that the realities of corporate control are sufficiently obscured. Although government remains as the whipping boy from a business perspective, it can hardly be ignored that governments at all levels have become larger to provide the necessary coordination and management of an exceedingly complex society. Despite panglossianism, societies and economies do not free run. Nevertheless, the author suggests that our illusions of economic freedom, which ignore very real constraints - many necessary, have made us the most productive economy in the world. By contrast, in more traditional societies, where social classes are recognized, the lack of incentives and persistent resentments have an adverse impact on their economies.
The belief in equal opportunity is also a fundamental part of the American ethos. Some, namely The Left, have not accepted the claim that external conditions and circumstances are irrelevant in making economic headway. The author shows that leftist actions to facilitate a more equitable society, through such measures as labor unions or socialism, have largely fallen on deaf ears, especially the white working class, who accept the effectiveness of economic individualism. In recent decades, The Left has turned its attention to improving the situation of minorities. However, the author contends that mere remedialism is insufficient for The Left; they subscribe to a "transcendent" idealism that seeks to transform American ideals of individualism and middle-class conformity. The leftist upper middle-class, the "liberal elite," responds to this appeal partly because the actual costs to their social status are minimal, while the payoff in assuaging guilt is high.
The author is more than a little concerned that this idealism has taken a post-modernist turn - that is, well-established truths are regarded as being politically and ideologically determined. The author criticizes these idealistic programs, such as multiculturalism, which rejects cultural assimilation and regards minority cultures as the equal of the dominant culture, and affirmative action, which places under-prepared individuals in organizations to everyone's detriment, as totally ignoring obvious realities and experiences, which are justified using a post-modernistic approach. Furthermore, in an atmosphere of political correctness, these initiatives cannot be discussed forthrightly. He is vexed that dysfunctionalities of minority cultures are not open for discussion. The author may be distressed by this fairly recent idealistic development, but, nonetheless, the core tenet of economic individualism within a context of Panglossianism still dominates American culture.
The book is somewhat repetitious and in its attempts to generalize is perhaps too dismissive of alternative views and efforts to counter America's dominant themes. The contrasts with European thinking are insightful. The author's background is not known, which is perhaps a bit of a hindrance in categorizing the book, but the book draws on hundreds of credible sources detailed in extensive notes. Some may be repulsed by the author's critique of minority assistance, but it fits in his thesis of deceptions. Over all, the book is a very interesting look at our values and our only too willing self-deceptions. It reminds one of Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," which is referenced several times.
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