Two books show perspectives on America today
Jon Huer is a widely published American sociologist (11 previous books) with a varied experience of American life, culture, and society that he has brought to bear in publishing two groundbreaking studies of American society entitled “American Paradise” and “Auschwitz, USA.”
The two books reinforce, illuminate, and support one another and can be profitably read together. The two titles are stunning, provocative, wonderfully appropriate in their aptly compressed expression of the central, radical, profoundly original, and brilliant themes developed in each book. Both books are unique and unprecedented in the relentless logic and terrible comprehensive finality with which they condemn certain prevailing dangerous social and cultural ideas, developments, practices, habits, and institutional arrangements that are destroying the promise and fabric of American life.
Huer defies and even attempts to demolish prevailing conventions and contemporary academic consensus regarding American life. He presents a series of ideas and perspectives about America today that are continuously eye-opening and sometimes infuriating as well as imaginatively inventive and sweeping in their reach and relevance. Half the time, one marvels at the great insight he provides into American life _ especially its hidden, illusionary, shadow underbelly and the negative archetypes of the American psyche but one is also at times offended, amused, or convinced of the downright silliness of some of his extreme definitions and wholesale criticisms of American people, culture, and society.
The author paints his principal themes in a color palette all stark black and white with no gray. In all fairness to him, he does this deliberately and intentionally, with ample explicit warning to the reader beforehand, because his aim is not to render a balanced portrait of the whole of American life but to identify, describe, and diagnose the most virulent social diseases and cultural cancers eating away at the heart of American Life.
Both books are utterly engrossing, partly because one feels increasing respect, admiration, and awe for the fierce, relentless, compelling logic with which Huer develops his main themes and partly because one is engaged in an ongoing heated argument with the author regarding some of his more extreme assertions.
The central argument of “American Paradise”is that outwardly America is a society offering every conceivable pleasure, comfort, and entertainment, but the frantic and ceaseless search for selfish pleasure and gratification, along with the efficient organization of the entire society to provide such ceaseless entertainment and satisfaction, have made America a fool’s Paradise inhabited by increasingly lonely, self-centered individuals whose intelligences decline daily and whose souls become steadily more barren and lifeless. Huer asserts that most Americans have mindlessly developed an idolatrous set of beliefs in extreme versions of excessive freedom, excessive individualism, the love of money, the supremacy of economic imperatives, and the “Exaltation of Efficiency and Management Principles” divorced from all human considerations to such an extent that one can identify in American History four distinctive character types, with each character type becoming progressively more removed from the balanced and limited convictions of America’s Founders.
The Founders stressed the primacy of liberty and obligation in good government and society, but the last character type Americans as post-industrialists (appearing with high-tech in the later part of the 20th century) has exalted excessive equality, especially in the mindless and addictive consumption of material goods and the pursuit of entertainment, with little regard for liberty or distinction of any kind, lowering society to the lowest common denominator of childish television programs, celebrity manias, and the obsession with rights and endless lawsuits while displaying disregard for obligations and bonds to others in social life and government policy. Specifically, Huer describes this type as follows: “The main traits consist of extreme self-obsession, of the inability to tell reality and fantasy apart, of the expanded role of the media (whereby all things personal and national center on commercial TV), and of the way now Americans see their “life-style” as essentially feel-good play, of the overriding desire to take all but give nothing.”
The central argument of “Auschwitz, USA” is that the Nazi Regime, aided by American efficiency methods, designed the most ruthless, efficient machine for killing 6 million Jews while at the same time rendering them submissive, hypnotic, and paralyzed in response to the total control exercised by the Nazis over them.
Not literally but by analogy, Huer draws the comparison that the entrepreneurs, human resource managers, and advertising moguls overseeing the American free market system have created a similar efficient machine, not for physically killing Americans, but for manipulating and controlling them to buy endless commodities and ceaseless entertainment that numbs their minds and destroys their souls. In the process, the American efficiency machine renders American consumers not only submissive, hypnotic, and paralyzed but also addicted to the products and entertainment that they consume like opium addicts in 19th century China. Where the Jewish people at least knew themselves as victims and the Nazis as evil, American consumers rather admire their manipulators and imagine themselves as pursuing their individual pleasure and not as victims and pawns under the total control of a heartless efficiency machine.
Readers will inevitably resist the main arguments in both books, even finding them initially preposterous and outlandish; however, Huer marshals so many striking parallels and examples, so much irrefutable evidence, and such powerful logical strings of reasoning that the reader is forced eventually to agree with his main arguments if not with every detail and view expressed.
People will need unusually open minds and stout hearts to stomach the disturbing and disconcerting negative side of American life that Huer exposes, but they will be rewarded with deeper insight and realize they have encountered two books that will stand the test of time as magisterial monuments of the sociological imagination.
Richard Dowling teaches American history and English at the University of Maryland University College and can be reached at email@example.com. ― ED.