Pity the suburban middle class. Unctuous politicians may flatter soccer moms for a week or two before elections, but nearly everyone else, from stand-up comics to serious novelists, beats up on suburbanites. According to these critics, behind those neatly painted white picket fences lies overweening self-satisfaction; a stunted morality that censures public breaches of decorum while winking at major sins like wife-battering; and, most cliched of all, an intellectual wasteland, isolated and selfish, whose only creed is "I Got Mine, Jack." Like Rodney Dangerfield, suburbanites get no respect.
"A culture of paranoia," reads one recent and unexceptional critique of suburbia, "Visions of Suburbia" edited by Roger Silverstone, "founded on a fear of difference." Ouch! Is there a spin doctor in the house?
Indeed there is, and his name is Alan Wolfe. A professor of political science at Boston University, Wolfe spent 18 months conducting 200 interviews in eight American communities to determine, in the words of the book's subtitle, "what middle-class Americans really think." Those expecting a perceptive and stirring report a la "Habits of the Heart" will be disappointed, for Wolfe has written an unconvincing paean to suburban life, a wet kiss masquerading as social science.
That "One Nation, After All" should be so bad is surprising given Wolfe's track record. He is the author of about a dozen thoughtful books and numerous well-reasoned articles in professional and popular journals. Though it's true that Wolfe has made a career of defending the center in most debates, in "One Nation," he seems intent on establishing himself, once and for all, as Champion of the Middle. He is so extreme in his defense of the center, and his spin-doctoring is so forced (not to mention obvious), that all he ends up proving is that even moderation can be taken too far.
There are several other problems with Wolfe's book, beginning with its title. Wolfe allows that he interviewed only middle-class suburbanites, so the word "nation" in the title is a far reach. And the field is even narrower than Wolfe lets on. Two-thirds of his respondents live in families with annual incomes greater than $50,000, with about 20% of Wolfe's entire sample earning more than $100,000. (In defending his selection process, Wolfe claims that $200,000 represents merely a "solid" middle-class income, despite the fact that only 1% of American households earn above this amount.) In fact, the book's subject isn't really the middle class at all: It's the upper-middle class. Wolfe's "One Nation" is not a nation after all; it is a geographically diverse group of affluent suburbanites. The assumption that this bloc somehow represents America may conform to the group's own notions of itself, but it will surely surprise the many millions of citizens who are struggling to get by on far less money.
So what do these privileged people think and feel? What are their morals and values, their hopes and dreams? The picture that emerges, despite Wolfe's best efforts to pretty things up, is bleak and conforms to all the old cliches about wealthy suburbs: that its residents are complacent, morally smug and, all too often, intellectually challenged.
Wolfe claims to have found a surprising amount of tolerance for differences of many sorts. As the author explains, well-heeled suburbanites place such a high priority on being "nonjudgmental" that they tolerate many kinds of folks. Take religion, an area Wolfe discusses at length. He found that even the most pious born-again Christians allowed that other faiths deserve a place at the American table. Wolfe makes the most of this generosity of spirit, stating that "[t]he acceptance of so many different kinds of belief in America is remarkable."
After such a buildup, reading excerpts from actual interviews is disheartening. The vaunted religious acceptance is begrudging and conditional (no atheists need apply), the dispirited reaction to a fait accompli. "Our country was founded with Christian principles in mind," bemoans one female resident of an Atlanta suburb, "and when the public school system started, they were allowed to pray." Now, she laments that "the Christians are being pushed aside."
Still, even she accepts that times have changed and that other religions should be included in school religious observances. Though a more objective reader might see this and other similar statements as evidence of a lukewarm tolerance for diversity, Wolfe detects the first stirrings of an enlightened age of religious brotherhood. He concludes on a typically upbeat note: "The most striking aspect of our interviews on [religion] is what they lacked: No one at any time, not even the strongest believers, used the word 'infidel.' " Of course, what would have been genuinely striking is if anyone had used the word "infidel," a term employed so infrequently in everyday language that many Americans probably couldn't define it.
Under the topic of religious values, Wolfe also examines attitudes toward homosexuals and is naively shocked to find that suburbanites don't like "queers." The reasons people give for their rejection of homosexuals are painfully familiar, ranging from simple scriptural prohibitions to bizarre moral rationalizations. "For Winston Cobb in Rancho Bernardo [Calif.], respect is reciprocal," Wolfe writes. "You are entitled to get it if you are willing to give it, but homosexuals, by their very nature, do not give respect to the majority's sensibilities."
I have no idea what Cobb is talking about. Or at least I hope I don't. Can he possibly mean that the majority sensibility is to hate gays, and that by merely being gay, homosexuals show their disrespect for the majority, which hates them, thereby proving themselves unworthy of respect? This moral pretzel-logic is so odious that I half-expected Wolfe to condemn it. But no, he manages to slap a smiley face on even this dangerous nonsense, writing that such arguments "at least represent an attempt to find a theoretical, primarily secular, justification. . . . [I]n that sense, they are open to counter-argument."
A chapter on patriotism is no more convincing. Wolfe claims that post-Vietnam Americans have achieved a "mature patriotism" that is neither as jingoistic as we once were nor as self-hating as many were following the Vietnam War. The result, concludes Wolfe, is that "[m]iddle-class Americans are now more demanding before they give their unthinking loyalty to anyone." But are they? Was it mature patriotism that fired public support for the Gulf War, a conflict justified first as a fight for democracy, then for oil and then for jobs? Again, Wolfe's arguments are undercut by his own respondents.
"Americans are the most generous, the most caring people in the world," says one woman from Sand Springs, Okla., who goes on to allow that though our government may have made some mistakes in the past, they were the results of good intentions. One wonders if this woman knows that our government (among other things) helped topple democratically elected governments in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. And if so, would she simply chalk up those "mistakes" to "good intentions"? (Wolfe appears to share his respondents' ignorance about the real world, at one point writing that "[u]nlike India or Japan, the very rich and the very poor are smaller classes here." India, OK. But Japan? A nation that, according to the World Bank, has half the income disparity found in the United States?)
In a similar vein, one of the most frequent comments made by respondents is that, in Wolfe's paraphrase: "The history of America is a history of generosity and caring." But surely generosity and caring are just part of the story of a country founded on the genocide of American Indians and built, in large measure, by slavery and class exploitation. The author never challenges the upper-middle class' tunnel vision when it comes to history. In the suburban world championed by Wolfe, those who cannot remember the past are, well, pretty darned happy.
In later chapters, we are treated to a hodgepodge of peculiar observations from both Wolfe and his respondents. Wolfe opines that "there are essentially two classes in America: not rich and poor, and not even black and white . . . but those who have younger children and those who do not." Having made this loopy claim, the author wisely moves on to another subject. In a discussion about race, one white, male suburbanite declares that "affirmative action is good, but I think it should be for everybody . . . all races, all genders, all citizens." After admitting that this man probably didn't understand what affirmative action is, Wolfe nevertheless defends the statement. "In his own way," writes Wolfe, implausibly, "he offered the common-sense remedy for polarization." More intelligible, if no more intelligent, is the assertion that the poor are impoverished primarily because they lack the good values embraced by wealthy suburban residents. Only one-fourth of respondents disagreed with this self-serving rationalization.
And if all this claptrap isn't enough, there is also a misogynist leitmotif running throughout the book: a sour theme repeated in endless discussions about "the problem" of women working outside of the home. In a list of the negative aspects of modern suburban life, for example, we find "divorce, women working, drug use and teenage pregnancy." As if women working were a social ill akin to drug abuse.
There is, however, some cautiously worded support for career women. "If a mother can work full-time and have everything under control at home," says one suburban resident, "more power to her." The problem is that Wolfe never asks his subjects to try substituting the word "father" in place of "mother" in the statement above. But then he wouldn't, for he shares his subjects' blind spot, at one point insisting that people should "understand that if they want women to work, they must accept family decline; whereas if they want to stop family decline, they will have to accept less of a role for working women." Apparently, a man's role is as immutable as the orbit of the planets. It is up to the woman to adapt, sacrifice and change for the sake of the family.
Wolfe concludes with a chilling observation: The primary life goal of his subjects is to "be in the middle," to not stand out from the herd. Not surprisingly, he defends this dumbing-down of moral expectations. "As distraught as one may be to live in a morally mediocre society," Wolfe writes, "there are benefits that should never be ignored." Such as? Well, according to the author, at least this way we're safe from zealots. How can he have gotten it so wrong? It is precisely this compulsion to always "be in the middle" that allows people to stand silently by as others are marched off into the bloody ditch of history.
"One Nation" is a disappointing and troubling book. The cover promises a probing study that "shatters the myths of middle America." But the author is no maverick thinker. In the end, he is just a suburban sheep in Wolfe's clothing, scurrying for the safety of the (upper) middle.