Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book review: The "American Way"

Something a little different today...

A year or two ago I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Allan Carlson, a leading spokesman and scholar for the Agrarian movement in the U.S.  Basically, and I am radically oversimplifying here, Agrarian thought emphasizes rural life over urbanism (well, obviously!), family-centered over factory-based economies, and small inter-dependent communities over "the system" -- whatever the system is.  It has been proposed as a middle ground between the political left and right, a place where the people who talk about "earth friendly" and "buy local" and the "traditional family values" people can meet and do some good in the world.  I think it has potential, although calling it a "movement" might be giving it too much credit for organization at this point.  It certainly resonates with me; my great-grandparents were a mix of Democrat and Republican, but they all had farm life in common.  I think there is a yearning in many of us to return to a simpler way of life, but a media-driven, cynical culture has little but scorn for the institutions and people who made this country great.  In our eagerness to appear sophisticated, I think we neglect what made our ancestors decent and good.

I recently finished Carlson's 2003 book The "American Way": Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity.  This is a good book to read as an introduction to Agrarian philosophy and as a history of a now-neglected idea.  In a series of six scholarly articles, he traces the development of the ideal of American family life from the time of one Roosevelt to another, and then its subsequent suburbification and decline in the post WW2 era.  Along the way, I was fascinated to learn about the German immigrants who shaped family-friendly policies for generations to come; the "Maternalists" who supported the New Deal and the feminists who opposed it; and the culture-changing good intentions of Life magazine.  This is a descriptive, rather than prescriptive book; only at the end are a few general guidelines for policy proposed.  These include affirmation of marriage and family, recognition of the different economic and social functions of men and women, deindustrialization and return of control to the family (as seen in the rise of home schooling), celebration of babies, and protection of communities (religious or secular) that support families.

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