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American Civilisation

In: English and Literature

Submitted By leo13
Words 9313
Pages 38
Stephen Mennell

America is a land of familiar paradoxes. An agreeable civility habitually prevails in most everyday relations among people in America – yet the United States is factually a socially highly unequal society. In most parts of America, the laws and social customs strongly restrain people from doing harm to themselves and others by smoking – yet the laws and social customs only weakly restrain people from doing harm to themselves and others by the use of guns, and the murder rate is about four times as high per capita as in Western Europe. The usa is the world’s remaining super-power – yet internally the American state is in some ways strikingly weak. The usa has ‘saved the world for democracy’ on more than one occasion – but has itself become an aggressive militaristic society. And there appears to be an increasing divergence between how a large proportion of Americans view themselves and their country and how they are perceived by a large proportion of the 95 per cent of the world’s population who are not Americans.

Hunting down myths
It has been said that sociologists must be ‘myth-hunters’, tracking down popular beliefs that are ill founded (Elias 1978: 50-70). Whether simply exposing such beliefs to contrary evidence deployed by academics is sufficient to kill off myths and bring them home for mounting on the walls of our university departments is highly debateable. Nevertheless, we have a duty to call them in question, and enter into debate with those who want to keep them alive in the big-game reserve of public opinion. In my recent book The American Civilizing Process (Mennell 2007), I set out to see how far Norbert Elias’s theory of civilising and decivilising processes needed to be modified in the light of American history and how far it applied unchanged to the development of the usa.…...

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