Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Russell Duncan & Joseph Goddard, Contemporary America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, $29.95, xiv-350 pages, ISBN 1-4039-4864-X)—Stefano Luconi, University of Florence


A volume in Palgrave Macmillan’s “Contemporary States and Societies” series, Contemporary America intends to offer a lively account of the multifaceted aspects of present-day United States with special emphasis on history, geography, society, immigration, religion, education, social policy, culture, government, economy, foreign policy, and the political system. In particular, the authors—Russell Duncan and Joseph Goddard—endeavor to highlight the complexity of the United States and the inconsistencies of this nation. They suggest that the country is so composite and diverse that anyone can eventually find what somehow fulfills his or her expectations. They also contend that such articulation results in numerous contradictions. On a broad level, the greatest one is the disparity between the principles of equality and freedom, whose proclamation and pursuit have shaped the whole course of the U.S. history since the Declaration of Independence of the British colony in North America, and their only partial enactment not only in the past but also in contemporary United States. There are, however, numerous specific cases that reveal the discrepancy of ideals and reality. For instance, the U.S. Constitution mandates an uncompromising separation between State and Church. Yet, as Duncan and Goddard aptly point out, references to God characterize currency and the Pledge of Allegiance as well as the official statements and behavior of the country’s president. Similarly, the promotion of democracy abroad as an appendix to President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” is clearly at odds with the establishment of a national security state, which entailed the setting aside of civil liberties by the 2001 Patriot Act, and the notorious violation of Iraqi prisoners’ human rights by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. Likewise, while the United States is one of the most affluent nations in the world, wealth is unevenly distributed domestically and many other Western democracies score higher on average when measuring quality of life, environmental protection, health care, primary education, and personal security.

Racial discrimination is probably an additional challenge to U.S. idealism. Duncan and Goddard admit that equality in this field “remains a dream deferred” [144]. Still, they are rather noncommittal about this matter. Their references to race riots do not go beyond 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Neither African-American driver Rodney King nor the 1992 turmoil in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the white police officers charged with beating him is ever mentioned. The last photograph in the volume portrays George W. Bush kissing Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American female Secretary of State in U.S. history. This image and its caption stressing both “her rise from poverty” to become “one of President Bush’s closest confidantes” and “her continuing belief in the American Dream” seem to point to African Americans’ eventual assimilation within American society [282]. Indeed, oddly enough, Swedish economist Gunther Myrdal is cited only once, for his belief that improvement through education is the essence of Americanism [169], while his pivotal study about the ever-widening gap between the U.S. concept of equality and the actual conditions of African Americans is ignored [An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1944)].

The divergence of an imagined America in the world’s dreams from the reality of the United States in foreign perception is another issue that Duncan and Goddard make a point of examining. They outline the rise of the United States to the status of an almost unchallenged superpower by the turn of the twenty-first century. But they also stress that such preeminence is not necessarily a source of worldwide consensus for Washington. Rather, dominance has stimulated hostility and hatred as shown by the debate on the U.S. international stand after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Resorting to either Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci’s category [Peter Ives, “The Grammar of Hegemony,” Left History 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1997): 85-104] or former Assistant Secretary of State Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s thesis [Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004)], even though they acknowledge neither, Duncan and Goddard conclude that “primacy is not the same as hegemony” [255]. In their view, what has jeopardized Washington’s relations with other countries is that “the United States has no real experience in dealing with equals” and, therefore, tends to embrace unilateral approaches generating antagonism in case of disagreements with its own partners [255].

Against this backdrop, the authors deal with the nowadays conventional question of whether the twentieth century was the “American Century.” Neglecting both publisher Henry Luce, who was the first to conceive such a definition in 1941 [“The American Century,” Life 17 February 1941], and historian Olivier Zunz, who has written one of the most perceptive essays on this subject [Why the American Century? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)], Duncan and Goddard point to the “Americanization” of popular culture and mass consumption besides the political and military predominance of the United States on the world stage as well as its leadership in globalization. This topic, however, would have deserved further investigation, including an analysis of the spheres of life that have not been shaped by U.S. influence. For example, political scientist Kevin Phillips has recently and rather provocatively emphasized the transformation of the United States into a “theocracy” with the Republican Party as the country’s first religious party [American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006)]. Nonetheless, the growing pervasiveness of religion in U.S. everyday life, which Duncan and Goddard themselves rightly stress, has failed to make significant inroads into other Western countries that have undertaken a U.S.-style process of modernization in the course of the twentieth century. Indeed, as the authors admit, contrary to the religious revival affecting the United States in the last few decades, modernization has come hand in hand with secularization in industrialized nations.

A revised and updated version of its 2003 edition, the book under review here includes new sections on the second half of George W. Bush’s first term and the president’s 2004 reelection. On the one hand, the authors underscore that the Bush administration marked a turning point in U.S. foreign policy. Not only did the American government turn to multilateralism in coping with international relations; it also discontinued previous preservation of the status quo and embarked on a strategy of direct nation building and military intervention in order to promote representative democracy, especially in the Middle East, as the war in Iraq has demonstrated. On the other hand, Bush cashed in on the US’s growing polarization between liberalism and conservatism that he himself had exacerbated by overemphasizing family and religious issues. Consequently, in 2004, Bush succeeded in mobilizing a disproportionate number of theretofore inactive voters who cherished moral values and delivered a Republican plurality that enabled him to serve a second term. Duncan and Goddard quite obviously conclude that Bush’s legacy and the preservation of American leadership in world affairs rest on the eventual outcome of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, especially as for the stabilization of a democratic regime.

Contemporary America is overall a pleasant and enticing reading. The text purposely intertwines standard and colloquial American English, possibly in order to appeal to a foreign readership, and is enriched by maps, photographs, and tables. Regrettably, however, the contents of the volume hardly match the elegant form and layout of the book. One would gladly overlook the nowadays standard deference to political correctness that leads the authors to list Native American shamanism among U.S. religions (although the number of its adherents is so negligible that Duncan and Goddard themselves are unable to quantify it in a subsequent table with figures about the sizes of the major congregations), to make preventive amends for the use of the word “America” instead of United States in the title, to state that “America was born in violence and change as Europeans fought Indians” [8] or to include the migration of Siberian hunters to Alaska “between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago” [6] in an overview of contemporary United States. Hardly anybody could reproach Duncan and Goddard for being more than careful with potential readers among minority groups. Conversely, their politically-motivated statements are less excusable. For instance, few informed readers are likely to agree that the Vietnam War “drifted into genocide” during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson [31].

In view of the primary purpose of the book as an introduction to American studies for students and general readers, Duncan and Goddard should have refrained from such controversial interpretations, especially because they do not take the trouble to corroborate their arguments with any kind of evidence. Scholars will also take issue with the authors’ tendency to quote from book reviews when they refer to the interpretations of previous studies, a practice that Duncan and Goddard may not reasonably accept from their own students. For example, although the authors list Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Knopf, 2003) in their bibliography, a citation from this volume is indeed taken from a New York Times review [255].

Nonetheless, what is most disturbing in Contemporary America is an almost unbelievably long series of misprints and factual errors that have incredibly survived the scrutiny of proof-reading, editors at such a reputed publisher as Palgrave Macmillan, reviewers of the 2003 volume, and the whole revision process to produce the 2005 edition, since many of them refer to a period that was already covered in the previous edition. A very short sample of such mistakes include the 1986 bombing of the West Berlin disco that triggered off Ronald Reagan’s air-strike retaliation against Libya misplaced to Munich [33]; the existence of the Reform Party in 1992 [111, 125], while Ross Perot established it four years later after making his first presidential bid as an independent; the assertion that the Aid to Family with Dependent Children was part of the New Deal legislation [187] (the program was instead established under President John F. Kennedy in 1962 to extend the subsides of the 1935 Aid to Dependent Children to needy children with both parents); the setting of the seats in the House of Representatives at 435 in 1912 [119], actually a 1929 decision; the 1948 G.I. Bill [171], which was conversely enacted in 1944; “the 1980 overthrow of the Shah of Iran” [252], which occurred in 1979; the contention that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was the “Israeli President” [281].

These and other blunders may sound like venal oversights resulting from a narrative written in a hurry. Such a partial justification, however, does not stand when Duncan and Goddard clearly distort events and turn upside-down the consequences of their misstatements. For example, they mention a U.S. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda [36], a country where civil war and ethnic cleansing were exacerbated because of Bill Clinton’s refusal to intervene after an alleged U.S. debacle in Somalia, and contend that “in 2003, Bush began to reform Medicare by cutting payment for prescription drugs” [187], while it was the Republican president who extended Medicare benefit by introducing refunds for prescription drugs. Additional statements sound at least far fetched. For instance, that Clinton eventually “admitted that he had lied under oath” about the nature of his involvement with Monica Lewinsky [37] is undeniably at odds with the former president’s contention that his denial of a sexual relation with the White House intern was a “legally accurate” statement [“Address to the Nation on Testimony Before the Independent Counsel’s Grand Jury,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton, 1998 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1999) 1457].

A previous praise for the 2003 edition, cited on the back cover, claims that “[A]nyone reading the volume—whether new student or experienced scholar—will come away from it better informed.” It is too bad that such words are hardly anything more than clever marketing.

Cercles2006
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.