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Middle-Class Muddle

ONE NATION, AFTER ALL: What Middle Class Americans Really Think About: God, Country, Family, Poverty, Racism, Welfare, Homosexuality, Immigration, The Left, The Right and Each Other. By Alan Wolfe . Viking: 360 pp., $24.95

March 08, 1998|OSHA GRAY DAVIDSON | Osha Gray Davidson is the author of "Broken Heartland: The Rise of America's Rural Ghetto" and "The Enchanted Braid: Coming to Terms With Nature on the Coral Reef," to be published in April by John Wiley

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.

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