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Lost Horizon

A VISIONARY NATION: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead, By Zachary Karabell, HarperCollins: 246 pp., $26

September 02, 2001|JAMES CEASER | James Ceaser is the author of "Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought" and the co-author of "The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election."

It is difficult to decide whether Zachary Karabell, author of "A Visionary Nation," should be applauded for audacity or faulted for foolhardiness. The great scope of his undertaking, proclaimed in the subtitle "Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead," would be enough to deter the boldest of thinkers. But Karabell, identified on the book jacket as having a doctorate in history from Harvard University, plunges ahead.

Karabell is surely no historian in the usual sense. He writes as much about the future as about the past, devoting nearly half of the book to discussing where America is going. Karabell might therefore better be labeled a futurologist or perhaps a prophet. But neither of these descriptions seems quite to fit either: Karabell derives his claim to knowledge of "what lies ahead" not from extrapolations of current trends nor from divine instruction but from having discovered a cycle that has operated across the whole course of American history.

What is this cycle? American history, according to Karabell, has been dominated by a succession of "visions," each of which congeals at a certain point and then holds sway for an entire era. Neither economics, nor demographics nor political imperatives drive history; rather, it is driven by what George Bush \o7 pere\f7 once referred to as "the vision thing." Karabell is thus a proponent of the school of history that asserts the preeminence of ideas. But he is an idealist of a particular sort. In the American case, he argues, only ideas of a certain kind have been able to succeed. America is distinct in buying into visions that are, well, visionary: utopian and unrealistic, based on a belief that "it is possible to have it all, [that] not just a few people can have it all, but all of us can."

This utopianism supplies the key to the generation of the cycles. As a vision always promises more than it can deliver, it runs up against the shoals of reality and inevitably leaves some disillusioned. From the ranks of the disillusioned comes a replacement vision: "Only when ... a critical mass of people begin to express discontent and actively seek alternatives can the change from one stage to the next occur," as Karabell writes. Vision-arianism produces its own gravediggers. The cycle thus described--vision, disillusionment, replacement vision--has continually repeated itself since the Puritan's arrival, producing the following sequence of visions: Religion (1620-1740), Individualism (1740-1790), Unity (1790-1870), Expansion (1870-1930), Government (1930-1990) and Market (1990-the present).

Karabell's technique of ascribing one vision to each era allows for an economical compression of history. Everything within an era is organized around a single value. That value establishes a kind of moral hierarchy that honors those who live in accord with it and marginalizes or even punishes those who do not--until, of course, disillusionment sets in and metes out a rough justice. Karabell is at his best in these historical sketches, drawing easily from diverse sources to sustain his account. He has a clear and vigorous style that disdains the use of complex sentences and that emulates an Ernest Hemingway rather than, say, an Edward Gibbon.

Yet Karabell is a prisoner of a flawed theoretical framework. His claim--that all American thought is utopian--forces him to fit all instances of political creativity into the same mold, insisting in effect that there is no qualitative distinction to be made among, say, John Winthrop, Steve Jobs and James Madison. But are they all really cut from the same cloth, touting the same "heady images of a perfect future"? Take America's founders, for example. True, they acted with boldness on behalf of a vision that they depicted as "a new event in the history of mankind." But a vision is not the same thing as a vision that is utopian. That depends on the vision. The least acquaintance with the thinking of Washington, Madison and Hamilton, men known for their sobriety and realism, makes a mockery of the claim that they promised impossible ideals. Indeed, they were so conscious of the dangers of utopianism that they frequently inveighed against it. The proof, however, comes in the results: The Founders accomplished much of what they set out to accomplish. Karabell has flattened and homogenized his analysis of American political thought by adopting without serious examination a formula that requires all thought to be the same.

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