Vladimir Shlapentokh

Март 8, 2011

WHAT AMERICANS CAN’T DO IN THEIR PRIVATE AND PUBLIC LIFE: THE AUTHORITARIAN ELEMENTS IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 5:08 пп

I am looking for the professional social scientists who can be interested in this project and who can make a contribution to it.

PROPOSAL  FOR THE BOOK

WHAT AMERICANS CAN’T DO IN THEIR PRIVATE AND PUBLIC LIFE: THE EXPANSION OF RESTRICTIONS IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY

Vladimir Shlapentokh

This book has the ambitious goal of persuasively suggesting that the trend toward ever-increasing freedoms, which has been a distinct characteristic of the Western world since the late Middle Ages, has always been combined with an antithetical movement:  the curtailment of freedoms.  This second less-publicized trend has gathered considerable momentum in the last few decades and serves to make society even more complex than it was in the past.  We use the American experience of the last twenty to thirty years to prove this thesis.

          For many readers, particularly those whom are the most patriotic and smitten with their country, the title of this book, “What Americans Can’t Do In Their Public and Private Life,” will seem paradoxical or even downright weird.  After all, this is the land of the free.  Indeed, there is no country in the world with such a cult-like fascination with freedom as the United States has.  This intense focus on freedom has been there since the beginning, as it was a major rallying cry of the American Revolution.  In fact, throughout history no other revolutionaries keyed in on the concept of freedom as much as the Yankees did.  But it is not just Americans that see the United States as a beacon of freedom.

          Despite the rabid anti-Americanism across the globe, most of the world’s people continue to see America as the ultimate symbol of freedom, which is one of the reasons why the desire to emigrate to the U.S. from almost anywhere in the world has not waned for over a century.  However, to see American society as one in which people enjoy –or should enjoy as suggest the libertarians –unadulterated freedom in all spheres of life is very unrealistic and simplistic.

          The authors of this book accept a pragmatic definition of freedom:  the ability of people to choose one of many alternatives available to him or her in a certain sphere of life.  In fact, the expansion of alternatives available to people in their everyday life was one of the magisterial developments in American history.  Consider many of the most heralded constitutional amendments such as the 1st Amendment, which promised the freedom of religion, press, and expression, the 2nd Amendment, which gave Americans the right to bear arms, the 13th Amendment, which gave former slaves the right to be citizens, and the 19th Amendment which allowed women to vote.  All of the above expanded the availability of alternatives.  These amendments gave more freedom to the people.  Some other amendments used a slightly different means to reach the same end as they focused on restricting the government’s legal authority to interfere with the freedoms of private citizens.  For instance, the 4th amendment made it necessary for governmental entities to obtain a warrant prior to performing many searches, and the 5th amendment protected the property of citizens from arbitrary seizures.

          Although a solid case can be made that freedom expansion has been occurring since the inception of the United States, a new spurt of freedom growth occurred after the 1960s in tune with the civil right movement.  What started when Rosa Parks defiantly refused to observe the restriction which did not allow her to take any free seat on the bus ultimately resulted in the removal of various restrictions that were previously imposed on women and other minorities.     

While gradually expanding freedoms, American society has also been concerned with introducing various restrictions not only on its government, as previously stated, but also on its people.  As a matter of fact, most rules of society are restrictive society, while very few serve as guarantors of freedom.  This society, with all of its Lockean respect for human beings, rejected the romantic idea that people could just rely on the inherent rationality or learned virtues of one another in achieving a prosperous and kind society.  Instead, at least to a degree, Americans recognized the need for restricting the actions of people.

          Indeed, further evidence of the process towards the curtailment of freedoms can be seen by looking at a related trend –we name it “civilizing” –which has played a very important role in American society since the very beginning.  This trend was brilliantly described in Norman Elias’s book The Civilizing Process (1939).  Elias posits that the process towards civility began in the late Middle Ages when the people started to obey restrictions which did not permit people to throw garbage out their windows or to eat meet without a fork and knife.

            The acceleration of the civilizing trend in American has been inspired by a variety of things.   Firstly, due to the growing concerns about accommodating “others,” numerous restrictions have been adopted during the last few decades.  For instance, language that derides or offends any one of many particular groups has been banned.  Secondly, restrictions have been placed on the educational system, many in hopes of overcoming the rich racist heritage of the country.  Thirdly, society has become more involved with protecting human beings against dangerous habits like smoking, unhealthy fat consumption, imbibing of alcohol, and recreational drug use.  Fourthly, with concerns about the integrity of the physical environment permeating the public consciousness, many restrictions have been levied on citizen behavior in hopes of protecting the Earth’s vast ecology.  Lastly, due to the increasing salience of terrorist threats and in hopes of stymieing potential attacks in their tracks, freedoms, such as those related to privacy, have also been limited.

          Something that has both contributed to the expansion and restriction of freedoms is technological innovation.  Often, the implementation of new technology triggers hot debates about how much freedom a person should be granted in using it. Take, for instance, cell phone usage. While this miraculous new technology expanded the ways in which people could communicate enormously, society quickly and vehemently begun the discussion regarding which restrictions should be put on cell phone usage.  Many of these restrictions are so ubiquitous that most of us blindly comply, apathetically failing to consider neither rhyme nor reason for the restrictions.  Consider that before the departure of each flight the flight attendant asks passengers to turn off their cell phones. The same request is often addressed to spectators in a movie theatre, the audience in a concert hall, or the student in the classroom.  These restrictions limit the alternatives available to the people.

          The authors of this book describe and analyze the role of restrictions in the major spheres of everyday life of Americans (the restrictions which limit the behavior of individuals as actors in their professional spheres in which they earn their income will be the subject of another book). We discuss the impact of restrictions on the life of Americans as consumers of education, health service, entertainment, and sex.  In addition, we will also elucidate the ways in which Americans are limited in what they are allowed to do at the beach or theatre.  We show that even from the insides of their own homes, the behaviors of Americans are severely limited by restriction.   As citizens, people are regularly confronted with the push and pull of freedom and the limits imposed on it.  The election process, a person’s communication with “others,” and almost all other actions that occur in our public and private worlds are shaped by the options, or lack thereof, available to us.

           For the purposes of this book, we will exclusively be looking at the freedoms available to a person as a consumer, as a member of various personal relationships with others, and as a citizen.  Essentially, the portion of an individual’s life which can be lumped together under the rubric “every-day life” will be the domain in which we elucidate and critically analyze the presence of freedom restrictions.   How a person is limited in his or her work life will, for the most part, be the subject matter of a future book.

          Along with identifying the various limitations of freedom, another important goal of this book is to illuminate the controversial nature of each restriction and sketch the major arguments of the political discourse surrounding these incendiary issues.  To be sure, the restrictions mentioned in this book form the basis of many hot political debates.  For instance, particularly fervent discussions persist around whether or not people should be allowed to have guns, abortions, or be forced to submit to intense screening prior to boarding a commercial jetliner. 

                   This book and its bold agenda should attract much attention both within the U.S. and abroad.  In fact, in the last two decades no one book has been published that could be treated as a rival to this one.  Two contemporary books are related to our subject: How To Do Things With Rules by British authors William Twining and David Miers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Practical Rules by American author Alan Goldman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).  These are useful texts for studying the legal and moral issues related to the behavior of the individual; however, both books avoid sociological analysis of the issue and the role of society and its agents in defining rules and, in particular, restrictions. The authors of both books do not even use the concept of restrictions (or of constraints or prohibitions) and do not separate, at the theoretical level, the freedom of choice and the manifestation of restrictions. The first book discusses rules in a narrow, almost exclusively legal way, mainly focusing on the interpretation of rules.  Indeed, the book by Twining and Miers, which is clearly addressed to law school students, does not analyze the broader social issues related to the debates surrounding the role of restrictions in society.  While Goldman’s book takes a different substantive bend, it still does not enter the zone of sociological analysis, as it is mostly focuses on the moral issues involved with rules.

          There are also books that discuss restrictions in some particular area of life, for instance, in regards to the conservation of nature, in the use of private property, or in what American’s are allowed to eat.  However, all of these texts have very narrow perspectives.  At the same time, dozens of books, mostly of the libertarian persuasion, promote the idolatry of freedom of choice and a simplistic vision of American society, both as it is and as it should be.  Even those books which denounce the violation of civil rights by the government approach the issue largely ignoring its complexity.

          Our book provides a broader, more inclusive, and more nuanced sociological analysis of various restrictions built into the fabric of the society in which we currently live than do the aforementioned texts.  Also, our book accurately characterizes the sharp debates in America and abroad about the role of freedom of choice and government in contemporary society.  However, we do not wish to join an ideological camp in relation to these issues, and thus hope the contents of our book will provide readers a fresh non-partisan look at American society.  Furthermore, due to our intent to remain value-neutral throughout the pages of our book, we hope that our text can provide readers an impartial background that can be useful in helping them define their own position on these important issues.

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