What, Me Worry? New Book Says Lots of Americans Do

Posted: April 5, 2010 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: April 2, 2010 at 2:38 pm

By James Greif

Hugh Gusterson. Photo courtesy of Hugh Gusterson

These days, Americans feel like there is plenty to be worried about. Terrorist attacks, crime, rising health care costs, massive debt, shrinking retirement plans and a high unemployment rate are just some of the things keeping us up at night.

Four anthropologists at George Mason University, with the help of colleagues around the world, are exploring American anxiousness in “The Insecure American: How We Got Here and What We Should Do About It.”

The book is a collection of 17 essays from some of the nation’s leading ethnographers, edited by Mason professor of anthropology Hugh Gusterson and Colby College’s Catherine Besteman. The book has a foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Bait and Switch” and “Nickel and Dimed.”

In addition to the contributions from Mason professors, the book contains chapters by anthropologists at many of the world’s top universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University and the University of London.

“At this moment and time, because of the conjuncture of war on terror and the shift in the economic system, the pervasive feeling in America right now is one of insecurity,” Gusterson says.

Gusterson and Besteman worked together on a previous book, “Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong,” and the editors wanted to follow a similar model for this effort.

“The model we followed is to try to get anthropologists to write without footnotes in a comprehensive, jargon-free manner and address issues of concern for ordinary people,” Gusterson says.

Gusterson refers to the anthropological technique employed by the contributors as “deep hanging out.”

He feels that a general audience will be able to appreciate the themes of the book because the writings have a human element and are not based solely on dry statistics.

“The hallmark of the anthropological technique is that you talk to people and you bring back into your writing what people told you.”

The Mason anthropologists who contributed to the book come from several departments  across the university in addition to Gusterson’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

“It’s a testament to [Mason’s] interdisciplinary nature that we have these hidden anthropological assets within the university,” Gusterson says.

Mason contributors to “The Insecure American” include Roger Lancaster, professor of anthropology and director of the Cultural Studies Program. In the chapter “Republic of Fear,” Lancaster argues that development of an authoritarian culture in the United States has been in development for quite some time and is evidenced by the large number of people incarcerated in the nation’s penitentiaries.

Janine Wedel, professor in the School of Public Policy, contributes a chapter on what the neoconservative movement reveals about the state of America today, especially as it relates to the war on terror and missteps in the war in Iraq.

Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution professor Susan Hirsch draws upon her experience as a survivor of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to reflect on the effects of law on the government’s approach to the war on terror. Hirsch previously wrote a full-length book on the subject titled “In the Moment of Greatest Calamity.”

Gusterson cites an essay on gated communities by City University of New York’s Setha M. Low as one that sums up the various themes of the book.

“There is a stark increase in the number of gated communities in the United States,” Gusterson says. “This signifies a trend where Americans retreat into enclaves, avoiding crime and interactions with a public the residents do not want to engage with.

“Many of the phenomena described in the book are felt worldwide because of globalization, but the issues are more pronounced in America. There is a particular shape to the insecurities that are more pronounced in this country, such as gated communities and high levels of incarceration.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu