Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Mania

American Mania: When More Isn't Enough
© 2005 Peter Whybrow
338 pages

The title "American Mania" caught my eye as I wandered through library bookcases trying to familiarize myself with the library's recent reshuffling of the shelves after a discarding period: everything seems a bit out of place. The book was in the oh-so-small sociology section, and its contents immediately gained my interest. Like Erich Fromm and M. Scott Peck, Peter Whybrow uses his diagnostic training in psychiatry to examine society at large. Unlike them, he grounds his analysis in biology. Simply put, Whybrow attempts to make the case that the culture of the United States has developed far out of sync with our biology -- and looks for possible solutions.

Given its scope, the book is surprisingly small -- it winds its way through biology, psychology, economics, history, and politics, ending with philosophy. Whybrow begins by looking at why consumerism thrives in the United States, exploring the biological heritage of its citizens and speculating that most Americans are the descendants of generations of adventurous and risk-taking migrants whose curiosity and inventiveness have helped create a supereconomy -- enabled by the perfect governmental and economic system, a classically liberal republic dedicated to material prosperity through laissez-faire capitalism. The two key components are like a flame and kindling -- together, they create a roaring fire. A key aspect of the United State's biological constitution is that the allele so common in the United States that Whybrow associates with risk-taking is also associated with addictive behavior -- an origin of the manic behavior he will address later. A nation composed of risk-takers combined with a government that promotes and thrives on risk-taking behavior are an explosive combination in Whybrow's opinion, and they have the promise of boundless prosperity -- so long as the financial system is held in check by societal pressure (the more "humanizing" aspects of culture like a sense of community or religion ) and governmental regulation.

There's the problem. After delighting in the United States' economic growth throughout the 20th century (its general growth, even taking into account the Depression and recession of the '70s), Whybrow laments at what began happening in the nineteen-eighties. Not only did the "conservative revolution" remove the breaks from the roaring locomotive that is the American economy, but the technological boom allowed for even more instantaneous communication, making the world far too small and busy for human beings to live comfortably in it. Adding to his distress is that culture, which was supposed to keep economic growth in its place, has either been re-written or rendered impotent. The result of this is much unpleasantness -- obesity, stress-related illnesses, and the near-complete alienation of humanity from its natural and healthy societal norms: healthy family life, intimate communities, healthy sleep cycles, a good diet, exercise. Manic consumerism is like a cancerous cell: its growth is unchecked, it is unnatural, it is harming its host, and it is spreading -- not only in industrializing countries, but in nations like Britain and France that are being overwhelmed by the tide of American culture. Ultimately, there's not much that can be done, and Whybrow seems to hint that the cancer will continue to grow unless more people become aware of the problem and mindful of the power of culture itself. What will become of us if this does not happen is only hinted at darkly: the United States in the novella Manna comes to mind,

Whybrow writes well, and I think he makes his case fairly -- but the book could have been much stronger. Given that (as Whybrow notes himself) the disconnect between society and biological needs is developing in other industrializing countries, I think Whybrow's criticisms of what economies based on manic consumption do to their societies could have stood on their own, without his work on America's biological composition being mentioned. I can't make an intelligent comment on it, but it seems a bit far-fetched. When Whybrow writes (apparently surprised) about culture being used by the economics system, he is unwittingly noticing the same thing that Karl Marx, Erich Fromm, and Neil Postman noted: economic and technological systems shape the cultures they are introduced into, even if they are the initial products of those cultures. I think if Whybrow had connected his work to other criticisms -- particularly those from the Frankfurt school -- the overall effect of his argument might have been increased. As it is, Whybrow seems to be surprised that human culture has been subjugated by those forces. Also, although he explains why people become enslaved to their work, he doesn't really address why people become obsessed with buying other than referring to the addictive effect buying can have on many people.

Overall, a very readable book with a valid core criticism despite weaknesses in the way the argument is made.

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