Staff Pick: The Real State of America Atlas

July 26, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 2 4 min read

coverIf you’re thinking about taking a road trip in America this summer, you might want to consider leaving the GPS and the Rand McNally at home and, in their place, packing a bewitching new book called The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States by Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager.  While it won’t help you negotiate those ring-shaped parking lots around Atlanta or Washington, D.C., this idiosyncratic travel guide will reveal how life is lived today in any state you happen to pass through.  By the time you finish digesting the book’s short essays, colorful graphics, charts and maps, you’ll understand that the 50 states were not created equal.  Geography does matter. Enormously.

As its subtitle suggests, the book’s authors set out to strip away the popular myths that distort many Americans’ view of their homeland and its place in the world. The authors accomplished this by analyzing a small mountain of data, including U.S. Census reports, the findings of prisoner rights research groups, the United Nations, the Pew Foundation and organizations monitoring college athletics, plus Bureau of Labor statistics and corporate annual reports. They then synthesized this data to produce a series of vivid snapshots about America’s distribution of wealth, religious attitudes, employment, home ownership and homelessness, sickness and health, prisons, immigration, gun ownership, environmental degradation, corporate power, military spending, and even the worldwide popularity of the Barbie doll.  (She’s huge in Italy and the United Kingdom.)

The findings are by turns surprising, predictable, frightening, encouraging, amusing, and maddening.  For instance, we learn again and again that Texas is a state of extremes: it has executed the most people since 1976 (463); it has the highest percentage of hunters (Pennsylvania ranks second); it has sacrificed more of its citizens to the Iraq War than any other state except California (414 to 468, with Pennsylvania a distant third at 195); it has the highest percentage of citizens without health insurance (26 percent); and it has a gross domestic product equal to Russia’s.

While such facts are interesting in themselves and valuable for the global perspective they provide, they are not this book’s greatest strength. Where The Real State of America Atlas truly shines is in its demolition of the notion – the enduring fantasy – that America is a land of equal opportunity, a place where boundless bounty awaits anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules.  With a relentless parade of statistics, the authors make a compelling case that the playing field is far from level and the American Dream is, increasingly, becoming the destiny of the privileged few as it slips beyond the reach of most members of the middle class.  Forget about the poor.

Consider these numbers: there are 413 billionaires in America with a combined net worth of $1.4 trillion; the richest 1 percent of Americans own 35 percent of the total wealth; the poorest 40 percent own 0.2 percent of the wealth; 19 percent of American households have zero or negative wealth.  “Almost a fifth of American households have an annual income of less than $20,000,” the authors write, “and 15 percent of Americans live at or below official poverty levels… The wealth gap in the U.S. is considerable and growing fast.” Yet even as the federal budget went from a $236 billion surplus to a $1.5 trillion deficit in the past decade, many lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, insist that continued tax breaks for the rich are vital for the country. The super-rich aren’t the only culprits in our looming national debt crisis. More than half of the foreign companies and 42 percent of U.S. companies doing business on American soil paid zero federal income tax for two or more years between 1998 and 2005. In 2009, General Electric, Bank of America, and CitiGroup paid exactly nothing. Only in America.

Sometimes the book’s statistics merely buttress the obvious – Americans are religious, they own a lot of guns, they love sports and cars, they’re increasingly conservative and insanely overweight, they’re not much interested in what’s happening beyond their national borders, and, for a people descended largely from immigrants, they’re oddly suspicious and resentful of recent immigrants. That said, the authors do sometimes counter well-known facts with counter-intuitive anecdotes, such as the revelation that for all the God-fearing that goes on in America, the number of atheists and agnostics has doubled, from 8 to 16 percent of the population, in the past 30 years.

covercoverIt’s worth pausing here to consider the authors’ bona fides. Cynthia Enloe is a political science professor at Clark University and the author of 11 books, including The Curious Feminist and Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War.  Joni Seager, a geographer and global policy expert, teaches at Bentley University in Boston and has written many books, including four editions of Atlas of Women in the World.  Given such credentials, it’s perhaps not surprising that the authors occasionally leave themselves open to the criticism that they’re promoting a leftist, feminist agenda. Worse, they sometimes slip into muzzy writing, such as: “Despite a long history of peace activism, many Americans have absorbed militaristic ideas: for instance, believing that soldiering is the highest form of patriotism, that the world is full of enemies, that protecting against terrorists trumps civil rights, that men are the natural protectors of women, that jet bombers overhead make sporting events exciting, and that Commander-in-Chief is the President’s most important job.” No doubt many Americans do believe these things. Just as surely, many don’t believe them. But how many? And what do these competing beliefs tell us about the nation at large? Unfortunately, the authors don’t say.

But such missteps don’t diminish this book’s real and valuable achievements.  Enloe and Seager have produced a timely reminder that America is a place where the deck is stacked, where the rich keep getting richer, and where nothing is going to change until the members of the great, duped, sinking middle class wake up and realize they’ve been sold a bill of goods.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

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