AuthorAppleton, Michael
PositionBOOKS - Book review


Author: Thomas Frank

Published by: Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2018, 240pp, A$27.99.

Historian Thomas Frank is not a fan of the contemporary United States of America. Rendezvous With Oblivion, his collection of essays previously published in the likes of Harpers and the Guardian, is all doom and gloom.

During the book's first half, Frank delivers essay after apocalyptic essay sketching different elements of a society the author believes is falling apart.

To summarise Frank's fulminating theses in a paragraph: the United States' ruling class lacks empathy for its fellow Americans; the homes of wealthy Americans are uniformly grotesque; the US food industry produces standardised, industrialised nutrition, while treating its employees poorly, American airports have become obscene advertisements for capitalism; efforts to market American towns as 'vibrant' for tourism and economic purposes are shallow and callow; and the American higher education system has become predatory and a seller of illusory dreams to desperate students trying to get ahead.

Frank really has only one note--smug, self-satisfied, condescending scorn--and, after a while, it becomes wearying and dispiriting, regardless of what you think of his politics. What is the point of all this gloomy prognosticating if you are not even attempting to offer any prescriptions for all that you believe ills the society you are analysing? And would it hurt Frank to acknowledge the undoubtedly positive aspects of American society, and its contributions to the world over the past generation?

To offer but a few suggestions by way of balance: American cultural products--such as movies, TV shows, music, news, communication technologies--are consumed voraciously the world over, indicating humanity finds them valuable; organics are a far larger part of the American food chain than in most other industrialised countries; over 22 million people--roughly the population of Australia--applied last year to enter the green card lottery, hoping for the chance to live in the United States; the American higher education system has more world top 50 universities than any other country, the US economy still churns out year after year a GDP per capita that is the envy of the world; it produces far more wealth for each American than, say, the Canadian, German or Australian economies do; and wealthy Americans give more to charity than their rich counterparts in other Western societies.


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