Summary and book reviews of Fortress America by Elaine Tyler May

Fortress America

How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy

by Elaine Tyler May

Fortress America by Elaine Tyler May X
Fortress America by Elaine Tyler May
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  • Published:
    Dec 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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Book Summary

An award-winning historian untangles the roots of America's culture of fear, and argues that it imperils our democracy.

For the last sixty years, fear has seeped into every area of American life: Americans own more guns than citizens of any other country, sequester themselves in gated communities, and retreat from public spaces. And yet, crime rates have plummeted, making life in America safer than ever. Why, then, are Americans so afraid - and where does this fear lead to?

In this remarkable work of social history, Elaine Tyler May demonstrates how our obsession with security has made citizens fear each other and distrust the government, making America less safe and less democratic. Fortress America charts the rise of a muscular national culture, undercutting the common good. Instead of a thriving democracy of engaged citizens, we have become a paranoid, bunkered, militarized, and divided vigilante nation.



THE BUNKER MENTALITY

Fear is a potent force in America, and it has taken many forms throughout this nation's history. Perhaps at no point was fear more widespread than in the years after World War II, which witnessed major political, social, and cultural upheavals. In particular, fears of atomic attack, communist subversives, crime, and physical harm at the hands of strangers have affected social norms, election results, public policies, and daily life. This fear has generated the security state defining the place of the United States in the world ever since the early years of the Cold War. At the same time it has fostered a security culture, a bunker mentality, within the country. This book is an effort to understand how that state of mind developed, how it evolved throughout the twentieth century, and what it has meant for the nation and its citizens up to the present day. Why have Americans become so fearful? How has that fear been expressed and addressed in the nation's ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

In Fortress America, Elaine Tyler May presents a fascinating but alarming portrait of America's recent history and the effect of events upon its citizens. Beginning with the threats posed by the Cold War, she examines the different fears that have gripped the nation in subsequent decades—fears that are often not substantiated by the facts. However it provides only a one-sided view. While Fortress America is certainly a thought-provoking and informative read, particularly about the 1950s and '60s, May seems less of an objective voice on more recent events.   (Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
In making a solid case for our country's over-investment in personal and national security, May asks a germane question: are we focusing on the right threats?

Library Journal
This thoroughly researched and thoughtfully written social history is recommended to all who seek to understand our divided society.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. While May is far from the first to question how likely it is that the average citizen will be the victim of a terrorist, few have been as effective at connecting the broad sweep of 20th-century U.S. history to modern-day policies, such as broadly defined gun rights and highly aggressive and punitive law enforcement. This is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the anxieties that occupy American politics.

Author Blurb William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor, emeritus, Duke University; former president, Organization of American Historians
Challenging and provocative, Fortress America will stir stimulating debate in the classroom and in the living room about the state of America in the post-World War II world.

Author Blurb Samuel Freedman, professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
America founded itself on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but for much of the last century, it has been increasingly seized by fear, suspicion, and anxiety. Elaine Tyler May has provided a lucid, accessible, and sweeping account of this national nervous breakdown. With acute intelligence and supple prose, she separates distortion from reality, fever dream from waking truth.

Author Blurb Nancy F. Cott, Trumbull Professor of American History, Harvard University
If you think the favored aim of Americans today is 'freedom,' this fast-paced and provocative book turns the tables on that assumption. Fortress America contends that security is the watchword of the past 50 years - with a misplaced and too often punitive exaggeration that has created more harms than benefit to ourselves and to democracy. Elaine Tyler May's emphasis here deserves close reading.

Author Blurb Martin J. Sherwin, University Professor at George Mason University, Pulitzer Prize (with co-author Kai Bird) winner for American Prometheus
A major contribution and a must-read to understand the origins of the Age of Trump.

Author Blurb Mary L. Dudziak, author of War Time
In this brisk yet sobering book, Elaine Tyler May shows the way a culture of fear, nurtured during the Cold War, led Americans to fear each other. Citizens armed themselves and favored policies that fueled mass incarceration and scapegoating immigrants. May's masterful synthesis of cultural history makes Fortress America a compelling read.

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Beyond the Book

Disenfranchisement and Voter Suppression

Despite the fact that voting in a federal election is a primary and vital constitutional right held by American citizens over 18 years of age, the playing field for voters is not equal from one state to another.

Voting place indicator In Fortress America, Elaine Tyler May argues that disenfranchisement holds individuals back from contributing to their communities. She emphasizes the importance of the right to vote as an essential aspect of American citizenship. By the turn of the twenty-first century, she reports, one in forty adults was unable to vote as a result of a criminal conviction and the rights of criminals to regain their right to vote after release varies from state to state, even for national elections.

Research from the Scholars Strategy ...

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