I recently read Charles Murray's provocative book "Coming Apart" Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010which discusses increasing social, cultural, and economic divisions in the United States based largely upon the growth and isolation of an educated elite. Reading "Coming Apart" attracted me to this new book by Ash Amin, "Land of Strangers" (2012) which from its title and summary seemed to involve some of the same issues Murray explored. Amin is the 1931 Chair of Geography at the University of Cambridge. If nothing else, his book shows multi-disciplinary erudition.
Although there are some rough shared issues between Marray's and Amin's books, their focus is different. Some comparisons and contrasts are valuable. Both writers are iconoclastic, intelligent, and opinionated. Murray is a self-described libertarian who also shows, I think, a strong degree of American conservatism. Murray dates the coming apart of the social fabric of the United States from the inception of the Great Society in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Amin's position resists easy conceptualization, but he is a thinker of the left. He is a strong supporter of what is loosely described as the welfare state. But more importantly he is a proponent oflarge government interventions to secure fair and equal treatment, as Amin construes them, for all people within a society. Defining the nature of the rights Amin claims is notoriously difficult. To simplify a great deal, Murray is oriented towards liberty while Amin is oriented towards equality. The roles Amin would have government perform set him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Murray. And it is instructive to see that the issues with which the writers deal are not within the exclusive province of either the political left or right.
Amin writes about the way societies treat strangers. He says: "This book is for an idea -- that the stranger is neither friend nor foe, but constitutive". Some of the discussions in the book cross the lines of individual societies, as Amin draws examples from underdeveloped countries as well as from Europe and the United States. As the book proceeds, Amin focuses on the treatment of the stranger in Europe, and to a lesser degree in the United States. His immediate claim is that following September 11 and the economic near-collapse, many nations have become increasingly hostile in the way they treat strangers. The concept of "stranger" and "different" are difficult to define, and in Amin's case, the terms are especially slippery. He discusses, in light of September 11, the treatment of Muslims. But he uses the term much broader to include people of different races, economically and socially disadvantaged individuals, people with gender and sexual preferences different from the majority, and more. Perhaps different considerations might apply at different times to the varied groups that Amin characterizes as "strangers", but Amin lumps various and different groups together.
Before September 11, Amin argues, European and American societies tried to understand and integrate "strangers" be means either of a close-knit communitarian model or a global model. Amin argues that both means are defective because they are too exclusively humanistically focused and ignore the cultural backdrop and material things that encourage people to respond the way they do to strangers. A goal of his book is to develop these factors. Amin does not support a full assmimilation of the stranger or treating the stranger as outsider. Rather, he argues for recognizing the value of irreducible difference within shared commonalities.
The book has a strongly philosophical bent derived from 20th Century Continental thinkers. Amin makes a great deal of phenomenological descriptions and of concepts such as being-in-the-world and care derived from Heidegger. It is unclear that Heidegger's philosophical teachings were meant to form or in fact form a basis for a purportedly empirical study. The book probably is more influenced by thinkers who fall under the loose rubric of post-moderns, such as Foucault and Derrida who receive a great deal of attention in the book. The approach of these thinkers is assumed rather than explained. I was left unconvinced that readers need to think in their terms. Amin states that "Like its reading of the social world, the style of the book is hybrid, combining multidisciplinary analysis with polemical and normative intent." There is a great deal indeed of the polemical and normative in the book. It often failed to persuade.
Besides the philosophical background of the book, Amin also discusses a welter of recent studies in the social sciences. I learned from some of his sources and from the impressive bibliography of the book. In the early chapters of the book, there are insightful discussions about how tools such as the Internet change the way people respond to one another and allow for commonalities of interest among those who would in other respects be strangers. Unlike some students, Amin welcomes this development. There is also an excellent discussion about how the workplace promotes different ways of "knowing" and of doing tasks in groups. People can overcome their differences from one another to come together to perform common tasks and to develop a sense of trust in specific things while keeping their own differences.
A central chapter in the book discusses the concept of race and the ways in which the hand of the past hurtfully shapes present attitudes. In the concluding chapters of the book, Amin claims that contemporary Europe and America have been promoting a policy of repressing the stranger and the economically disadvantaged in the name of national security. He recommends a mixture of local community action together with strong action at the national government level to promote true equality. I was not convinced by the breadth of this discussion. Beyond generalities, Amin does not make clear the policies to which he objects and why. Amin want to allow the people he deems as strangers to speak and be heard in their own voices. Amin did not convince me that he extends the same principles to those inviduals who might disagree with his philosophical, political, and economic proscriptions.
The book is written in a difficult style, replete with use of the passive voice, jargon, lengthy sentences, and, reflecting its philosophical preoccupations, a reluctance to speak in the first person singular. With attention, the reader can see where the author is going, but the details remain fuzzy and invite confusion.
It is hard to rate this book. Although I learned from and was challenged by it in places, the work on the whole left me frustrated, unconvinced, and cold. The Murray book in its way was an antidote to Amin's approach. Still, there is enough learning and thought in Amin's book that it cannot simply be put aside, as I was at first tempted to do. Readers interested in the issues the book raises may want to struggle with this book, but it will appeal primarily to those readers committed to a political and economic position roughly along the lines of the author's. It was valuable to have this scholarly and difficult book made available to lay readers through the Vine program. Amin's study is unlikely to have appeal to a mass readership.