Interview with Hugh Gusterson, co-editor of “The Insecure American”

Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective. As I told ‘The Tennessean’ in 2008, “since moving to Nashville twenty-five years ago, I have met people whose lives do not remotely reflect the caricature of what many outside our city presume to be a Nashvillian” or the Nashville experience. “Underground Nashville” thus explores the soul of the city, not its surface—offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew

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Interview with Hugh Gusterson, co-editor of the new book The Insecure American: How We Got Here and What We Should Do About it

Part I

UNDERGROUND NASHVILLE:   A central theme of The Insecure American is that we have become “an anxious country.” Do you see this as a temporary phenomenon, principally driven by the recession, or is there more of a sociological or cultural sea-change occurring?

HUGH GUSTERSON: All societies have undercurrents of anxiety.  As for the U.S., there have been times throughout its history when it has been seized by transitory but powerful paroxysms of paranoia: the witch hunts of the seventeenth century, the mass deportations of immigrants after World War I, and the McCarthyist purges for example.  However, we’re talking about something different in The Insecure American: a pervasively deep sense of insecurity, shared by large swathes of society, that comes from a number of simultaneous changes in American life.  These changes derive from: globalization and the off-shoring of jobs; technological changes that threaten the job security of many; deregulation; mass immigration; the relentless commodification of all realms of life; the threat of terrorism; and the endless possibility of mass extinction through nuclear war or climatic catastrophe.

What federal government policies do you believe have most contributed to a feeling of insecurity and anxiety among Americans?

HG: Globalization—the massive movements of capital, jobs, commodities, migrants, and ideas around the globe—lies at the heart of much of our insecurity.  Globalization is too powerful a process to be stopped by governments, but better policies could have mitigated the pain it has inflicted on so many Americans.

Globalization has tilted the bargaining relationship between employees and employers away from employees, and the result has been declining wages (in real terms) and longer hours with reduced job security for many working and middle class Americans.  The resulting inequality and insecurity experienced by many Americans could have been avoided, or at least softened, by legislation making it easier to organize unions; by stricter regulation of the credit card and payday loan industries and safeguarding of the old bankruptcy laws; and by a more progressive taxation policy than G.W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and by a less punitive reform of the welfare system than Bill Clinton carried out.

The last twenty years have also seen an evisceration of regulatory agencies that has largely happened out of public sight, simply by appointing the wrong people to run them.  Republican and Democratic administrations alike have gradually turned over regulatory agencies such as the Federal Reserve, the Food and Drug Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to appointees pushed by the wealthy interests they were supposed to regulate.  The result has been twenty years of corporate mergers, usurious banking charges, overpriced drugs and increasingly dangerous consumer products—a society tilted against American consumers with the connivance of the regulators who were supposed to protect them.

Then there is the failure to deal with illegal immigration.  It is estimated that there are now 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S..  It is a joke to pretend that more than a fraction of these people can be tracked down and deported.  Our leaders in Washington have lacked the political courage and intelligence to deal with this issue, except by funding border fences with Mexico that do as much good as King Canute’s commands to the sea.  If we can find a way to bring as many of these migrants as possible inside the law, through some sort of amnesty, we will all be the better for it.  Legalized immigrants will pay taxes, join unions, and contribute to a stable society in ways that will make everyone more secure.

And let’s not forget defense.  Since the cold war ended, we have become a deeply militarized society.  In 2000 the U.S. military budget was $280 billion.  It is now $680 billion—more than the combined military budgets of all the other countries in the world.  And yet we are losing a war with a ragtag militia in sandals in Afghanistan.  We are being eaten out of house and home by the Defense Department and, the more we spend on defense, the more insecure we seem to feel.  The military is taking over our collective fantasy life and diverting to weapons wealth that might have been spent on schools, parks, bridges, playgrounds, medicine, police, environmental cleanup, and public transport—the sinews of shared security and well-being.

Editor’s Note:  Part II of ‘Underground Nashville’’s interview with Hugh Gusterson will be posted on Wednesday, December 16.

Hugh Gusterson is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at George Mason University.  He is the author of ‘Nuclear Rites’ (1996) and ‘People of the Bomb’ (2004), co-editor (with Catherine Besteman) of ‘Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong,’ and is a monthly columnist for the ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.’
To order The Insecure American ($24.95, paperback; $65, hardcover, 392 pages) call (510) 642-4247 or visit


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