AMERICAN CHARACTER: A HISTORY OF THE EPIC STRUGGLE BETWEEN INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY AND THE COMMON GOOD

By Colin Woodard

Viking, 2016

308 pages, $29

In his 2011 book, “American Nations,” award-winning journalist and author Colin Woodard argued convincingly that the United States is not one nation; rather, it is “a contentious federation comprising 11 competing regional cultures,” each with its own historical, political, economic and social distinctions.

Now, building on that original and provocative premise, Woodard attempts to describe America’s constantly shifting struggle to balance individual liberties with the public good — individualism versus collectivism. He asks, “Is there an acceptable central position? A balance?” And the answer is, “sort of.”

In “American Character,” Woodard astutely examines the political, economic and social history of the U.S. over four centuries, explaining how the balance between individual freedoms and the common good has shifted dramatically, often with wide swings from one to the other.

The ideal, he explains, would seem to be a liberal democracy: “The goal of a liberal democracy isn’t to allow everyone to do whatever he or she wants, but to create and maintain a society in which all people can be free and self-governing,” recognizing that such an ideal requires acceptance of public obligations, civic-mindedness and the institutions that protect those freedoms.

Using historical examples, Woodard begins with the 1620 Mayflower Compact, the first formal document in the New World to subordinate individual freedoms to the common good, to ensure the colony’s survival. He then describes Jefferson and Jackson’s liberal republicanism, 19th-century laissez-faire economics and the inequalities of social Darwinism, through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and government controls, to Medicare and Social Security, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the counter-culture liberalism of the 1960s.

Best is his succinct argument that extremes in either direction are always disastrous, resulting in chaos, tyranny, war and social collapse. The conclusion: The balance between individual freedoms and the common good will always be a moving target.

BEHIND THE BLUE LIGHTS: MORE REAL LIFE STORIES FROM A MAINE STATE TROOPER

By Mark Nickerson

North Country Press, 2015

223 pages, $16.95

ISBN 978-1-943424-07-8.

Actor Dudley Moore (1935-2002) once quipped, “The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it.” Unfortunately for the 1,300 drunk drivers arrested by Maine State Trooper Mark Nickerson in his career, the mirror didn’t seem to matter.

Nickerson is a retired state trooper with 28 years on patrol (1977-2005), and has hundreds of stories to go with them. “Behind The Blue Lights” is his second book of trooper tales, a collection of 45 stories — some sad, most funny. All of them reveal what it is like to be a state trooper, day and night, in all types of weather, facing a wide variety of hazards, pitfalls and unusual situations.

This is not great literature, but it is good reading, offering a true sense of the many challenges troopers face every day here in Maine. He tells of traffic violations, drunken driving arrests, criminal investigations, car and foot pursuits of fleeing suspects, helpful citizens and uncooperative subjects, as well as the agony of missing children and the tragedy of unnecessary deaths.

In “The Alarm,” he has a good night when he catches a burglary suspect and avoids all the paperwork. In “Have a Seat,” he breaks up a bar fight in Greenville by illuminating the brawler’s predicament. “Topless in February” is not what you think, but it is hilarious.

Other stories tell how to get a resisting suspect out of car using just two fingers, how he solved a crime because of evidence that wasn’t there, why a brawling motorcycle gang ran away from just one trooper and why being kicked in the head can be a big surprise.

Learn how spike strips really work, what “yes, ma’ams” really are, and about the perplexing and pungent case of the exploding skunk.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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