[Paleopsych] NYT: Winnowing the Field of America to One Representative
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Thu Nov 24 03:19:43 UTC 2005
Winnowing the Field of America to One Representative
Books of The Times | 'The Average American'
[Mr. Mencken would be delighted with this book, even if what he said about the
average Americano was far more profound.]
THE AVERAGE AMERICAN
The Extraordinary Search for the Nation's Most Ordinary Citizen
By Kevin O'Keefe
By WILLIAM GRIMES
All Americans can be average some of the time, but only one American,
apparently, can be perfectly average all the time. Kevin O'Keefe, a
marketing consultant, set out to find that person five years ago,
armed with fresh data from the 2000 national census and a burning
desire to pursue and comprehend the very thing he had spent most of
his time avoiding: life as lived, defined and loved by the vast
majority of his fellow citizens. "The Average American" is the logbook
of that quest.
Mr. O'Keefe tries, somewhat feebly, to put a philosophical gloss on
his statistical journey. "If I could find the numbers, I could find
the person, and if I could find the person, maybe I could find a piece
of myself," he writes, but "The Average American," from start to
finish, is nothing more (or less) than a clever game. The author
starts with a pool of candidates that embraces all 281,421,906
official residents of the 50 United States and the District of
Columbia counted in the 2000 census, and chapter by chapter, using the
census and other statistical sources, introduces new categories of
averageness that gradually whittle that number down to one. His
eventual winner, and the community he lives in, comes the closest of
all Americans to matching 140 criteria, from average height and weight
to average annual rainfall.
As a piece of statistical analysis, "The Average American" is wobblier
than a three-legged table. A multitude of numbers are thrown around,
some from official government sources like the Census Bureau and
others from opinion polls and marketing surveys. The author does not
actually insist that his winning candidate match each and every
criterion. In many cases, it's enough that he belongs to the
statistical majority. For example, the average American has 12.7 years
of education, but Mr. O'Keefe decides that a high school diploma,
which the majority of Americans have, would be sufficient.
No one is likely to look too closely at the methodology, just as no
one, listening to a joke, wonders why a rabbi and a priest would walk
into a bar. "The Average American" is really just an excuse to play
with numbers and overturn commonly held notions of what the average
American does and thinks. It's also a golden opportunity for the
author to hit the road, always traveling in a midsize car, and spend
time with people like Myklar the Ordinary, a magician who carefully
explains to his audiences that there is no such thing as magic, and
Rich Bean, the first politician to run under the banner of the Average
American Party. Not to mention an 88-year-old Brooklynite named Harry
It is not surprising to learn that most American families do not
consist of a working father, stay-at-home mother and children. It is
surprising to learn that such families account for only 7 percent of
the population. In 1948, 4 percent of American said they were in favor
of marriages between blacks and whites. In 2002 the number was 65
percent, and in 2003, 72 percent. The majority of Americans say they
do not want to become famous.
Mr. O'Keefe, ruthlessly swinging his statistical scythe, eliminates
vast populations at a single go. Since most Americans live in a
one-unit owner-occupied detached dwelling, or private home, more than
50 percent of Los Angeles County and 99.5 percent of Manhattan
disappear from contention. The majority of American towns get at least
some snowfall. Residents of those that do not fall off the list of
contenders. So long, Florida, except for a few thousand residents near
the Georgia and Alabama borders, as well as large parts of Texas, and
all beachside residents in California from Santa Monica to Mexico.
City dwellers and country folk also fall by the wayside, since most
Americans live in suburbs.
Gradually, the average American takes form. He (or she) spends 95
percent of the time indoors, thinks abortion is morally wrong but
supports the right to have one, owns an electric coffeemaker, has nine
friends and at least one pet, and would rather spend a week in jail
than become president. He (or she) lives within a 20-minute drive of a
Wal-Mart, attends church at least once a month, prefers smooth peanut
butter to chunky, lives where the average annual temperature is
between 45 and 65 degrees, and believes that Jews make up 18 percent
of the population (the actual figure is between 2 and 3 percent).
Mr. O'Keefe, a Manhattanite who married late in life, expresses more
than average astonishment that most Americans, even though they do not
live in Manhattan or mingle with powerful and famous people, describe
themselves as happy and place a higher value on family than on work.
He also comes across as a lot more average than he thinks he is. He's
a lot less interesting than most of the people he meets, but his
project is intriguing, combining as it does the elements of a
detective story and the trivia interest of Ripley's Believe It or Not.
With the clock ticking, Mr. O'Keefe narrows his search to 94 houses,
and diligently makes contact with one adult resident in each, probing
with his list of questions. "This is a joke, right?" one woman asks.
Not on your life. One by one, his prospects flunk the test. One has
too many cars. Another lacks a pet. And so it goes, down to the wire.
Fittingly, the book's final chapter lies midway between a foregone
conclusion and a twist ending. The author winds up in a strangely
familiar place, talking to a strangely familiar figure. And average,
even when distilled to its quintessence, turns out to be exactly what
you'd expect. What's wrong with that?
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