I want today to talk about American character.
Okay, I hear the snickers (and the Midnight Milky Ways). But I’m serious. I contend that many of my friends and colleagues misunderestimate the quality of character of the citizens of the United States.
It’s easy to understand why. Eric C. Thorp has written a beautiful article that lists some of the reasons we’re sceptical. (I quibble with some of his punctuation, but his words are fine indeed.)
America scoffs at critical introspection but revels in self-congratulation. America is anti-intellectual. She loudly condemns the thoughtful, the abstract, the complex or nuanced response in favor of self-evident truths and the clarity they bestow on all who respect the power of decisive action and the joys of immediate results. The Academy is derided as elitist. Those who test competing ideas, consult history, evidence caution and deliberation are assumed to be weak, indecisive—possibly European. The scientist is popularly portrayed as absent minded, always out of style in dress and speech. That which is “academic” is irrelevant.
We who read are frequently made aware of the disdain of American culture for culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics. As Richard Hofstadter puts it in his wonderful book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:
In [Theodore] Roosevelt one finds the archetype of what has become a common American political image: the aspiring politician, suspected of having too gentle an upbringing, too much idealism, or too many intellectual interests, can pass muster if he can point to a record of active military service; if that is lacking, having made the football team may do.
Admittedly, to a serious candidate obvious idiocy is much more valuable; but you run for office with the qualifications you have, not necessarily those you’d prefer.
Another aspect of American idiocy is manifest in our wacko-religionists. Many of these folks appear to believe that the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are evil and must be done away with. Thorp again:
…within this rich pluralism there exists a large and potent strain of sectarian dogma that has no use for the liberality of the republic’s founders or the Enlightenment they embraced.
These American zealots possess a fundamental religious truth the propagation of which compels the disestablishment of all that is heretical. Theirs is a high-tech Great Awakening designed to recreate the nation and the world in their God’s image. All means are justified in this Christian Jihad, be they the murder of abortionists, the treasonous lies of a complicit President to justify his Crusade of choice, or the conversion of an Alabama courthouse or the Texas capitol lawn into a temple for Moses’ deliverance. This perversion of the national heritage, this poisonous fusion of the medieval and the fascistic, has ebbed and flowed like a virus in the nation’s bowls for two centuries, quietly stalking the depths of American intolerance.
Of course, the connection between Christianity and coercion is not a new one. Gibbon describes the persecution of Athanasians, the “official” Roman Catholics, by the Vandals, who adhered to the Arian sect, declared heretical by Rome:
In the original law, which is still extant, [the Vandal] Hunneric expressly declares, and the declaration appears to be correct, that he had faithfully transcribed the regulations and penalties of the Imperial edicts against the heretical congregations, the clergy, and the people, who dissented from the established religion. If the rights of conscience had been understood, the Catholics must have condemned their past conduct, or acquiesced in their actual sufferings. But they still persisted to refuse the indulgence which they claimed. While they trembled under the lash of persecution, they praised the laudable severity of Hunneric himself, who burnt or banished great numbers of Manicheans; and they rejected, with horror, the ignominious compromise that the disciples of Arius and of Athanasius should enjoy a reciprocal and similar toleration in the territories of the Romans and in those of the Vandals.
One major difference between then and now is that we currently enjoy the ability to create Armageddon at will. This, and the religious expressions used by Bush II, are probably responsible for a good deal of the international unease about the direction America is taking.
Then there’s the lack of understanding of the American political system. When Tocqueville toured the US around 1830, he found people who could barely read and write who were nevertheless quite familiar with the workings of government. But as the locus of power moved from local and state governments to the federal level, it became harder for the average citizen to understand and participate in communal decision-making. Nowadays, most Americans would rather watch football than vote; and ignorance is no less common than apathy. Once more, Mr. Thorp:
Americans suffer from the nearly universal misconception that all their levels of governance are democratic. The New England town meeting is proffered as an egalitarian myth which morphed into state and national examples of representative democracy without peer. That the town meeting is a marvelous mechanism for thwarting public action, or that state legislatures remain the gerrymandered handmaidens of the regional plutocracy, is never seriously acknowledged.
Nor will one find in the public discourse much consideration of the premise that the republic’s constitution codifies, in the halls of the national legislature, the ascendancy of an 18th Century rural, propertied and socially reactionary class that threatened to veto the entire experiment if anything approaching majority rule were seriously considered. From the beginning, Americans have championed and fervently attempted to export something they don’t have. Perhaps nowhere is the conflicted American character more evident than in the specter of the poor and middle-class repeatedly voting against their economic self-interests while considering the privilege of doing so, nothing less than a self-evident, inalienable right.
Paging Thomas Frank…
Despite all these reasons to despair, I prefer the approach of Wendell Berry, quoted by my hero Bill Greider: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
And in reality there are facts that provoke optimism for those willing to adopt a non-traditional American approach to history—that is, reading it.
Or, in some cases, recalling it. In a BBC editorial I can’t recommend highly enough, Harold Evans describes his experience on a first visit to the States fifty years ago, during which he nearly despaired:
I ventured into Joe McCarthy’s own frozen state of Wisconsin to talk in Madison with one of his fiercest critics, the editor of the long-established Progressive magazine. Honestly I didn’t give much of a chance that this beleaguered editor and a few like him could slow or still less stop the steamroller of the Red scare.
But the one-time liberal New Deal official David Lilenthal had a better grasp of what was going on. McCarthyism, he said, invigorated the counterforces of decency and fairness, like the antibodies in the blood stream that a minor illness activates, so that when another threat to health came along the antibodies would be prepared to do their work.
This happens time and time again in America. I would contend that there is a clear historical pattern. The country can go off the rails in an alarming manner, but then gradually it always gets back on track and more splendidly than before.
I think of the phenomenon as America catching up with its highest ideals through the antibodies provided by the free flamboyant discourse. The American political system, with its checks and balances, seems always to require melodrama for momentum. It’s like trying to spot the movement of a glacier—but it does move.