Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Saturday, May 16, 2015

To love being American (classic essay)

Dear Hannah,

Being an American is a messy business.  Nobody watches the mediocre or the boring; the whole world has better things to do than sing about Scotland, and none of the African states are very interesting unless they're on fire.  It seems that the more power and prestige a nation has, the more attention it gets, and even the worst of nations at least is forgotten from time to time unless you're living in it, or it happens to be disrupting the price of oil.  The greater something is, the more it inspires our admiration and invites our censure; and if we may be certain about two things, it is that great power produces great corruptions, and that men have always been envious of power.  And therefore, whether one lives within or without a great nation, we are frequently more likely to hear complaints rather than praise.



And so being an American is difficult — difficult because we’re constantly hearing about our abuses and our excesses, and rarely hearing about our successes; we hear lots about our spying and our jingoism and our blunders, and whatever it is that makes us great is practically invisible.  Adding to this difficulty, business should have taught us, by this time, that however great a man’s virtues are, if they're common amongst his neighbors, they will be almost forgotten even should we rely upon them daily.  A cashier must be honest, and a baker dependable in order to do what they do for as long as they live; but almost nobody sings praises about cashiers and bakers, because they believe anyone can be either.  In this sense, unless a person goes above and beyond everyone else, his virtues are believed to be nonexistent, simply because they are common.  And so a person born and reared within the United States is doubly blind to his greatness: first, because he hears more about American faults than virtues, and second, because those virtues which are plainly obvious are forgotten.  Our virtues seem so natural, that they're taken for granted almost as we would a man’s eyebrows: ignored when present, obnoxious when missing.

But if a person were ever really interested in what makes Americans great, the most natural and enjoyable way would be to divorce his mind from an American perspective.  And I've found that learning the most about America — and especially about our virtues — is better done by reading the writings of foreigners.  And if we’re to escape the malicious slander of the foreign press and anyone with an envious political agenda, the most natural way to go about getting an honest assessment is to avoid works by traitorous liberal academics and foreign newspapers altogether, and read books written for people who are attracted to us for one reason or another.  And I believe the most honest accounts given of American culture, in this case, are those found in travel guides.

The interest of the travel guide entrepreneur make his assessments fairly trustworthy: his very business depends upon his giving an account of our differences, and giving it accurately; and the differences between cultures abroad gives us different contrasts and highlights which we wouldn’t have noticed before.  Reading a Russian travel guide, for instance, shows that Americans hate and are suspicious of bribery, that we believe acts of kindness should be reciprocated, and that we see opportunity and triumph where others see failure and misery — perhaps most importantly of all that we loathe a whiner.  I’ve heard many Americans lament that Russians are manlier than we are; but what could be more manly than incorruptibility, justice, and a masculine optimism?  This ignores even the fact that Russian men are advised not to ogle our women, and that doing so could land a visitor in serious trouble.  We complain that in America, chivalry is dead — perhaps only because we haven’t been to Russia.

Reading a Japanese travel guide is equally flattering.  Few would have guessed the minor victories of American civilization, such as our excellent and mannered driving, our passion for playing and working on the same days, and that Americans think of holding their liquor not as drinking in excess, but as controlling our consumption.   Fewer still would have guessed that Americans are hearty laughers and heavily sarcastic: when reading a Japanese perspective, one could almost be led to think we were Germans (except, of course, for our moderate drinking habits).  And yet again — almost as though that old American stereotype were the most or only true thing about us, visible from every perspective except our own — the Japanese guide mentions we make mistakes and rise again, almost as though Americans were the only invincible people on the planet.  In Japan, the travel guide says they are afraid to lose.  In America, it says we know we have to be ready to lose before we can win.

The most insightful, eloquent, and flattering account ever given of Americans, though, has got to be Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Its age does little to hamper its usefulness: we see the greatness of American culture explained in great detail by a French aristocrat, its vices and its virtues and its manners laid bare before us, and that germ of hearty and indomitable spirit explained.  In it we have both a description of what we were, and what we can be — oftentimes what we still are.  I’ve heard an old, well-traveled African man say that nothing was really American, because we’ve only existed 200 years.  He should read Tocqueville explain the differences between English and American manners, only shortly after our emancipation.  Then suddenly the TEA Party makes sense, and the rugged mountain man and the railroad tycoon find themselves united: in fierce independence and self-reliance and unusual manners; perhaps never as religious or as educated or as chivalrous as when we were Puritans, and never quite as equal as during the Revolutionary era, but perhaps always only steps away from reclaiming it.  America has changed, but it is still America: it has yet to be seen whether we love our nation enough to remember who we are.

Perhaps we’ve been going about multicultural education all wrong.  Perhaps instead of teaching the virtues of other nations, which is nearly always what happens, we should be showing our children how other people advise their friends and clients to behave around us.  Perhaps some patriotic educator will take this suggestion seriously, and write a new textbook. Not every man can afford to travel to a foreign nation; fewer still can visit multiple.  But every student can examine himself through the lens of another nation, and know that if other nations are special, we are too — and in many ways, one might even call us exceptional.

Your father,
-J

No comments:

Post a Comment