3. The anthropologist
Geoffrey Gorer was an English anthropologist who was a student and colleague of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. He spent the 1939-45 war years in the
The outcome was his book The Americans: A Study in National Character, written shortly after the war and published in 1948. Although now nearly 60 years old, it is astonishingly fresh and up to date: many passages could easily have been written today. It is a difficult book to summarise adequately, and I would urge anyone interested in the topic to get hold of a copy. All I can do here is to outline the ground Gorer covers, and to quote some of his most striking observations.
He wrote it, he said, because he believed that the future peace and prosperity of the world depended on the mutual understanding and fruitful collaboration of the English and American peoples and governments. “But mutual understanding cannot endure if it is founded on delusions and falsifications; it must be based on the acceptance of our widely differing characters and ways of looking at and interpreting the world.”
Americans believed – rightly or wrongly – that this hatred of authority made them “peaceloving”. Their devotion to social – as opposed to economic – equality convinced them that they were the most democratic people on earth. Their aversion to showing deference to other people was only exceeded by their attachment to symbols – the Flag, the Goddess of Liberty, Uncle Sam – and their fascinated absorption in scientific and technological achievement which had given them the highest material standard of living in the world.
In the American family, the rejection of the father’s authority was matched by the controlling influence of the mother. “The idiosyncratic feature of the American conscience was that it is predominantly feminine.” In consequence, “all the niceties of masculine behaviour – modesty, politeness, neatness, cleanliness – come to be regarded as concessions to feminine demands, and not good in themselves as part of the behaviour of a proper man”. Indeed, many fathers colluded with their sons in egging them on to become more “manly” by breaking these maternally imposed codes. The result was that American men were often psychologically confused, and this accounted for the panic-fear of homosexuality which was prevalent in mid-twentieth century
The manifestations of the female conscience in public life gave rise to the peculiar behaviour which Americans call “idealism”; the proclaiming of moral rules of conduct which others should follow, but which do not necessarily apply to oneself. This often led to charges by foreigners of hypocrisy, of which the Americans themselves were unaware and greatly resented being taxed with. “
To an American, to be successful was to be loved; and when they contemplated the undoubtedly abundant generosity with which the United States had frequently acted towards other parts of the world, they were filled with dismay and resentment at the criticisms made of their darker and less benign actions. This led to social hypocrisy – especially in the Southern states, where negroes were expected to show perpetually smiling, grateful faces to their erstwhile white masters.
Ignorance of the wider world – and, indeed, of their own country – was the greatest threat to American democracy. “An increase in the apathy and passivity of its citizens, and a further lowering of the calibre of Americans who make politics a career, might well lead to a virtual breakdown of the state; or alternatively this apathy may leave them open to the manipulations of a self-appointed élite of social engineers” – a prescient comment.
The demand for love, and the hurt distress when love was refused, coloured many American responses to international situations. Americans viewed the inhabitants of the rest of the world along a scale with 100 per cent Americanism at the positive end, and 100 per cent un-Americanism at the negative end. The more “American” people were, the more human. Therefore, democracy [American style] was the greatest benefit Americans could bestow upon others. The more “American” other nations could be depicted as being, the more sympathy they deserved. “Unless this minimum of Americanism is ascribed to them, how can they be considered human at all? And if they are not human, they are things: and things cannot be sympathised with or supported, they can only be exploited or destroyed” - another comment with a grimly contemporary ring. The other side of the coin was the American belief that their economic system of unbridled free enterprise and economic competition was a viable model for foreign relations.
I could go on quoting from this impressively insightful book, but this post is already long enough. Do read Gorer for yourselves.