Sunday, 22 April 2007

Americans observed

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 United States on the staff of a British mission in Washington, reporting back to London on American attitudes. This work “threw into high relief the basic themes of disagreement and disapproval which, even though muted under the stress of war, were present in the minds of most of my British and American colleagues.” Both nationalities, he found, became disapproving, contemptuous or angry because their opposite numbers did not act or think or talk as they themselves would have done. He became convinced that a commonly held but false belief in the identity or similarity of the English and Americans was the greatest stumbling block mutual understanding and collaboration.

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.”

The United States, he points out, was founded and populated by British and other European people who had rejected their old homes and crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life. The children of first-generation immigrants aspired to become more complete Americans than their parents could be, and commonly looked down upon their parents as old-fashioned. Following the example of the American Revolution, they rejected authority and espoused “emotional egalitarianism” – the belief that authority is, by its nature, morally detestable, and that the only good government is limited government. This led to an ingrained disrespect for politicians, and [in peacetime] for the military. [Graft among politicians is acceptable; feathering their own nests is understandable, and less dangerous than power-seeking or the exercise of political authority to effect social change: Franklin Roosevelt was widely distrusted for this reason.]

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 America.

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. “America seems to speak with two voices, the one proclaiming high ideals, the other negating them with the most unenlightened self-interest. But from the women’s clubs the voice of American’s conscience rings out clear and serene.”

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 √©lite 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.


Pacanherros said...
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anticant said...
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Emmett said...

SORRY, Aunty, yo no hablo as they say....

THE Longing by these hounds to be 'loved' -- or, actually, /liked/! -- is a rather noticeable characteristic of the early post-modern Americano; in this he is anachronistic & decidedly at one with his wilsonian /persona/ of ninety years since, at the height of the late-modern age.

Wook, Momentarily Inclined To Despair of These "God-Damn Fools"

Jose said...
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anticant said...

The deleted comments refer to a piece of spam, which I have removed.

Jose said...

A series of Hieroglyphics, Anticant, appear on this post. Have they got anything to do with the text?

It is at the least curious, how Europe turned to Americanisms forgetting their century-old traditions. I ascribe this to films, above all to films since they used sound. It's also funny how films are an important component of the American way of living, even G.W. Bush used it when he made that dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier to anounce what he thought then victory in Iraq. Movie artists are personalities in the US and have become personalities, too, in Europe.

I must therefore conclude that the film industry is the best propaganda weapon the US can wield.

Relations between America and other European countries could be determined by the importance the latter's emigration to the US may have had.

anticant said...

Jose, although this book was written 60 years ago it has a strangely modern ring. I find it very enlightening - especially in regard to the belief that because the USA is the best country in the world, and has the best form of government in the world, they have a moral duty to export their way of life to everyone else.

Most Americans who have read it get very indignant, of course.

I am puzzled about 'hieroglyphics', as none appear on my screen.