The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted. — D.H. Lawrence
I like a lot of D.H.’s quotes, but this one that I found on neveryetmelted.com, a pithy conservative blog I stumbled on today, is another of those attempts by a ‘sage’ individual to define the American character against some standard that the rest of the world has apparently set for civilized behavior. I challenge D.H. to name me a culture whose soul is soft, communal, passionate and passivist. He might find a tribe of isolated hillfolk somewhere that meet one or two of those descriptors, but other than a few devout religious communities I’ve seen (nearly all of which had fallen prey to autocratic leaderships), I don’t think Lawrence would have had much luck.
I’d like to challenge Lawrence’s comment, item by item using quotes from other sages, foreign and native-grown, many of who also disdain American culture, but managed to get something right in stumbling for a definition of our country’s denizens.
I'm sorry, D.H., but Americans are the biggest bunch of softies in the world. First, most of our ancestors probably had attention deficit disorder and got kicked out of their original countries because they were causing trouble, doing things without permission, saying what they thought without caring about the consequences and dreaming about a better way of life. On the cutting edge of our culture, you still find fidgety, creative, hungry people who sympathize with anybody, anywhere that is in trouble. A tsunami rolls over a country, famine breaks out, earthquakes strike – you name it, and the first guys on the scene are Americans. Sometimes the natives take shots at us, but we just duck and do our best to get help to the victims.
“Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on twenty-four-hour call to any spot on the globe where dispute and conflict may erupt.
- Eldridge Cleaver (b. 1935), U.S. civil rights leader, writer
Americans are a wondrously curious lot, sticking their noses into everywhere. Check these complaints…
Americans are rather like bad Bulgarian wine: they don’t travel well.
- Bernard Falk (1943–1990), British broadcaster, author
Americans have always been eager for travel, that being how they got to the New World in the first place.
- Otto Friedrich
English is the language of air traffic control. Why? More American planes fly than those of any other country. Entire countries depend on American tourists to support their economies. Countries like France complain because American tourists, movies and television programs are “corrupting” their culture. Isolate? Since when?
You can shoot an Englishman and he’ll call it a “bit of bad luck”. You shoot an American, (or his wife, child or dog for that matter), he’ll likely either shoot you back or sue you to bankruptcy depending on how unstoic he gets and whether he survives the bullet wound. We went down swinging at the Alamo, the Battle of the Bulge and Gettysburg. During the Civil War, both sides constantly cheered for their generals, their fellow soldiers who did something brave or even their enemies across the field who did something brave under fire. We get all worked up about a child who falls in a well, genocide in Yugoslavia and an attack on our soil (as the Japanese and Al Quaeda found out). Stoic? I don’t think so. We’re accused of being loud, brash, awkward and pushy (mostly by the French). Hardly what I’d call stoic.
The American character is more amiable, though often less reliable (than the English). The Americans are cordial, frank, anxious to oblige, and ready to make friends. In the fullness of their heart, they generally promise more than they can keep. Easily excited, they are not seldom deceived by their impressions, which, therefore, are often only transient.
- Francis Pulszky, and Theresa Pulszky. White, Red, Black: Sketches of American Society in the United States During the Visit of Their Guests (1853).
Throughout American history, we have fought wars, some of them bitter and bloody. We’ve won most. In every war, Americans have stacked arms at the first sign that their opponents were ready to accept peace. Yes we dropped the A-Bomb on Japan, but in doing so we probably saved more lives than we took. U.S. Grant gave generous terms to the Army of Northern Virginia, despite the long and bloody struggle that preceded his meeting with Lee at Appamatox. Sherman, the scourge of Atlanta far exceeded Congress’s wish to punish the South when he left Southern soldiers their muskets so they could hunt and feed themselves and left the cavalry its horses so farmers could plow their fields and pull their carts. We rebuilt Germany and Japan, sunk millions into restoring infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a Peter Sellers movie in the 60’s in which a small country that was going bankrupt declared war on the U.S. because it was the quickest way they could think of to get their country rebuilt. Americans have gone to war for less than worthy causes in our history, but someone had to convince us that we were saving someone or defending ourselves first. We’ve never been able to attack someone simply because we wanted their land. People forget that our difficulties with native American tribes often resulted because the tribes didn’t want anyone sharing the vast and largely uninhabited spaces they occupied and attacked settlers. The destruction of the Native American culture was actually opposed by a significant portion of Americans. Powerful political zealots did manage to wage an often unpopular genocidal war on the tribes, despite widespread criticism of these excesses and Americans have been on a guilt trip ever since. Hardly a federal grant comes through Congress anymore that doesn’t include aid for Native Americans in it somewhere.
Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power.
- Joan Didion (b. 1934), U.S. essayist
Americans were fugitives from every culture in the world. We are probably the most nearly classless society in the world (Except for some older communities on the East Coast where our disapproving Puritan ancestors have sat for nearly 400 years and watched their hyperactive offspring run away from home, bound for the wild West on foot, by wagon, horseback, sailing ship and train). We don’t think like the rest of the world (that’s why we ran away from the rest of the world and came here). We value action, activity, passion and progress.
Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge of it as representatives for all mankind. They believe in the future as if it were a religion; they believe that there is nothing they cannot accomplish, that solutions wait somewhere for all problems, like brides.
- Frances Fitzgerald (b. 1940), U.S. journalist and author
Some foreign writers see American culture as somewhat less worthy than the culture of our parent cultures.
The Americans are certainly hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.
- Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Anglo-Irish playwright, author
Wilde, a prissy Irishman, misses the point entirely. Most of our ancestors were considered criminals in their homelands before they came here. We look up to them and find nobility in their “criminal” behavior. It could explain why most of the United Nations membership despises us and would like to see us wiped off the face of the earth (along with Israel if possible). Fortunately, for us, we still have all those pesky nukes. The Napoleons of the Old World and the Third World will have to content themselves with more limited ambitions than the world domination contemplated by Mssr. Bonaparte.
Just one man’s opinion…
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