Friday, July 5, 2013

Is There Such a Thing as the American Character? Or, Is It American Caricature? A Roundup

Ca. 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Terry Eagleton, "No Self-Mockery, Please, We're American," Chronicle of Higher Ed, July 1, 2013

Can one even speak of Americans and Europeans in this grandly generalizing way? Is this not the sin of stereotyping, which all high-minded liberals have learned to abhor? Nobody falls into a general category. Everyone is his or her own elite. As a character in one of James's novels proudly puts it,

In The American Scene, [Henry] James writes of the country's disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children's television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.>>>

Jason Bailey, "Nashville in Paris: The Quintessential American Film, as Seen Abroad. On July 4, in France, I felt just how well Robert Altman captured our national character," Atlantic, July 4, 2013

Watching Nashville from outside of that country puts Altman's intentions to the test. Perhaps critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Mazzocco were right; maybe he is, in fact, judging these people, pointing and laughing at them, as we snicker when Haven Hamilton sings his insipid ballad "For the Sake of the Children," or when Barbara Jean tees up another down-home chestnut. But I don't think so--I didn't before, and I certainly didn't in Paris, where the French audience seemed just as willing to accept Altman's 24 characters, with all of their faults and flaws, into their open arms. They are with these people, and with the film, and they gasp at its ending (despite all of its broad foreshadowing). When Haven Hamilton picks up the microphone and implores the crowd, "This is Nashville! You show 'em what we're made of," the gooseflesh rises, and it continues through the heartbreaking sing-along of "It Don't Worry Me," as good a choice for an alternate national anthem as any.>>>
"We are all princes here." . . .

Alan Ryan, "America’s Unthinking Majority," Time Higher Ed, June, 20 2013

. . . . From the beginning, the American view of politics was that of the radicals in the English Civil War. For all Jefferson’s high-flown rhetoric about natural rights, the colonists held old-fashioned English views about the likely wickedness of all holders of monarchical authority; it was British rights they thought they were protecting, and English radicals who did their thinking. Once independence was achieved, the arguments that roiled 19th-century Europe couldn’t gain any purchase. The hereditary principle was excluded by the Constitution; universal suffrage (for free white men) was inevitable; everyone was committed to social mobility (for free white men); religious barriers to political office were illegal. Not until the rise of the robber barons did European socialist ideas get any sort of a hearing in the US, and one of the curious features of that period is the extent to which socialists complained of the loss of the old agrarian America: not the world of a land-owning aristocracy but that of the yeoman farmer.>>>

Andro Linklater, "The Men Who Lost America, by Andrew O’Shaughnessy," American Prospect, June 29, 2013

The birth of the United States was a more complex — and less heroic — drama than the one enshrined in American folklore. . . .

Central to O’Shaughnessy’s thesis is his well-sustained argument that in Britain neither politicians nor generals believed military means alone could restore parliament’s power to tax colonists who were so numerous and so motivated to resist. It was George III, he suggests, who personally silenced his ministers’ doubts by insisting that acceptance of colonial demands would deliver an irreparable blow to national prestige. ‘We are contending for our whole consequence,’ he declared, ‘whether we are to rank among the Great Powers of Europe or to be reduced to one of the least considerable.’ A divided leadership ensured that every attempt at a political solution was compromised, while at crucial moments Lord George Germain, minister for the American department, undermined the military effort by diverting resources to other, more winnable conflicts.>>>

Gordon Wood, "Dusting Off the Declaration," New York Review of Books, August 14, 1997

Scholars who talk about America’s “civic religion” often don’t appreciate the half of it. Not only have we Americans turned profane political beliefs into a hallowed religious-like creed, but we have transformed very secular and temporal documents into sacred scriptures. We have even built a temple to preserve and display the great documents consecrating the founding of the American creed—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., these holy texts are enshrined in massive, bronze-framed, bulletproof, moisture-controlled glass containers.>>>

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