Understanding the Americans?
God Speaks “American”?
To quote from the YES article “American Political Culture”: “Americans think it very important that everybody should be equal politically, but they do not think it important that everybody should be equal economically.” This is very clear and true. Rather, in contrast to, say, the idea of community and cooperation at the theoretical basis of economic culture, one finds individualism, private ownership, laissez faire, and competition. And comparing the “standards of living” of the late USSR to the USA, one could say, as one of America’s leading historians, Page Smith, said in 1988 when he was considering the necessity of a social “perestroika” in the USA to match Russia’s: greed seems to be a much more successful social motivator than altruism. A very rich entrepreneur gave a speech at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-80’s which became famous. In this speech this man, who eventually went for a time to prison for illegal financial dealings, said: “greed is good”. (Hollywood, never wanting these days to miss a chance to make some megabucks, even made a film about it.)
The point that I want to make with this article is not – as one could often hear in the USSR, and can still sometimes hear in the USA – about the “Almighty Dollar”, or that the USA has “the best Congress money can buy”. Most Americans – typical Americans – are quite patriotic and nationalistic about the “ideology” (though they do not often so label it) of America, often without being clear of the origin, history, alternatives, or criticisms to their “American way of life”. (This last expression, often used, is more like a semi-secular “religious” belief. Some sociologists argue that it is!) America’s economical, political, social and cultural ways, etc., are often assumed to be the best in the world and history. So that American nationalism is not only more emotional than intellectual; it is very often astonishingly unaware of any other national traditions, patterns, and ideas of social order, or how they might relate historically to the USA! This fact was often very clear when American visitors discussed with Russians, in the Soviet time, their contrasting societies’ “ideas”, traditions, cultures, etc. The Americans were very often so unreflectively inside of their own nation’s system and way of life, that they regularly could do little to objectively-intellectually explain or historically account for it; they simply restated their “American Creed”, and the political and social rhetoric which they had learned and breathed in the USA, and, of course, overtly or covertly believed was far superior to the Russians. They were rarely prepared or able to understand or explain their own social system in contrast to the Soviet one, or Russian history, culture, etc. I remember how astonished Russians often were about this – and Americans, sometimes, realistically embarrassed!
The fact that there is, though this is very debatable, “political equality” but economic inequality in the USA, seems to most unreflective Americans as if this were ‘God’s order for America’. (‘And if it is good enough for America, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of the world?!’ – one can sometimes hear some smug US patriots assert.) “Communism” to most Americans was – before it disappeared – treated as the social equivalent to “evil” on earth, and that long before President Reagan (1981 – 1989) read his lauded speech writer’s expression: “evil empire” in the late 1980’s. I recall a fifth or sixth grade school book of mine (in the late 1950’s) about the terrible facts of communism; all I can remember now was the photo of the face of a man crying in pain and desperation. That is an indication my grade-school education of the realities of “life under communism”. (Otherwise about the only thing I was taught about the distant, but dangerous, Soviet Union, was, later in high school, maybe a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.) Often the times under Stalin probably justified this image; but we were presented with the simple idea of the ‘good capitalist, democratic America’ and the ‘evil, inhuman, totalitarian USSR’. Whatever was “American” was good – whether understood or not; whatever was communist was bad!
The point is that it is almost reacted to as un-American (which is often something like being against what some sociologists call the “civil religion” of America itself) to question the “American way of life”: the sufficiency or historical limitations of the “Founding Fathers”, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, “political democracy”, “free market economy” (a.k.a. “capitalism”), “equality of opportunity”, “individualism”, “all men are created equal”, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, “the American way of life”, etc. These are all part of America’s “ideology” – which is often not very reflective and articulated. As I sometimes satirically say: the assumption is that “God speaks American”. The history of the world, other cultures, traditions, social customs, etc., are all seen tough the American lens (which is generally assumed to be the best and truest in the world).
Most Americans tend to assume unquestioningly that competition rather than cooperation is the best motor for the economy. This idea would hardly be questioned by most, seldom because they had thought it through, and concluded that this is true; but rather it is accepted and defended like some natural fact of life – especially having as little of a living sense and knowledge of history as Americans generally do. Now, there are almost all shades of thought located somewhere, in at least small groups, in the US; and a good number of Americans often long for something other than individualistic capitalism with its great “economic inequalities” (which may be “good” for the economy, but bad for the soul and society). But the main idea and majority position is that what is “American” is best. This is all to often (but not only) a sort of illiterate patriotism and smugness of Americans – assuming their own society’s superiority – which can be found more or less overtly inside of almost all Americans. Few have ever heard anything good about socialism or communism – or even thought that other cultures had other views of society. And after the collapse of communism, even fewer would question their own system’s superiority!
So that inequality in “economic culture” is not only a fact of life in the USA; it goes against the predominate mentality of American society to even question or think of any other way of doing things. The “ideology” rules the minds, ideas, and emotions. Even if human experience may show that “cooperation” and “community” are better for the human soul; it seems that competition is better for humanly-isolating competitive “prosperity”. There are groups in America who disagree, and try to live differently to the ruling system and ideology of economic inequality – the “hippies” tried to do this, and there are religious and social groups who try to do so today, as some did in 19th century America – but these are the exceptions to the prevailing rule. (See, for example, “English”, No. 4, 1999, on “Simplicity” in the USA.)
I recently had an American Russophile visitor here in Moscow from Arizona. We were comparing our lives in Russia and America, and we were talking about why Americans do not discuss with each other – often even among friends or siblings – how much money they personally earn. I asked him why he thought this was. “Individualism,” he replied, “the individual is responsible for his own life alone”. This too is one of the mostly unconscious “structures” of American society, human relations and mentality. Individualism, like the idea of equality in politics (and increasingly equality in all aspects of culture and values – but not in economics) – pervades all aspects of life in the USA. It is something like the mental air one breaths.
YES members and other “English” readers who are serious about understanding the Americans, would do well to closely study US history, its traditions, culture, its economic-political structure, etc., in contrast to Russia’s own, and that of other European countries. It is not perhaps an easy task for Russians to understand the Americans – but it is a necessary task for Russia. It is in fact necessary to travel to, to experience, to feel the USA – in order for Russians to really begin to understand it. But studying American culture seriously, is a necessary, good beginning and prelude.
By Stephen Ludger Lapeyrouse