Commentary Magazine


Cousins and Strangers, edited by S. Gorley Putt

American Stereotypes
by Clement Greenberg
Cousins and Strangers: Comments on America by Commonwealth Fund Fellows From Britain: 1946–1952. Edited by S. Gorley Putt. Published for the Commonwealth Fund by Harvard University Press. 222 pp. $3.50.

Every year the Commonwealth Fund, administered by the British but set up by a rich American, sends to this country, for study in their respective fields, twenty university graduates and five civil servants from Great Britain, along with five civil servants from the Dominions, two more from the Colonies, and up to three “editorial journalists.” They submit informal reports, and the present book is made up of excerpts from seventy-odd of these, arranged under headings that go from the very broad to the rather specific (e.g. “Medicine,” “Road Traffic”). A pretty accurate and sympathetic if sketchy view of many aspects of our life is afforded, but hardly anything gets described or explained in a really fresh way. This is not solely because the contributors write for non-Americans. The fact is that the American character, and the American scene, lend themselves to stereotyping, and most of the stereotypes seem to be true. Moreover, it is we Americans who are usually the first to recognize their truth.

Perhaps this can be explained by the unique nature of the tradition of American self-criticism no less than by the nature itself of the American people and of America. In most other countries earnest self-criticism has been aimed at a single class, the middle class. The English criticize their philistines, but not the English as such; the French their bourgeoisie, not the French as such; and it has been a good deal the same with the Italians and the Germans (though there are many exceptions in the latter case). It is quite different with us. The whole of America is seen as middle class in character, if not in social actuality, and so when we criticize our middle class or classes—and critical Americans share the animus of critical people the world over against the middle class—we criticize Americans as such. What is partial self-criticism for others becomes total for us, and hence we have tended to be more aware of our national self than others are of theirs.

Another reason is the fact itself of our being so predominantly middle class. It would seem that where the middle class can have its way it inclines toward openness and outwardness, if only to promote that mutual understanding which is so beneficial to efficiency and trade. There is also our frontier tradition, which is really the “tradition,” as much operative in the city as elsewhere, of uprooted people who must turn strangers into friends as quickly as possible. Whatever other factors are accountable, we do in this country behave as though intent on Hegel’s millennium, when the public and the private shall be as one, and the outside of a man declare everything about his inside. We sound, in Mr. Putt’s book as in others, like an imaginary country about which Gullivers can find out almost everything. And we sound all the more so because of the ostensible sameness that goes with our openness, the uniformity which smothers those inconsistencies and contradictions that would break us out of the realm of the imaginary into that of the unthinkably real.

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The openness and sameness that make us so easy to stereotype are themselves stereotypes. They are stereotypes (and not the only ones) that we live out, which go deeper than ideas or words, and form actual part of ourselves. They determine the American personality, which is a standardized one, as we ourselves and all the world know. Without a standardized personality, we doubtless would not manifest that “unity amid diversity” which is frequently remarked upon in Cousins and Strangers; without it, we probably would not get along with one another as well as we do, given our ethnic, racial, and regional heterogeneity. But to grant this does not make the standardized personality any the less a burden, or enable us to refute the devastating criticism implicit in even such a friendly book as Cousins and Strangers.

The English and the French—especially their cultivated classes—have a standardized manner, but it is a manner, not a personality, and leaves plenty of room for individuality and temperament. A standardized personality does not. And whereas the English or the French manner can make many a person appear more interesting than he really is, the American personality most often has the opposite effect. One commits oneself to a personality and believes in it; a manner can be put on and off, and private inclinations can be indulged and personal goals pursued behind it. A personality, ostensibly declaring the whole of oneself, leaves too little of the self over for self-cultivation or self-development. Not that many Englishmen and Frenchmen do not exhaust their selves in their manners as Americans exhaust their selves in their personalities: only the former are not expected to do so, and the latter are. And various informal sanctions are imposed to make sure that this expectation is met.

The observation in Cousins and Strangers that struck me most was A. Jane Pinsent’s (who was a Fellow in microbiology): “It is uncommon to find children listening to the conversations of their elders, or taking much notice of advice, and it is natural, therefore, that they miss many opportunities for learning by any means but direct experience. Moreover, having thus little contact with older people who have formed standards of their own, the process of formulation of private aims and ambitions is often greatly delayed. The standards of the group are readily adopted, success being measured entirely in terms of admiration elicited from the group. . . .” We used to think that this applied only to the children of immigrants, but Miss Pinsent makes no such qualification.

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What has been said above is not new; it is in the orthodox tradition of American self-criticism. But we are beginning to see, I think, how little this piling of true stereotypes and clichés on one another avails to rid us of what the stereotypes and clichés point to and are. This may be part of the reason for the greater political emphasis American self-criticism has acquired in recent years. At least things happen in politics, or seem to do so more definitely. But not only has this renewed emphasis on politics diverted attention from the real sources of our discomfort with ourselves; it has served to create stereotypes that, this time, are false.

The alarmed comments on the McCarthy episode in Cousins and Strangers are typical, and they could just as well have been made by most enlightened Americans at that time (before 1953). The latter find it as hard as any foreigner does to understand how the side of light usually manages to win out in an area where the means and the conditions seem so overwhelmingly on the side of darkness. If this is indeed hard to understand, it is because politics is the sphere in which the standardized American personality plays falsest with the reality of Americans themselves, and where what we seem to be doing corresponds least with what we actually do—which is to say that politics is one of the aspects of American life least amenable to accurate stereotyping, and where even what true stereotypes there are are largely misleading or irrelevant. Which is also to say that our politics, with everything that is wrong about it, stands least in need of the attention of our specifically American tradition of self-criticism. It has worked—for whatever extra-political reasons—better than the politics of most other countries, and cannot be complained about in terms like those in which we complain about the American personality or the quality of our life.

Right now, nonetheless, many enlightened Americans continue to insist on doing so. McCarthy and McCarthyism were already on their way out when the anti-shibboleth of “conformism” was raised, meaning that the demand that Bolshevism be universally regarded as a scandal, and not as “another point of view,” was acting to stifle independence, individuality, and dissidence in almost every department of American life. Manifestly, politics does not affect that much of it, and anti-Communist “conformism” weighs mostly on people actually drawn to Communist politics. Why then is such an issue made of anti-Communism, one that goes far beyond the necessity of defending civil liberties?

A most important, if unconscious, motive is, I feel, the need to project upon an outer agent the responsibility for an inner, voluntary conformism, from which American liberals suffer in their way as much as Nixon Republicans in theirs. (Illuminating in this context is how much the contributors to Mr. Putt’s book tend—albeit inadvertently—to lump intellectual and enlightened Americans together with the rest of the populace, character-wise.) The difference is that liberals are made more uncomfortable by the inner conformism even if they may not be more aware of its real nature. And sensing in politics a freedom from stereotyped actuality as is hardly to be found elsewhere in American life, they think that there they will be able to act most effectively against their discomfort. But this is asking of politics what it cannot give. The conformism we genuinely suffer from is not a matter of politics and cannot be overcome by political means. The perverse result of such a misconception is the attempt, precisely, to subject our politics too to stereotypes.

And since American politics has not generated enough of its own stereotypes (which have nothing to do with campaign oratory), these have to be imported from abroad—from the politics of the Continent, which is truly stereotyped. The Continental left and, even more, the Continental right are imposed upon American politics by mental violence, and politics in general becomes a theater for moral attitudinizing in which “correctness” and righteousness count for more than actual consequences. Fortunately, this system of rhetoric has remained confined to liberal and “neo-conservative” journalism, influencing no one’s real political behavior—not even that of the journalists themselves. Unfortunately, foreigners tend to think it (for understandable reasons) representative, and to take it more seriously. To that extent American politics is traduced in the world outside by Americans themselves; and to the extent that Americans cut their attitudes and expressions of feeling to its measure—as so many of the supposedly most enlightened of us are tending to do—to that extent they traduce politics at home. If Graeme C Moodie—a Fellow in political science, no less, and one of the few contributors to Cousins and Strangers who happens to be a professional writer—can write in 1950 that the United States was to “an appreciable degree along the road to a relatively polite and civilized form of totalitarianism,” his own weaknesses as a political observer are not entirely to blame; he was, I am sure, told the same thing by many Americans.

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