[lit-ideas] Two Sisters and the nature of America

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 2 Nov 2006 08:15:40 -0800



I think you introduce another possibility here, but one that doesn't
especially bear upon Elizabeth Peabody's "comforting symmetry," so I'll
attempt to explain what I was questioning in more detail and then take up
the issue you bring up.  


1.  The Loss of the possibility of a Comforting Symmetry


I have in mind here the arguments of Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut from their
French Philosophy of the Sixties, An Essay on Antihumanism.   They take up
the various philosophers and psychologists who have moved us away from
Humanism, and therefore individualism, and caused us (here of course we
can't just mean us Americans, but must mean us, the West) to feel helpless
before the forces of bureaucratic ruthlessness, incomprehensible texts,
Sociological forces, and a psychological unconscious that made decisions on
its own.  The element in these arguments that I especially had in mind was
from their section six, "French Freudianism (Lacan)."


Without rehashing their arguments, let me just observe that Freud and his
French "children" have caused us in the West to understand our psyches as
being extraordinarily, perhaps impossibly, complex.   It seems that we are
in a Freud-induced phase that is comparable to the old geo-centric
conception of the Solar System.  You could explain the Solar System in that
way but the move from a geocentric to heliocentric conception was indeed a
"comforting symmetry."


2.  The idea of an American Culture


I suspect I don't understand your point very well, John.  I'm familiar with
the concept of "Rugged Individualism," but not "American
hyperindividualism."  And I don't understand how anyone would suggest that
we are "nothing more than a collection of individuals and all value depends
on their idiosyncrasies."  


Last week on CSPAN-2, book notes, I listened to a German professor who is
now teaching over here.  His book addressed the subject of anti-Americanism.
He argued that it wasn't quite like what we imagined it to be.  He said that
part of the problem is that our culture is irresistible to most of the rest
of the world.  Every American fad quickly sweeps the world.  Spike our hair
and paint it orange?  Soon teen-agers from Poland to Japan are doing the
same thing.  Put ear-rings in our navels and tongues?  What great fun most
of the rest of the world thinks -- America as the place where (most of the
rest of the world thinks) everything interesting is invented -- according to
him (and I can't recall his name).  This "cultural influence" is what the
Chinese, and perhaps more conservative cultures everywhere (including in the
U.S.) are resisting. 


I heard Robert Kagan on CSPAN2 talk about his new book Dangerous Nation,
subtitled, America's Place in the World from its earliest days to the Dawn
of the Twentieth Century.  I read the introduction and was put off by part
of it.  He writes, "Most Americans today would be surprised to know that
much of the world regarded America, even in its infancy, as a very dangerous
nation."   That is going to be his main emphasis, but he follows this
sentence with ""When they think of the nation's relations to the world in
the decades before and after the Revolution, the words they tend to conjure
are 'isolation,' 'nonentanglement,' 'neutrality.'"  Is this true?


I will be interested in what he has to say about us "before and after" our
Revolution.  I am more familiar with the argument about our isolationism in
modern times, and isolationism has played a role.  In both World Wars, "most
Americans" didn't want to get involved.  Wilson was elected to keep us out
of war.  Much has been written about how Roosevelt had to pick the right
time to maneuver us into World War II.  The fact that "most Americans"
didn't want to get involved in the European wars doesn't detract from the
idea that we are a "Dangerous Nation."  After we entered these wars we were
as dangerous as all get out, but isolationism has still been a significant
element in our national development.  Perhaps Kagan will treat this
reasonably later in his book.


I checked Kagan's index and didn't find the name Walter Russell Mead.  Mead
in Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World,
interestingly moves away from the idea that we are this or that, a dangerous
nation or an isolationist nation, and argues that we are both these things
and some others as well.  Mead is helpful in that he doesn't try to make
America just one thing.  He argues that there have been four major elements
in our history that have influenced foreign policy.  He calls them
Jeffersonianism, Hamiltonianism, Wilsonianism, and Jacksonianism.  Kagan
seems to be concentrating upon what Mead would call Jacksonianism.
Jacksonians are the ones who are militarily the most dangerous, but at the
same time they are also the most isolationist.  They are the red-necks who
are perfectly willing to fight as long as the fight makes some sort of
sense.  It doesn't always make sense to get into fights about things that
don't concern us way over there.  Since the Jacksonians are as a group the
least bright, it is readily possible to convince them that our "vital
interests" are at stake and they need to get into uniform and go fight "way
over there" for the good of the nation.  All those smart people in
Washington must know what they are talking about; so where's my gun?


I recall when I first read Mead I thought it would clarify much if people in
Europe could become acquainted with his arguments.  We had a Frenchman on
Phil-Lit at the time.  He had very strange ideas, in my opinion, about
America and its foreign policy.  I recommended Mead to him as a way to gain
greater insight into America.  He responded indignantly, [not a precise
quote, but close] "I don't want to learn more about America.  Why don't you
learn more about France?"




-----Original Message-----
From: John McCreery
Sent: Wednesday, November 01, 2006 10:41 PM
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Two Sisters in Love


On 11/2/06, Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:


> My doubts about Miller's conclusion sympathize with the criticisms such

> cultures as the Chinese have of the American.  Is our complexity, our lack

> of innate goodness truly the standard for all mankind, or is there another

> way of looking at these matters -- a way we've forgotten?



Interesting question, this. I wonder if the problem isn't what some

would call our American hyperindividualism. If we start with the

assumption that society is nothing more than a collection of

individuals and all value depends on their idiosyncracies, then

conversation is reduced to "I see it this way" versus "Well, I see it

that way," with little hope of persuasion and nothing left but to walk

away or resort to force.


Historically most societies, Chinese, Japanese, old European,

whatever, assume values and principles that everyone is supposed to

share, at least within their national boundaries. International

agreements and laws assume, in addition, that some values and

principles transcend national boundaries. That, however, is only an

extension of the basic proposition that you, I, everyone who counts as

one of "us" shares a common framework to which we can turn when

attempting to adjudicate which of our claims is closer to something

all can agree on. The values and principles to which we resort

transcend the idiosyncracies that make us the individuals we are. They

give us a structure in relation to which we can all  be eccentric

without either flying apart or beating each other's heads in.





John McCreery

The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN



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