I like to think that Americans are a friendly, cooperative people, fair minded and good, but is that all really true? It’s more or less true, I believe, but the question is: how much more, or less?
We all have things that we keep carefully hidden from ourselves, and opinions that we wisely keep to ourselves. It may not even be a good idea to dwell too long on the subject of America’s true character. We all have a vested interest in the myths, and we all would prefer to believe that America is, on balance, a positive force in the world. My attitude, like the good Irishman that I am, is that America is not better than other countries, but it’s probably as good as any of them.
But Americans themselves . . . are they nice? Are they good?
D.H. Lawrence is quoted as saying that “[t]he essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” The truth may lie somewhere in between.
My Grandparents’ America
This was really the pre-ironic America, a society without Freud and free from self-examination. This generation, born in the late Nineteenth Century, went through their lives believing that America was literally the America of Saturday Evening Post covers. They knew that that wasn’t true, because they knew their lives to be desperately hard. They believed it anyway, maybe just for public consumption or maybe because they had convinced themselves that it was so. It wasn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting at all, though.
That was America, pre-workers’ rights or civil rights, the America of Jim Crow (and the north wasn’t a whole lot better either), a time and place of grinding poverty and epidemic infant death. My maternal grandmother experienced five pregnancies that resulted in three live births. My paternal grandfather’s first wife died along with their first child, in childbirth. There was a lot of early death in general. Disease was rampant, antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet, and people had no insurance and no money for medical care. My maternal grandfather died, overworked and under-appreciated, of pneumonia, at the age of about forty. There was also a lot of fighting among the men. My paternal grandfather participated in a great number of these fights, and started most of the ones he was in. And there was a lot of rape, too.
My maternal grandmother’s sister was raped, and it was a particularly terrible example of the practice. It was 1918, and she was tricked into a private space and gang raped by a group of Doughboys shortly before they shipped out for World War I. Her great beauty and outgoing personality were her undoing. She got pregnant and had the baby, a well-loved aunt of mine. This kind of thing was much more prevalent than is understood or remembered, because the shame of it all drove most women to keep the act a secret. If my aunt hadn’t gotten pregnant, I would certainly not know of the event.
The point is, America has never been the sunny place that appears in its own self-aggrandizing public relations materials, or should I say propaganda. In reality, no segment or demographic of American society could stand any of the others during this period. Some would say that it is no better today.
Those were rough times. They were rough people living rough lives, in the midst of great economic achievement and obscene wealth. Not nice at all, and with very little good to recommend it, with the possible exception of jazz.
My Parents’ Generation
The greatest myth of all surrounds this generation, born, let’s say, around 1920. That’s the myth of the “Greatest Generation,” so-called mostly because they are credited with having won World War II. For one thing, they had help, you can ask the Russians and the Chinese about that. For another thing, their conduct of the war was less than great. It was less, indeed, than admirable in many cases.
Prisoners of war? Well, forget the Marines’ treatment of the Japanese soldiers that they met, there was no taking of Japanese prisoners, by their own choice. And the Marines get a pass, because they had been roughly handled by the Japanese soldiers and they could say that they were responding in kind. In the European Theater of Operation the worst prisoner abuse took place in the war between the Russians and the Germans. On the Western Front, the American armed forces committed many of the more egregious excesses. Many, many prisoners never made it back to the lock-ups, and “die-hards” were simply killed. SS troopers, and many ordinary German soldiers, were all treated as die-hards.
Terror bombing by American air forces started a long time before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was, in fact, old hat by then. Every German city of any size at all was leveled, and towards the end this was done by fire-bombing. Every single Japanese city was leveled. Nagasaki completed the set. The loss of civilian lives in Germany and Japan was huge. (Other countries suffered greater losses, but not at the hands of Americans. Rather, at the hands of the Germans and the Japanese. That's another story.)
Racism was rampant all through this period. During the earlier, simpler times, racism was casually accepted and almost universal. By the Thirties and Forties, civil rights were beginning to be discussed, and black Americans were beginning to speak up a bit (they had to be very careful about it, you know, or they’d get themselves hung from a tree or something). In these discussions, the vast
majority of white Americans gave a resounding HELL, NO. That’s not very nice.
Over in California, there were the Zoot Suit riots. White people were furious to see Chicanos getting decent jobs and wearing decent clothes.
And let’s not forget the internment of Japanese AMERICANS during the war. Those poor souls lost all of their stuff and spent years in dusty desert shit holes before the Supreme Court decided that it was all illegal, done because they happened to be members of a group of Asians that we didn’t like.
The “Greatest Generation” were themselves, almost to a man, a bunch of racists and xenophobes for the remainder of their lives. Thank you for your service! But a little more common decency would not have been out of place.
My generation wasn’t much different, not much better. We had a few things happen that started to open some eyes, things like the integration of baseball and rock and roll radio in the Fifties. (By the Sixties, radio was segregated again.) Most young people were still ill disposed to black Americans who did not play baseball or make hit records.
It’s possible that we fought a bit less than previous generations as boys, but we fought a lot. There was a lot of bullying, and a lot of rough teasing of the handicapped, especially the mentally handicapped. There were good boys and bad boys in my milieu, but the bad outnumbered the good. We who found ourselves somewhere in the middle were a mixed bag of tricks with little to recommend us.
As adults, we hardly fight at all, for the same reason that children don’t fight much anymore. These days, fighting is very likely to result in one’s getting shot, either during the fight or afterwards. America is a violent place, senselessly so.
Regarding racism, things have always been terrible and it would be ridiculous to suggest that they have gotten much better. The furious row over our Kenyan Witchdoctor President and his Wookie Wife preclude any hosannas at all. What could have been a moment of triumph has proven to be a moment of shame. Not to mention that police shootings of black Americans now make the old school lynchings seem almost quaint. The situation now may be even more horrible and discriminatory for blacks than at any time since the abolition of slavery, because it’s all so out in the open again and it’s obviously sanctioned by a substantial part of our government.
Not only blacks are getting shot, and it’s not just police doing the shooting. Everyone is shooting everyone these days. It’s the new national sport! Mass shootings; grudge shootings; ambush murders; accidental shootings; suicides; shootings incident to crime. Children find guns and shoot other children, and then get charged with murder as adults (this is a way that our sick society attempts to exculpate itself).
And we are as xenophobic as ever. Just ask any Muslim.
But what about those Americans, eh? How about that American character? Over-rated, at best. And certainly not in the mold of so-called “American Exceptionalism.”
Was D.H. Lawrence right about us? He was close, at least. We are a hard bunch, and stoic, and proud of our isolation (we call it, “independence”), and there are lots of killers among us, more, it seems, every day.
I do think of us as a friendly, sociable people, though, which is a positive. We’re direct, I guess that one can cut both ways. We’re undeniably hard working, our government and our Galtian overlord super-rich masters do make sure that we keep those hamster wheels spinning. We’re creative, that’s another positive.
But . . .
Cooperative? It happens, but not always. We hold grudges, and we’re still very selfish, xenophobic and racist.
Fair minded? Usually, but only if times are good, and not at all if a minority is seeking to level the playing field.
Nice? That may never have been in the cards, except for some blessed individuals.
Good? That, dear reader, is probably out of the question.