To Love Being American
If a person were ever truly interested in what makes Americans great, the most natural and enjoyable way would be to divorce his mind from an American perspective. And if we're to escape the malicious slander of the foreign press and anyone with an envious political agenda, the most natural way to go about getting an honest assessment is to avoid works by traitorous liberal academics and foreign newspapers altogether, and read books written for people who are attracted to us for one reason or another. And I believe that the most honest accounts given of American culture, in this case, are those found in travel guides.
The interest of the travel guide entrepreneur makes his assessments fairly trustworthy: his very business depends upon his giving an accurate account of our differences. Reading a Russian travel guide, for instance, shows that Americans hate and are suspicious of bribery, that we believe that acts of kindness should be reciprocated, and that we see opportunity and triumph where others see failure and misery – and perhaps most importantly of all, that we loathe a whiner. I've heard many Americans lament that Russians are manlier than we are – but what could be more manly than incorruptibility, justice, and a masculine optimism? This ignores even the fact that Russian men are advised not to ogle our women, and that doing so could land a visitor in serious trouble. We complain that American chivalry is dead – perhaps this is because we haven't been to Russia.
Reading a Japanese travel guide is equally flattering. Few would have guessed the minor victories of American civilization, such as our excellent and mannered driving, our passion for playing and working on the same days, and that Americans think of holding their liquor not as drinking in excess, but as controlling our consumption. Fewer still would have guessed that Americans are hearty laughers and heavily sarcastic – when reading a Japanese perspective, one could almost be led to think we were Germans (except, of course, for our moderate drinking habits). And yet again – almost as though that old American stereotype were the most or only true thing about us, visible from every perspective except our own – the Japanese guide mentions that we make mistakes and rise again, almost as though Americans were the only invincible people on the planet. In Japan, it says they are afraid to lose. In America, it says we know we have to be ready to lose before we can win.
The most insightful, eloquent, and flattering account ever given of Americans, though, has got to be Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Its old age does little to hamper its usefulness: we see the greatness of American culture explained in great detail by a French aristocrat, its vices and its virtues and its manners laid bare before us, and that germ of hearty and indomitable spirit explained. In it we have both a description of what we were and one of what we can be -- oftentimes what we still are. I've heard an old, well-traveled African man say that nothing was really American, because we've existed only 200 years. He should read Tocqueville explaining the differences between English and American manners, only shortly after our emancipation. Then suddenly the TEA Party makes sense, and the rugged mountain man and the railroad tycoon find themselves united: in fierce independence and self-reliance and unusual manners, perhaps never as religious or as educated or as chivalrous as when we were Puritans, and never quite as equal as during the Revolutionary era, but perhaps always only steps away from reclaiming these qualities. America has changed, but it is still America. It has yet to be seen whether we love our nation enough to remember who we are.
Perhaps we've been going about multicultural education all wrong. Perhaps instead of teaching the virtues of other nations, which is nearly always what happens, we should be showing our children how other people advise their friends and clients to behave around us. Perhaps some patriotic educator will take this suggestion seriously and write a new textbook. Not every man can afford to travel to a foreign nation; fewer still can visit multiple ones. But every student can examine himself through the lens of another nation, and know that if other nations are special, we are, too – in many ways, one might even call us exceptional.