HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 9, 2008
From Liberty Street

Virtue American Style

John Turner


There's a series of commercials running on television now which shows gritty, smudge-faced working men conducting affairs not usually associated with them. In one case, firefighters are meeting in a legislative session. The moderator, grim and no nonsense, proposes a series of measures, and each one is enacted unanimously, with no discussion whatsoever. In another episode, a young man comes to a department of motor vehicles seeking a driver's license. It's an operation being run by steelworkers. Without a trace of courtesy the guy behind the desk makes a series of phone calls to see if the young man qualifies. When he gets the answer that a  driving test has been failed, he gruffly dismisses the applicant and growls, "Next."

All this is presented as no-nonsense efficiency, the way things ought to be. No difficult questions have to be confronted. No subtleties have to be taken into account. There is never an exception.  Everything is straightforward, commonsensical. There's no need for grace or humor in anything that needs to be done. Above all, there is never an occasion for reflection or for weighing one factor against another. Everything is always obvious.

I wonder how many people in American find this argument persuasive. I fear a larger percentage than we might imagine.

Contempt for thought has been a prominent feature of the American character since the nation's inception. Thought has been portrayed as weak, feminine, effete, Frenchified, disgusting, and, most of all unmanly. In this mode of opinion real men don't need to think. They know what's right without having to think about it. And, if one were to ask how they know, that would show how puny and girlified he is.

Surely everyone in the country has encountered a manifestation of the no-thought attitude. Who has not taken his car to a garage and got nothing but dismissive grunts from a mechanic? Who has not asked a question in a medical facility and received an affronted stare?

When it happens to us in a setting like that, we see how offensive it is. It's obviously the opposite of either efficiency or of virtue. Nobody learns anything. Nobody figures out how to do better in the future.

Yet, symbolically, we still seem to be drawn to cave man virtue. And we've got it in our heads to associate it with nationalistic vigor. We don't have to answer to anybody. We do what's right, no questions asked, and there's the end of it. It's the American way.

What it actually is, of course, is a deep-seated sense of inferiority that after all these years we're still trying to work our way out from under. In the beginning, America was the wilderness, and in European eyes, what was wilderness but a dumping ground for primitives? Who went there other than people who were too dumb or too low to succeed at home? Without really knowing it, we are still seeing ourselves too much through European eyes.

What's actually happening when a mechanic grunts at you? He thinks he's being tough and manly. But, in reality, he's afraid he can't speak adequately enough to tell you what he knows. And the sad thing is, he's probably right. His education was cankered by a social atmosphere which told him that learning the meaning of words and how to use them was sissified. And so, a vicious cycle was perpetuated. The boy failed to learn because he had a false sense of manhood. And, then, once he failed he became fearful of showing it, so he retreated behind grunts and roars.

It's absurd that the members of a rich, powerful, and in many ways, sophisticated, nation should be laboring under such a crippling notion this late in its development. Yet, there can be no doubt that it is with us still, and that it affects not only our relations among ourselves but also, with the other people of the world. In my travels, I have found they look at us in disbelief.  How can we be as we often are? How can we select the leaders that we do?

Our ability to speak intelligently to one another in America is so underdeveloped we are becoming increasingly pathetic. So the next time a manly man grunts at you, whether it's in a garage, or a hospital, or at a political rally, you can sympathize with him or you can tell him off. But what you shouldn't do it just let it pass. We've done that now for too long and the results are bad.

Who knows? Even our imaginary firefighters and steelworkers might learn to smile and engage in intelligent discussion -- as I'm sure some of the real ones can do already. Certainly, the ones who can need our support against coworkers who think decent manners are a sign of weakness.


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