Coelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt was Horace’s observation on the narrowing effects of travel: “Those who go across the sea change their weather but not their mind.” It is the rare tourist who gets more out of his expeditions than a confirmation of his prejudices. One of the most intelligent visitors to the United States was Robert Louis Stevenson, who—unlike the Trollopes and Dickens and Oscar Wilde, who saw life only from the safe perspective of the middle class—traveled by steerage and on immigrant trains. But even Stevenson brought his Scottish prejudices with him. After visiting the United States, he offered this version of the Horatian tag: “Change Glenlivet for Bourbon, and it is still whiskey, only not so good.” Perhaps he never tasted a good bourbon.
Most foreigners, no matter how long they are with us, regard America as a wife whom they may come to take for granted, but never understand. Of course, every journalist, intellectual, and Japanese tourist who steps off a plane believes that he has the clue to a national character that continues to puzzle the natives. I was once interviewed by an Australian journalist doing a story on regional politics in the US. Being a hardworking and open-minded sort, he had picked up a few authentic tidbits and put them into his story—he’d even driven an hour out of the way to interview an eccentric living on the edge of the woods. However, the published version of his piece could have been written by a staff writer for The New York Times. His editor back in Sydney knew that the details of small town and rural life did not fit the big picture of life according to Time, Newsweek, and The Atlantic.
On another occasion, I spent an evening with a local television anchorman, recently transplanted from Buffalo to South Carolina. Inevitably, he was writing a book about the South. After reading Cash’s The Mind of the South and attending a few lower-middle-class cocktail parties in Charleston, he had concluded that Southerners were stupid, ignorant, credulous, and bigoted. Of course there were no race problems in Buffalo, no ignorance, no religion, and of course he had not run into any cultivated Southerners.
Journalists are hardly alone in preferring ignorance. One of modernism’s most charming traits is a blind faith in naiveté and inexperience. I well remember the worst graduate student in classics I ever met, son of a distinguished Northeastern art historian. He knew neither Latin nor Greek, but—he assured me—his very lack of training was a guarantee of freshness and originality. It is, of course, much easier to understand the Iliad from a Monarch outline. Original texts, like real experiences, only muddle the picture. As Wilde’s Lady Bracknell so sagely observed: “Ignorance is like a rare, exotic fruit: touch it and the bloom is gone.”
Travelers were not always so cocksure. Herodotus, the first and best of the literary tourists who have survived, preserved a sort of boyish simplicity throughout his researches. It allowed him to repeat the various sides of a political controversy, preserving the equally valuable myth alongside of plausible accounts. He also swallowed the nonsense fed to him by Egyptian priests and tour guides. The result is first-rate reportage—Naipaul without the sneers—brilliantly arranged as part of a cosmic struggle between East and West. We make do with Jonathan Raban. As Paul Fussell said recently in another context, the age cries out for a Jonathan Swift, and we have to settle for Gore Vidal.
Vidal might as well stay in Italy all year long (instead of just most of the time), for all he understands of American politics. I know Americans who like to think the Economist beats American publications in covering the US political scene. This is true to the extent that Economist reporters do not exempt New York liberals from their general contempt. But reading about the United States in a European newspaper is a little like watching Ran, Kurosawa’s powerful adaptation of Macbeth. Sure, we recognize the story, but there is something a little strange about the dress, not to say the accent.
Alexis de Tocqueville is usually held up as the example of a foreigner who understood us better than we understood ourselves. He was unquestionably a penetrating analyst—his writings on France are sufficient to prove that. When he turned his intelligence to things American, the results were a book that continues to influence the way we look upon our country. But if Tocqueville was an exception, he was still an exception that proves the rule: he came to America with a thesis to prove (or at least a central question to answer), and he found the evidence in the townships of New England. On the rest of the country, he drew a blank, establishing a pattern to be followed by Mrs. Trollope (who did get to Cincinnati) and other literary visitors.
The best European observers of American political life have followed in Tocqueville’s footsteps in trying to discover how it is that “democracy” works here, but not in other places. Henry Sumner Maine thought the answer could be found in all the restraints we had laid upon popular government. He predicted, quite correctly, that the English would do themselves mischief if they attempted to establish popular rule without the checks of indirect representation or federalism. He also realized that in the democracies of the future, the old corruption of “giving to expectant partisans places paid out of the taxes” would be replaced by a new corruption of “legislating away the property of one class and transferring it to another.” In America we called it a New Deal. Under the old American system at least, the propertied classes would have been able to cut the cards.
Tocqueville was among the first foreigners to understand that our system worked not so much because the framers of the Constitution were in possession of any special genius as because the facts of day-to-day life in small towns and rural areas had taught us the practical lessons of self-government. Of course, we could have learned the same lessons from Jefferson and Adams and Patrick Henry, but Americans are always overawed by foreigners, especially if one of their ancestors had been sufficiently bloodthirsty to earn himself a title. We even kowtow to life peers who virtually purchase their titles with money or, worse, with that species of chicanery we call public service.
Our gullibility is something extraordinary. What else explains the success of Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn in their careers as latter-day Tocquevilles? I can understand how there got to be so many British academics in American universities. As one of our editors points out, one’s colleagues won’t endure a talented American, so the only way to hire competent scholars is to make sure they’re foreigners. Foreign birth and foreign loyalties present no obstacle to the work of an historian or classicist.
With political journalists it is a different story. There is no evidence that either Mr. Cockburn or Mr. Hitchens know anything of life in America—or much of anything else, for that matter. Poor Hitchens, taking his usual potshots at conservatives (The Nation, June 11), tries to grapple with the question of Michael Dukakis’s standing in the Orthodox Church: “For not having baptized his children he is denied the solace of certain sacraments [e.g., communion], but he is not excommunicated.” Like most contributors to The Nation, Hitchens needs to buy a dictionary.
Hitchens may not be more ignorant or more malevolent than most American journalists, but we’re stuck with them. Why we don’t deport a venomous little toad like Alexander Cockburn is a mystery. There is altogether too much loose talk about anti-Semitism in America, but I cannot imagine why else the left puts up with Cockburn.
I wish I could say that conservatives were exempt from the general xenophilic gullibility, but they aren’t. Liberals like John Judis (in his articles in The New Republic) and Dan Himmelfarb (in Commentary) are not entirely off base in detecting a certain foreign flavor in the American right. (I only wish they would get their facts straight. M.E. Bradford and Clyde Wilson are not counterreformational, counterrevolutionary Catholics, but Jeffersonian Protestants. Don’t these guys ever get outside of the Washington-New York axis?) Conservatives have been, perhaps, excessively preoccupied with questions of social stability, hierarchy, and the majesty of the state. In this, they have been influenced not a little by the distinguished European rightists with whom they have made common cause.
On balance, this influence has been enormously beneficial and has resulted in a broader debate and a higher level of generalization. We have to some extent escaped from the parochial notions of American exceptionalism and view with suspicion our messianic role among the nations of the earth. The essays by distinguished metics in this issue alone are sufficient proof of their contribution. Europeans remain, however, European, and they miss certain things even a yokel or a political sociologist takes for granted. Tocqueville, for example, missed entirely the significance of Andrew Jackson in strengthening the executive branch of the government, and his successors have uniformly denounced Jackson for introducing the spoils system and introducing mob rule. Of course, he did neither. His real sin was being a Jeffersonian.
It is precisely that Jeffersonian tradition that so many of our European friends hold responsible for all the ills of the commonwealth, and they have been followed by a majority of conservatives. Without wishing to stir up the old animosities between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, Feds and anti-Feds, I would like to observe that on most of the questions of the past 50 years, virtually all of the Founding Fathers would speak out with one voice against growth of the national government, the usurpations of the Supreme Court, and the welfare state’s depredations against family and community life. Forrest McDonald has done an heroic job of rescuing Hamilton from liberal statists, and a proper reading of Dumas Malone’s Jefferson would convince any American that the party of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Dukakis is not the party of Jefferson.
European conservatives, coming out of traditions of clericalism and aristocracy, will never be made to understand that what are bulwarks against tyranny in France would serve a quite different purpose in America. For better or worse, our conservative tradition is closer to communal libertarianism than to the French Counterrevolution, as much Cobbett as Burke, and even—stretching a continental analysis—smacks more of syndicalist labor unions than of the monarchist legitimists who continue to claim the thrones of France and Spain. What is conservatism in France is radicalism in America. As Edward O. Wilson says somewhere, it would be folly to take our politics from the ants. It is only a little less foolish to take them from the French.
It is hard to blame a Frenchman or German or Hungarian for failing to comprehend what so few Americans are able to grasp. The fault lies entirely with the Americans, not only for accepting a European perspective on American democracy but even more for reinfecting each new set of visitors with the Old World disease. It can be observed, time after time, how European conservatives arrive with open minds, eager to figure out what makes us tick, until they meet up with one or another rightist sectary—Old Right or Neoconservative—who fits them out with a mythic framework of demons and saints. (Depending on the point of view, everything went bad with either Andrew Jackson or Lyndon Johnson.) That these interpretations of our history are almost entirely derived from third-rate liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, seems to trouble no one. The conservative role in American intellectual life is to believe what the liberals tell us and then do the opposite. If they like Jackson or celebrate the populists, then we must hate them. If they like Proust, we prefer John P. Marquand or James Gould Cozzens (both of whom, let me add, I read with pleasure), and if The New Republic talks about rock music, then we learn to content ourselves with Guy Lombardo or, at best, Duke Ellington. And so we send our travelers home with some very strange notions about the state of the Republic.
Even if a European never spoke with an American conservative, he would have a hard enough time of it. Every man in a foreign country is more or less an imbecile. No matter how long he stays, he will never get the drift of even half of the pointless jokes and references. For all the many times I have been to Canada, I understand next to nothing of Canadian politics. I did not realize the depths of my ignorance until I struck up a conversation with the editors of The Idler in Toronto. Canada is as close to being American as it is possible to be, and yet we remain worlds apart in some ways. An American there, a Canadian or European here, are in the position of a son-in-law at the first family union of his wife’s relatives.
This is one of the perils of anthropology. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who did so much superb fieldwork among the Nuer of the Sudan, was still the repeated butt of their practical jokes. On one occasion they kept him up all night long, telling bizarre stories to illustrate their ideas on sex. Afterwards, they could not repress their amusement over the ease with which the Englishman had been taken in. Throughout her entire life, Margaret Mead never did catch on to what should have been obvious: natives are not necessarily less intelligent than the civilized traveler. Most journalists don’t catch on either, although a good foreign journalist, like a good anthropologist, can often see things that custom has made invisible to us. Leopold Tyrmand (Chronicles‘ late editor) was full of such insights, and it is interesting to note that among the best English correspondents in the US is the Spectator‘s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Perhaps he learned something from the old man.