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Reading America from the Outside

Is America any longer a nation with good character? This fraught political question, striking at the heart of culture and identity, receives provocative yet judicious attention from James L. Nolan, Jr. in What They Saw in America, a new study of four of the most famous foreign critics of the United States: three European, and relatively friendly; one Egyptian, and not.

Insightful Outsiders

Nolan’s wager is that by comparing and contrasting the pungent observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, G.K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb, we may reread the tapestry of our national character—the better to reckon with how it has changed, how it has not, and how we might work to redeem its “dark strands.” Approvingly quoting Jacques Maritain that “every great human reality is ambivalent” and “the best things involve dangers or are accompanied by more or less serious defects,” Nolan hopes to show that paying greater attention to our vices will cause our virtues, too, to leap into greater relief—precious resources for a nation, after all.

“Listening to these outsiders’ views,” Nolan writes, “may help Americans better understand themselves, more fully empathize with the values of other cultures, and more deeply comprehend how the United States is perceived from the outside. Attending to these insights may also help Americans do a better job of recognizing their positive features”—especially the ones “not easily given to exportation” yet “worthy of admiration.” While the details of these attributes are mostly left to the reader’s imagination, Nolan cites Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, himself among America’s most fiercely critical friends, to underscore one bright thread in particular: “the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities.” What  Nolan, the Washington Gladden 1859 Professor of Sociology at Williams College, cherishes in America’s national character is a certain kind of even and fruitful distribution of human energy.

All too familiar national energies of a different sort, he laments, are often what make an impression abroad, to the detriment of America’s reputation. “Our often-contested involvement in the international community can sometimes engender ambivalence, if not outright hostility,” he admits, citing “imperialistic tendencies, whether of the military or cultural varieties,” which the four men featured here grew “more critical of” over time.

From Faith to Fabrication

Critics of America often begin with the South, as is the case with Nolan’s visitors. Weber, like Tocqueville, recognized in the South a fundamentally aristocratic, even feudal culture. Southern democracy, he would conclude, “has never actually existed and still does not exist to this day.” Yet in an important pivot, Nolan shows that Weber also recognized in Northern culture a “peculiar” institution of its own: a new sort of aristocracy unlike that in the South, one that combined a “fundamental religious ideology” and a taste for what Nolan calls “sectlike associations” with a “mercantilist business economy.”

Nor was Weber, Nolan indicates, alone. At the cusp of the industrial era, Tocqueville assessed America’s feverish industry as a kind of ranging of the spirit made fruitful and sustainable only by the anchoring of religion and religious mores in heart and hearth. But by the turn of the 20th century, the increasing abstraction and individuation of Northern Christianity, and the superhuman speed and scale unleashed by technological advancement, had shifted the anchor in the American character from faith to fabrication—in the mechanical and the more diaphanous senses of the word. Weber said that, in the grip of a “romance of quantity” that “rules the souls” of the country, the “goal” of characteristically American “hope” had become something “no one actually knows.”

Chesterton, too, stressed the “permanent ethic of unmeaning hopefulness” that had set in among the Americans. Yet Chesterton drew a concrete kind of hope himself from his experience of Main Street America, where he observed (in South Bend, Indiana) neighbors and townsfolk, gossipy but treating one another with “almost universal hospitality,” putting trust and fellow-feeling above any observance of class. Still, Nolan intimates, a culture of hope for the sake of hope arises all too naturally from what Chesterton called Americans’ “passionate worship of energy for its own sake.” Chesterton linked the “general restlessness” of the American character with the kind of capitalism industrial technology had made possible. Like the “plutocracy and promotion” the practical American sciences gave cultural rise to, the American compulsion to put on a happy face exhibited a fundamental unreality.

He felt that the boastfulness, exaggeration, even deception endemic to promotional advertising influenced the character of Americans. The individual was, in this climate, compelled toward a sort of boosterism, a cheerful elevation of the self that imitated the selling of a manufactured product.

For Chesterton, writes Nolan, the emergent doctrine of salvation through illusion that took hold in the industrial age might not have destroyed the national character of “real republican virtues” still surviving on Main Street; but the new creed shone definitively forth in daily life. Nolan ably traces the interlinked ethic of hope for hope’s sake, self-commoditization, and competitive conformity from its origins to the present day, “psychopharmalogical remedies” and all. And he persuasively uses Chesterton’s judgments to illustrate the theme of his study that America’s “serious defects” are among its most potent exports. “We are especially taught to hail as the best thing in America what is certainly the worst thing in America,” Chesterton moaned, “the horrible and repulsive thing called Optimism.”

Markets, Masters, and Servants

But Nolan might have profitably paused to consider (as Thomas Pynchon does so profoundly in his 2006 novel Against the Day) how industrial capitalism arose in the United States and Europe as just one of several culturally revolutionary outworkings of the rise and triumph of electricity. While he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “the machine necessitates the idea of master and servant,” it is also Chesterton who attacks the power behind the machine—the sudden conquest of the dark hours of sleep and rest with work and illumination—in his Distributist writing. This connection must be made explicit if we are to fully understand how Chesterton’s democratic hope in American “spontaneous social organization” differs from the “spontaneous order” of electric-age market economists.

As Chesterton wrote in his 1925 essay “The Free Man and the Ford Car”: “Dependence for essential power on a central plant is a real dependence, and is therefore a defect in any complete scheme of independence” among sane, mature equals. Servile reliance on a far-off master for energy—whether biological or electrical—saps what is best in America’s, and, Nolan might well say, any country’s national character. The “omnipresence of machinery” and the “omnipresence of newspapers” Chesterton railed against were controlling hallmarks of a new electric servility—the fruits of “technological innovation,” as Nolan does suggest, increasingly “attenuating social capital and intensifying the alarming levels of loneliness in America.”

In fact, in Chesterton’s day, the brute unreality of the electric age—its material advantages notwithstanding—had only just begun. By the time of Sayyid Qutb’s journey to the United States, the American national character, and the most successfully exported strain of American culture, were defined by the superficially cheerful and more deeply despairing experience of frenetic unreality fostered by electrically-powered cycles of promoting and conforming. In New York, notes Nolan, Qutb saw “the herd in every place, the agitated, confused herd that knew no purpose except for money and pleasure.” In place of natural beauty, there was “perpetual anxiety, perpetual work, perpetual desire,” as “spirit, thoughts, and body live in loneliness.”

Importantly, Qutb, infamous as the Muslim Brotherhood’s best-known theorist, yearned not at all for a new dark age. He lauded America’s “educational institutions and laboratories” and its “brilliant planning and management” as feats of “wonder and imagination.” Yet he pined for evidence that the “material greatness” of America was linked any longer in a radical sense to “the quality of its people.” Strangely like the media theorist Neil Postman, Nolan recognizes, Qutb saw that electric entertainment had even conquered the church life of many Americans. As Tocqueville had been able to warn, Christianity in America drew much of its strength from its sheer popularity; as technological conditions altered the ground of experience and imagination, religious observances often swiftly followed suit, conforming to newly electrified popular pursuits. “Arguably,” Nolan cautions, “Qutb identified a tendency that has only become more pronounced in recent decades, at least among some church communities.”

The Distaste for the Supernatural

Nolan makes clear that like Tocqueville and Chesterton, Qutb did not see Weber’s iron cage of secularization as a historical or anthropological dead end. Through a renewal of religious devotion, a harmonization of natural beauty with salutary control could be achieved. Qutb wrote that “When humanity closes the windows to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether, there remains no outlet for its energy to be expended except in the realm of applied science and labor, or to be dissipated in sensual pleasure.”

The trouble for Americans, however, was that the scientific environment in America had remade Christianity in its image—as “an individualistic, detached and negative religion” rooted falsely in personal satisfaction on Earth instead of “a denial of worldly life.” Though bracing coming from a critic such as Qutb, Nolan reminds us, the basic thrust of his condemnation of American spiritualism has been adopted over the past several generations by everyone from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to John Foster Dulles to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Indeed, the soon-to-be-Pope agreed that “Islam is capable of offering a valid spiritual basis for the life of the people, a basis that seems to have slipped out of the hands of old Europe, which, thus, notwithstanding its continued political and economic power, is increasingly viewed as a declining culture condemned to fade away.”

Nolan concludes on a portentous note, observing that Qutb was hardly the only outsider to foresee “a disaster for humanity if the world became America.” Indeed, these unsettling chimes and echoes suggest that Qutb “is pointing to certain truths—however entangled with exaggeration and vitriol they may be—that, in Tocqueville’s words, only a foreigner can make reach the ears of Americans.” Well troubled by the way America’s global influence has left Americans and others alike angry or cold, Nolan’s searching analysis raises many pressing questions, one of which looms above all: Will the new digital age now eclipsing our recent industrial and electric past help Americans re-weave the tapestry of national character with brighter threads, new and old? Or will it transform that character, once again, faster than we can keep up, thrusting us forward into a new and unknown darkness?

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