Europeans love to condescend to Americans, but not until historian C. Vann Woodward put all the ways they do so into a book–The Old World’s New World, which came out in 1991–was it possible to see how inventive they’ve been about it over the past four centuries. First they worried about our environment–our animals were dwarfish and our plants lacked nutrients. Then they fretted about our intellectual life: Would we ever produce great poets? Then they waxed romantic about our charming freedom from social hierarchy. Then they turned against it, since the French Revolution had proved that social equality could never work. And on it goes, a list of nose-wrinkling quibbles you can still hear today: We’re mercenary, self-centered, impolite, and worst of all, too bourgeois to understand the geniuses of our age, such as Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke.
The latest outburst of Continental condescension comes, sad to say, from an American, albeit one who spends a great deal of time in Paris. Writing last Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, New York University politics professor Mark Lilla claims to have discovered why the Sixties still incite debate in America (under the guise of the culture wars) whereas such matters have long since been resolved in Europe: Americans naively make a religion out of democracy. They just don’t understand that politics is politics and culture culture, and so when they have a political revolution, they’re forced to apply its principles to “every aspect of our lives.” Hence feminism, or rather, in Lilla’s kind words, “the joyless militancy of American feminists”; multiculturalism; gay rights; and all the other movements which subject personal relations to “the exacting scrutiny of pure democratic principles.”
Undergirding Lilla’s hesitations about the spread of democracy into various corners of life are, of course, two Europeans–the two he credits with first descrying the worrisome “existential character of the American democratic faith,” the Frenchman Alexis De Toqueville and the Englishwoman Frances Trollope. But Woodward reveals the latter to have been possibly the biggest snob ever to chronicle American life. She was revolted by “that coarse familiarity, untampered by any show of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined.” And De Tocqueville, who is worth listening to, concluded his travels in America with an endorsement that dismissed all criticisms made earlier. To quote Woodward: “Granting that ‘the wishes of democracy are capricious, its instruments rude, its laws imperfect,’ granting as well an appalling list of shortcomings that he abhorred–minds ‘so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests’–Tocqueville still regarded democracy ‘not as the best, but as the only means of preserving freedom.’”
…Or Do We Just Hate Intellectuals?
Culturebox’s friend Nicholas Lemann writes:
The first time I saw Saving Private Ryan, it was hard to react in any way more nuanced than just being nearly flattened by its overwhelming power. The second time, though, I detected one false, and creepy, note. That is the demonization of Upham, the translator in Captain John Miller’s “stick,” in the final extended battle scene. Over and over, we are reminded of Upham’s cowardice: Upham, in giant trembly sweaty closeup, cringes in fear. Upham fails to come to the aid of his buddies. Upham has a series of clear shots at German soldiers who don’t see him, and can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. When Upham finally does kill, it’s too late to do any good, and in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. (I saw the movie at a multiplex in the Bronx, and my appreciation of this point was sharpened by the audience’s yelling “faggot!” every time Upham’s face filled the screen.) You’re clearly meant to hold Upham personally responsible for the death of three of his comrades at arms, including, as I read the narrative logic, Captain Miller, the hero.
The creepy part is, Upham is a sensitive, artistic type who announces early in the movie that he wants to depict the bonds that form among soldiers in combat–all of which also applies to the auteur of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg isn’t the first fictionalizer of war to establish his macho bona fides by humiliating a spun-off, pusillanimous version of himself. Remember Keefer, the writer-character in The Caine Mutiny, who spends most of his time proclaiming the superiority of moral principle to personal loyalty (just like Upham) and then gets humiliatingly told off in the end? The move here is to react to the automatic suspicion of anyone artsy in a military setting by signing on to it, rather than challenging it. See, I agree with you! They are all pansies! I’m a regular guy too! The Upham character is a particularly lurid example–his body type (skinny) and his movements (mincing) are completely different from those of the other soldiers, and seem somehow to be linked to his being more educated. Could his cartoonishness be an indication of how defensive Spielberg, who like nearly all upper-middle-class Americans of his generation didn’t serve in Vietnam, feels regarding the military and its virtues?