an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Understanding the Americans?

Part 1

On a YES page of English (No. 2, 1999), there was an interesting article entitled: “American Political Culture” submitted by Olga Olgova. As an American historian and writer who has attempted to convey insights into American history, culture and civilization in American Reflections to Russians, I would like to use the opportunity presented by this YES piece to make some additionally comments which I hope will be useful and helpful for deepening an understanding of America amidst my Russian readers.

George Kennan (1904–2005)
George Kennan

George Kennan – who helped establish the US Embassy in the USSR, and who was US Ambassador for a few months in 1952 (till he was expelled), and a man with a deep interest and love of Russia, her history, culture, literature, etc. – wrote in 1944:

There will be much talk about the necessity for “understanding Russia”; but there will be no place for the American who is really willing to undertake the disturbing task. The apprehension of what is valid in the Russian world is unsettling and displeasing to the American Mind.

The great contrast he indicates here – then between the USSR and the USA – is not merely to be explained by the obvious differences between “communism” vs. “capitalism”, “totalitarianism” and “democracy”; the contrasts of which Kennan writes also existed of course in the 19th century’s differences of monarchical “Holy Russia” and republican USA. As Alexander Herzen wrote in 1865:

The North American States and Russia represent two solutions which are opposite but incomplete, and which therefore complement rather than exclude each other.

And the contrast of Russia and America obviously continues still today, even after the historic dissolution of the USSR. But, if Americans have a difficult time “understanding Russia”, let me try to see how well the Russians can “understand America”. (The young Russian readers of this piece may not have any experience of the immediately-following social facts – though they were true only just a few years ago.)

When an American came to Soviet Russia, he often heard, directly and indirectly, strong opinions and positions on the USA. Official Soviet propaganda and the ideological war of course condemned the “evils” and injustices of American society, government, life, and culture, and often exaggerated them unto ridiculousness; all too often the Russian people themselves seemed to react to this, with an equally impossible idealization of how “good” all of life in the USA was. How many times did Russians criticize me, in those many conversations in Russia, for attempting to say anything even mildly critical or negative of life, politics and society in the USA! Russian psychology at that time seemed to need to believe in a really wonderful life in America – perhaps as a waking-dream compensation for their difficult life and problems in the USSR, or a protection for their identity as people having “superior”, deeper, impossible life problems, compared to the “ease of life” in the USA. After many such encounters, I gave up trying to explain the realities of life in America to Russians. It was clear that they could not, or did not want, to understand or believe what I said; and I eventually decided to not “pop their bubble” in their difficult lives. (Some, fewer, Americans – liberals, socialists, etc. – at the very same time often held the very opposite, indisputable, convinced belief: of how wonderful life in the USSR was, in contrast to the problems and insufficiencies of the USA!) When I returned from my very interesting month-longs visits to the USSR, some of my American friends in California were only in the most superficial ways interested in hearing about them. One conversation I especially recall went something like this: “Oh, hey Stephen! How was Russia?” “It was one of the most interesting experiences of my life.” “Oh, that's nice; good to see you again.” End of questions; end of conversation! Others, and they were often the (comparatively few) people who were the most well-educated, experienced and knowledgeable of life and world, were very interested. A few of these people even gave the impression of beginning to understand my descriptions of life “there”. But still, most – and this included both groups – simply did not at all believe me when I tried to give accounts of my experiences of the intense passions and poetry of the Russian soul; they all more or less politely and indirectly let me know that I had fantasized this! So in frustration I eventually also gave up trying to convince Americans about the astonishing “magical” conversations and enlivening adventures during my visits to Soviet Russia (mostly Moscow and Leningrad). I personally understood what Kennan had meant, when he wrote of the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop, where few have been before, where few can follow, and where few will consent to believe that he has been.

Walter Schubart (1897–1942)
Walter Schubart

But still, coming to Soviet Russia could be a very interesting experience, a very self-revealing social and psychological contrast for an American, or a Westerner; though in my experience few of the Americans who came here were sufficiently intellectually-mature, perceptive, and emotionally self-aware to be able to do this. Walter Schubart, in his 1938 book Russia and Western Man, wrote clearly in the same direction:

To Russians and Europeans mutually, each represents the “other” world....When a European looks at the Russian and then at himself, he must appear to himself in a new light. Hence the inestimable value of such a comparison! By comparing himself with the Russian, the European is enabled to know himself through and through...things which had hitherto seemed to be a matter of course, now appear to him as oddities. Henceforth, the obvious becomes questionable. And all at once, the European sees that things familiar to him at home might be valued differently in other parts of the world... This acquisition of entirely new possibilities, standards of value and perspectives, paves the way for a self-analysis that may penetrate to the profoundest depths, and this new insight into the roots of our nature is the essence of spiritual renewal and the secret of rebirth.

Generally speaking, the deeper the individual – whether American, European, or other – either in experience, suffering, thought, feelings, perceptiveness, sensitivity, etc., the more they tended to be susceptible of being impressed and intrigued by Russia and its people. It had mystery, novelty and depth... (Few “Westerners” could say much good about the Soviet state, which controlled people’s lives so strictly, in comparison to their own lives in the West, as any visitor could readily see.) As Nicholas Berdyaev wrote:

“It must be understood that the structure of the Russian soul is all it’s own and completely different from that of Westerners. The more penetrating minds of the West realize this well enough, and are attracted by the puzzle it presents.”

As Goethe somewhere said: each sees what he bears in his own heart. And, to cite the authority of George Kennan, few inside the “American Mind” could then – and, in my experience, still today – see into “Russian”. In fact, aside from times of crisis or sensational news stories, very few Americans give much of any time to thinking or worrying about Russia – especially after the end of the so-called “cold war”. Symptomatically, enrollment in Russian and Slavic studies programs in universities across the USA have fallen precipitously in the years since perestroika!

Many social observers, American and foreign, have noted how America’s popular culture and news have a mass national provinciality; it is about domestic issues, and can sometimes become completely absorbed for months in national scandal, sensational, and gossip stories – often about “leading” cultural, social and political figures. Magazines like Time and Newsweek have very differing contents for their domestic and international publications; and the domestic publication is written for a lower educational level of readers. (There is much more daily US news in the Russian media than vice versa!) And of course, Americans are not new needing to learn Russian (or see their capitalistic, commercial advertisements replaced by communist slogans, Mosfilms, or to learn to count their money in rubles!), so that Russia will be of little daily concern or interest to most Americans – unless and until there is some temporary or longer-term social crisis or news sensation. These facts will not change.

Part 2

God Speaks “American”?

To quote from the YES article “American Political Culture”: Americans think it very important that everybody should be equal politically, but they do not think it important that everybody should be equal economically. This is very clear and true. Rather, in contrast to, say, the idea of community and cooperation at the theoretical basis of economic culture, one finds individualism, private ownership, laissez faire, and competition. And comparing the “standards of living” of the late USSR to the USA, one could say, as one of America's leading historians, Page Smith, said in 1988 when he was considering the necessity of a social “perestroika” in the USA to match Russia’s: greed seems to be a much more successful social motivator than altruism. A very rich entrepreneur gave a speech at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-80’s which became famous. In this speech this man, who eventually went for a time to prison for illegal financial dealings, said: greed is good. (Hollywood, never wanting these days to miss a chance to make some megabucks, even made a film about it.)

The point that I want to make with this article is not – as one could often hear in the USSR, and can still sometimes hear in the USA – about the “Almighty Dollar”, or that the USA has “the best Congress money can buy”. Most Americans – typical Americans – are quite patriotic and nationalistic about the “ideology” (though they do not often so label it) of America, often without being clear of the origin, history, alternatives, or criticisms to their “American way of life”. (This last expression, often used, is more like a semi-secular “religious” belief. Some sociologists argue that it is!) America’s economical, political, social and cultural ways, etc., are often assumed to be the best in the world and history. So that American nationalism is not only more emotional than intellectual; it is very often astonishingly unaware of any other national traditions, patterns, and ideas of social order, or how they might relate historically to the USA! This fact was often very clear when American visitors discussed with Russians, in the Soviet time, their contrasting societies’ “ideas”, traditions, cultures, etc. The Americans were very often so unreflectively inside of their own nation’s system and way of life, that they regularly could do little to objectively-intellectually explain or historically account for it; they simply restated their “American Creed”, and the political and social rhetoric which they had learned and breathed in the USA, and, of course, overtly or covertly believed was far superior to the Russians. They were rarely prepared or able to understand or explain their own social system in contrast to the Soviet one, or Russian history, culture, etc. I remember how astonished Russians often were about this – and Americans, sometimes, realistically embarrassed!

The fact that there is, though this is very debatable, “political equality” but economic inequality in the USA, seems to most unreflective Americans as if this were “God’s order for America”. (“And if it is good enough for America, why isn't it good enough for the rest of the world?!” – one can sometimes hear some smug US patriots assert.) “Communism” to most Americans was – before it disappeared – treated as the social equivalent to “evil” on earth, and that long before President Reagan read his lauded speech writer’s expression: “evil empire” in 1983. I recall a fifth or sixth grade school book of mine (in the late 1950’s) about the terrible facts of communism; all I can remember now was the photo of the face of a man crying in pain and desperation. That is an indication of my grade-school education of the realities of “life under communism”. (Otherwise about the only thing I was taught about the distant, but dangerous, Soviet Union, was, later in high school, maybe a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.) Often the times under Stalin probably justified this image; but we were presented with the simple idea of the “good capitalist, democratic America” and the “evil, inhuman, totalitarian USSR”. Whatever was “American” was good – whether understood or not; whatever was communist was bad!

The point is that it is almost reacted to as un-American (which is often something like being against what some sociologists call the “civil religion” of America itself) to question the “American way of life”: the sufficiency or historical limitations of the “Founding Fathers”, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, “political democracy”, “free market economy” (a.k.a. “capitalism”), “equality of opportunity”, “individualism”, “all men are created equal”, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, etc. These are all part of America’s “ideology” – which is often not very reflective and articulated. As I sometimes satirically say: the assumption is that “God speaks American”. The history of the world, other cultures, traditions, social customs, etc., are all seen through the American lens (which is generally assumed to be the best and truest in the world).

Most Americans tend to assume unquestioningly that competition rather than cooperation is the best motor for the economy. This idea would hardly be questioned by most, seldom because they had thought it through, and concluded that this is true; but rather it is accepted and defended like some natural fact of life – especially having as little of a living sense and knowledge of history as Americans generally do. Now, there are almost all shades of thought located somewhere, in at least small groups, in the US; and a good number of Americans often long for something other than individualistic capitalism with its great “economic inequalities» (which may be “good” for the economy, but bad for the soul and society). But the main idea and majority position is that what is “American” is best. This is all too often (but not only) a sort of illiterate patriotism and smugness of Americans – assuming their own society’s superiority – which can be found more or less overtly inside of almost all Americans. Few have ever heard anything good about socialism or communism – or even thought that other cultures had other views of society. And after the collapse of communism, even fewer would question their own system’s superiority!

So that inequality in “economic culture” is not only a fact of life in the USA; it goes against the predominate mentality of American society to even question or think of any other way of doing things. The “ideology” rules the minds, ideas, and emotions. Even if human experience may show that “cooperation” and “community” are better for the human soul; it seems that competition is better for humanly-isolating competitive “prosperity”. There are groups in America who disagree, and try to live differently to the ruling system and ideology of economic inequality – the “hippies” tried to do this, and there are religious and social groups who try to do so today, as some did in 19th century America – but these are the exceptions to the prevailing rule.

I recently had an American Russophile visitor here in Moscow from Arizona. We were comparing our lives in Russia and America, and we were talking about why Americans do not discuss with each other – often even among friends or siblings – how much money they personally earn. I asked him why he thought this was. “Individualism,” he replied, “the individual is responsible for his own life alone”. This too is one of the mostly unconscious “structures” of American society, human relations and mentality. Individualism, like the idea of equality in politics (and increasingly equality in all aspects of culture and values – but not in economics) – pervades all aspects of life in the USA. It is something like the mental air one breaths.

YES members and other English readers who are serious about understanding the Americans, would do well to closely study US history, its traditions, culture, its economic-political structure, etc., in contrast to Russia’s own, and that of other European countries. It is not perhaps an easy task for Russians to understand the Americans – but it is a necessary task for Russia. It is in fact necessary to travel to, to experience, to feel the USA – in order for Russians to really begin to understand it. But studying American culture seriously, is a necessary, good beginning and prelude.

First published in the magazine English, #10, March 1999, p. 14.