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Archive for the tag “American culture”

Black Hats and White Hats: American Stereotyping

Nearly 50 years ago I had an American friend, Dave Trumbull, whose father, Howard Trumbull, a missionary, was the treasurer of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, and came to a youth meeting to represent his son, who couldn’t be there on that occasion. Before the meeting he asked me who were the black hats and who were the white hats.

Seeing my bemused expression he explained that in Western movies (in the pre-spaghetti Western days) it was a convention that all the “good guys” wore white hats, and all the “bad guys” wore black hats. Audiences apparently needed these cues as to who were the heroes and who were the villains.

He said (in a rather ironic self-deprecating way) that it was something Americans always wanted to know about every situation they were involved in.

And I said that in the particular situation we were facing, it was not an easy distinction to make. It was rather a matter of good guys making bad decisions. He made some comment to the effect that Americans didn’t like messy situations like that.

I was reminded of him and his comments last week when I posted some links to a blog post and a few newspaper articles on Facebook, and the response of American commenters on them was immediately to look for the “black hats” and put the blame on them.

One of the articles was on my other blog, on The Death of Liberalism in the West, which was mainly about the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party in the UK feeling compelled to resign because he thought his faith was not accepted in the UK political arena. Two American friends responded with comments on Facebook rather than on the blog post (so I don’t know if either of them actually read the blog post, much less the statement by Tim Farron, the Lib-Dem leader). One identified the Black Hats as right-wing bullies, and the other identified them as left-wing bullies.

I was rather disappointed, as I was trying to understand a phenomenon, rather than looking for scapegoats.

The other thing was that I posted links to some articles about a recent fire in a block of flats in London, in which many people had lost their homes and some had lost their lives. One thing that was clear from the articles was that there had been a lot of bad decisions by various people and organisations, including commercial firms, political parties and and local authorities. But some American commenters were specifically trying to pin the blame on particular people or firms. But not only is the jury still out — it hasn’t been summoned yet to hear the evidence. All the reports show is that there is prima facie evidence of the need for some sort of judicial enquiry. Yet Americans seem to feel an immediate need to pin the blame on someone, to identify the black hats.

I mentioned this to Val on the way to church this morning, and she said, but isn’t that typical of Americans — they love to identify the “bad guys”, and sooner or later go in and bomb them. They did it in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, where there were no good guys. The Americans appointed the bad guys, put black hats on them, and then bombed them. A few years later they did it in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, and then in Libya. Now they are doing it to Syria and Russia.

This legalistic American tendency to look for scapegoats and find them before the evidence is available is probably the biggest threat to world peace, and has been for the last 60 years.

It’s more than 50 years since the publication of The Ugly American, which dealt with this phenomenon, but it was so effective that most people don’t realise that the eponymous ugly American was the good guy. He was the guy in the white hat.

A few years after my conversation with Howard Trumbull a couple of friends of mine met a US foreign policy boffin by the name of George Kennan. He had the reputation of being one of their biggest fundis on foreign affairs. They came back from lunch with him thinking that he was so naive that it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. He asked them who the good guys and bad guys in Namibia in the early 1970s were, and seemed to believe that a flick of a switch in the depths of the Pentagon would eliminate the bad guys and solve all the problems.

But most of the American I’ve met have been like the ugly American in the story. I’ve met them outside America, because they don’t have this binary opposition attitude. Many of them, like Howard Trumbull, are, or have been, Christian missionaries. So not all Americans are evil scapegoaters.

So, in conclusion, I think that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t, and there are even some Americans in the latter category.

 

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I know more about America than the average American

A few days ago I wrote a blog post critical of American notions of justice, of its legal system, and the attitudes of its lawyers. I had a few qualms about it, since I’m not American, and the longest time I spent in America was two weeks, back in 1995. What do I know about it?

Well, more than most Americans, it seems.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for the ISI civic-literacy quiz:


Are you more knowledgeable than the average citizen? The average score for all 2,508 Americans taking the following test was 49%; college educators scored 55%. Can you do better? Questions were drawn from past ISI surveys, as well as other nationally recognized exams.

The result?

You answered 29 out of 33 correctly — 87.88 %

Clarissa’s Blog: Being Hated by Conservatives vs Being Hated by Liberals

One of the characteristics of the emerging postmodern age is that it is an age of communication without community. Marshall McLuhan’s global village is divided and faction-ridden. Over the last 20 years of participating in the internet (with a small i) I have discovered that one comes face to face with US culture in a way that one never did before. Now places like China are rapidly catching up, but in 1991 it was in the US that more people had modems, and connected to bulletin boards, and disseminated their opinions more widely than ever before.

And today I read a couple of blog posts that encapsulated this experience.

Clarissa’s Blog: Being Hated by Conservatives vs Being Hated by Liberals:

There is a difference, though, between getting tons of hits from people who come from liberal sites that post angry rebuttals of my posts and visitors from the conservative blogs that attempt to do the same. Visitors from progressive blogs leave comments, argue, initiate discussions, offer evidence in support of their opinions. I might disagree with them, but I am forced to recognize that their comments are interesting to read. Conservative readers come by, gawp, and, at best, leave a comment of the ‘I-know-this-is-somehow-wrong-but-I-don’t-have-the-brains-to-explain-why’ variety. Their writing is stilted and full of spelling and grammar mistakes. They think that calling one ‘a Jew whore’ and ‘an autie retard’ is a powerful intellectual argument.

I explained before why I find any conservative position to be unsustainable on the level of reason and logic. It is not surprising to me that visitors who come here from conservative websites turn out to be very unintelligent and incapable of maintaining a discussion. They don’t really have opinions, that’s the problem. They have emotional outbursts whose underlying causes they are able neither to identify not to control.

And I have to say I agree. In cyberspace, at least, American “liberals” tend to come across as very illiberal and intolerant. But when you read the arguments of American “conservatives”, it becomes almost understandable.

And then there was this: A Spell for Refreshment of the Spirit: Civility: A Blast from the Past:

Everyone is talking about civility today. I’m not American, so before the tragic shooting recently I hadn’t been closely following the ever-deepening political divide south of the border. However, for a long time I have noticed the same deterioration of civility in our society in general.

The thing that amazes me most about US politics is that there is so little difference between the two main parties, yet the closer they are to each other, the more exaggerated the rhetoric with which their supporters attack each other.

Republican supporters attack Democrat supporters as if they will leave no baby unaborted, yet in 8 years Bush did not stop abortion. Democrat supporters attack Republican supporters as if they were intent on invading every country in the world, yet Obama still hasn’t brought US troops back from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The more closely they resemble each other, the more viciously they attack each other.

Of course the US doesn’t have a monopoly on incivility and motor-mouth politicians. America has its Sarah Palin, and we have our Julius Malema. But America seems to have more, and more vociferous, and more incivil extremists than most other countries, at least on the public internet.

There are some areas in which I would support American “conservative” policies, but would be reluctant to do so, because the American “conservatives” who advocate such policies seem to be such hate-filled people, and to advocate those policies from a position of hatred rather than love.

There are some policies advocated by American “liberals” that I think are misguided, and some that I think are stupid, and some that I think are detestable and evil and decidedly illiberal, but on the whole the people who seem to advocate them seem to have their hearts in the right place, even if their heads seem all screwed up. And that reminds me of what a friend of mine once said:

“It is better to do wrong for the sake of love than to insist on doing right because of my lack of it.”

Recent reading: The final days

The Final DaysThe Final Days by Alex Chance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A psychotherapist, Karen Wiley, receives anonymous notes written
by a psychopath, or a child threatened by a psychopath.

This kind of plot has almost become a genre of its own, with some authors, such as Jonathan Kellerman, seeming to specialise in it. Reading the blurb and the opening chapters of this reminded me of The Analyist by John Katzenbach, which has a very similar theme. At least in this book the protagonist does not behave quite so stupidly as the one in Katzenbach’s book. Both books, however, have a motif of the hidden dangers of the Internet.

It’s difficult to write about such a book without including spoilers, so perhaps it’s easier to write about the genre. One of the things that strikes me about the genre is that it is assumed that there is nothing remarkable about apparently normal people living apparently normal lives to have regular appointments with psychotherapists or psychoanalysts of some kind. If these books are an accurate reflection of American society, it would seem that psychotherapy has become a kind of religion, at least among the upper middle class. In America, in such circles, it seems that people would talk about “my shrink” without the slightest twinge of embarrassment, whereas in South Africa regular visits to such a functionary would be regarded as a shameful secret.

Of course in the book the normality of life is interrupted by the actions of a psychopath, but the solution isn’t to be found in psychotherapy, at least not of the paid client/therapist kind. The solution requires police work, and in the story there is plenty of that, as police professionals, semi-professionals and anateurs get involved in trying to track down the psychopath, getting in each other’s way and working at cross-purposes as the body count and gruesomeness rise.

But given the existence of such a genre, this book is one of the better examples, and a good one to help pass the time on a boring plane journey.

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