När svenska USA-vänner blir riktigt uppretade på svenskar som vågar kritisera USA och det amerikanska samhället så ligger kardan och skällsord som “USA-hat” snart i luften.
Själv har jag alltid förknippat “USA-hat” med den chauvinistiska flaggviftande amerikanska nationalism som man tyvärr altför ofta stöter på här i landet och som går hand i hand med en aggressiv fientlighet mot allt utom-amerikanskt.
Det här är ett ämne man sällan hör diskuteras i Sverige. Det behövs en amerikan för att ens inse att amerikanernas utlandssyn är en förvånansvärt komplicerad.
Peter Mayers har tagit upp utmaningen och skriver initierat här på bloggen.
Peter Mayers lives in Örbyhus (north of Uppsala), and works as a translator. He grew up in Oakland here in California and originally came to Sweden in 1989. He divides his time roughly evenly between
Sweden and California.
Peter Mayers gästbloggar: An American in Sweden looks at Swedes and their election-year attitudes toward the United States
That’s an interesting little transatlantic spat that’s been taking place over what Horace Engdahl said!
Now then, I must be cautious in pronouncing on this and related issues, since my own educational background has been heavy on the social-science side, and correspondingly light and thin when it comes to literature and the arts. (I must also say that, in my obsessive focus on matters political during those years, I sadly missed out on many important and fascinating things. Or so it seems to me now, two decades and more later.)
Rumsfeld spoke of “Old Europe”
I will venture, however, to say the following two things. First, pace Engdahl, the artistic and literary scene in the U.S. would appear to be rich and vital. That, at least, is the report from friends and acquaintances who are (unlike me) in a position to know.
Second, while I’m reticent to judge matters literary or artistic, I feel fairly confident of my ability to assess the general state of knowledge in the U.S. about affairs in the rest of the world, particularly with respect to geography, language, and history. You sized up the situation very well, I think, in a couple of sentences you wrote. I quote:
“Däremot vill jag ge Engdahl rätt i att USA är väldigt isolerat från omvärlden och att man inte läser utländsk litteratur ens i översättning lika mycket som man borde.
“USA har utvecklat en oerhört självupptagen kultur som inte riktigt kan erkänna att det finns något värt att upptäcka och lära sig utanför landets gränser.”
Yes indeed! This inward-turning quality is even evident, I might add, in the more modern and cosmopolitan sectors of U.S. society: i.e., along the two coasts and among the better educated. Not to the same degree, of course, as in the inland areas and among the less educated; yet the tendency is striking all the same.
How did this come to be? Well, some of the reasons are fairly obvious, I suppose:
First of all, of course, the country is enormous. As a result, from most points in it you can travel a good long ways from home, and still find yourself among people speaking the same language, and in more or less the same way.
Second, there are two vast oceans on either side. This doesn’t have the same practical meaning that it once did, but it still retains SOME practical significance; and, more to the point, its much greater practical importance once upon a time shaped the thinking of generations, leaving a critical legacy that lasts to this day.
Third, there’s the lopsided power relationship in world affairs. Maybe we can call this Russia-Finland Problem — i.e., Russians have probably tended to follow what Finland is doing far less closely than Finns have tended to follow what Russia is doing. So with Americans and the rest of the world. (This lopsided relationship may well be in the process, just now, of becoming quite a bit less lopsided. But that of course is a very recent development, and the purpose here is to explain a cultural pattern of long standing.)
Finally, of course, Americans speak the great global imperial tongue. Few among them, therefore, feel the need to learn any other.
These explanations — for the self-centered and inward-turning character of U.S. society and culture — are quite well-known, and many observers have called attention to them. There is one additional factor, however, which is I believe is quite important, and which has received rather less attention. It is what we maybe could call the “post-traumatic forgetfulness syndome.”
That is, a great many immigrants to the big country in the west had memories of the old country in which traumatic experiences figured prominently. Upon arriving in the new land, therefore, they sought to place such memories behind them, and to begin anew.
Makes you think of the haunting words of Bëor, leader of the first band of men encountered by the elves in Tolkien’s Silmarillion:
“But when Felagund questioned Bëor concerning the arising of Men and their journeys, Bëor would say little; and indeed he knew little, for the fathers of his people had told few tales of their past and a silence had fallen upon their memory.
“‘A darkness lies behind us,’ Bëor said; ‘and we have turned our backs on it, and we do not desire to return thither even in thought. Westwards our hearts have been turned, and we believe that there we shall find Light.'”
Of course, the memories borne by the newcomers to America were in fact mixed; far from all of them were bad. (Not only that; a great many immigrants eventually returned to their land of origin.) All the same, enough of these memories were bad as to leave a deep imprint, the effect of which was to encourage the immigrants — and their children all the more — to forget, and never to cultivate an interest in events happening anywhere else than in the new country in the new world. Most of the immigration waves over the centuries have featured this pattern, from the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers to the most recent arrivals.
The pattern lasts far beyond the first generation, moreover. It crystallizes into family lore, and gets conveyed across the years. Many’s the time I’ve heard Americans say something like this: “Italy’s a terrible place! My grandfather told me about it; I’d never want to go back there!” I’ve heard that sort of thing said by friends and acquaintances; I’ve overheard it said by people on the bus, at a restaurant, and on the street. Perhaps you have too?
This is one big reason why many Americans have a picture of Europe which is about a hundred years out of date. Maybe you too have run across this? Maybe you’ve met Americans who seem to think the social and political practices of, say, Italy in the year 1900 still obtain today?
Tocqueville observed the United States.
I realize, finally, that a good many Americans have conceived — especially in recent decades — a strong desire to trace back the roots of the forebears to the old country. This impulse does indeed cut against what is otherwise the main trend of the culture, which is to forget past eras and to ignore other lands. (I might add that this is a fascination I share, although I have never acted upon it: I’m intrigued by the thought of one day tracing back the lines of my family to Ireland, Germany, and France; and establishing ties with such kin as I may have living there still.) Indeed, I suspect many Americans experience an extra thrill in digging up their roots precisely because so doing represents a recovery of lost memory, in a culture otherwise highly oriented to the present. Like discovering a fine old family heirloom in the attic that you didn’t know you had.
All right, enough speculating for one day. Just thought I’d share this little theory with you. Oh yes, I should also try my hand sometime at explaining the striking sensitivity and touchiness displayed by a good many Americans in the face of “European sophistication and high culture.” Sometimes this sensitivity takes the form of deference; sometimes that of resentment; and sometimes that of both. This too has deep historical roots. A sense of being culturally backward colonials — ignorant and peripheral provincials — still lingers among many Americans, notwithstanding the enormous shifts of fortune seen over the last two centuries. But that must be the subject of another missive.