Our National Character

     Is there such a thing as a national character? A character that imposes itself upon, or is imposed by, the millions of people who live in each nation?
     That’s a controversial proposition today, but there are national characters, which are results of nurture, not nature.
     National character reveals itself in many ways, among them the sense of humor.
     Take, for example, the popular T-shirt with the slogan, “I’m With Stupid,” and an arrow. This is not much of a joke; it’s an insult. I do not believe it would be considered a joke in any country but the United States.
     Here’s another example: If you are a white person, try going to Mexico and speaking a few words in Spanish, no matter how unintelligibly you do it. You will be treated with kindness by people make extraordinary efforts to try to help you – because you have tried to speak a few words in Spanish.
     Contrast that with the treatment meted out to native Spanish-speakers in the United States, even if they speak English fluently, with an accent.
     Here’s another element of our national character: Despite all the nattering you hear about “family values,” Americans are far more likely than citizens of any other nation to ship their parents off to die in an institution rather than care for them at home.
     Last weekend I was in the mood for mindless entertainment, so I went to see the movie “Hancock,” because it got a boffo review in The New Yorker. “Hancock” is a dumb movie. I didn’t mind that: it’s sort of what I wanted. But I did mind the commercials that preceded it.
     Commercials in movie theaters are relatively new in the United States, though they have been common for decades in Europe. Last time I was in Europe, 30 years ago, I loved the movie ads – they were hilarious. They were aimed at adults.
     The ads I saw last weekend – for Wal-Mart, for a restaurant chain, and for other annoying corporations – were so poor they were insulting. The ads were aimed at children about 9 years old. Now, those may be the people the advertisers want to lure into their stores, though the little tykes would have to ask mom or dad for the money, since 9-year-olds are prohibited from working in our country.
     I do not understand why so much of our national culture these days, and for decades, has been based upon catering to children. You see it above all in the most lucrative of our art forms: TV, movies, and music.
     For centuries, the arts and sciences have been regarded as the highest expression of a nation’s work – of its character. And a nation’s character is expressed in its arts. No one but the tone deaf would confuse French music with German music. H.L. Mencken went so far as to say that there are two kinds of music: German music and bad music.
     Nations are proud of their great authors. They embrace their work as an embodiment of the national character. We feel that way about Mark Twain, the Russians feel it about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Chileans with Pablo Neruda, the French with Hugo and Balzac, Colombians with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and England – actually, the human race – feels it with Shakespeare.
     Movies, television and music are the most powerful and lucrative forms of art in the United States. They are vastly more lucrative and more influential than books. Our movies and pop music influence music around the world, for good or ill. And so, of course, does our politics.
     In a very brief time, historically speaking, much of the world has radically changed its opinion about the United States. There are plenty of so-called political leaders whom we could blame for this. But before these politicians inflicted their ideas upon the world, their ideas were formed, for good or ill, by the United States’ national character.
     I do blame our elected politicians for their arrogance, insularity, and ignorance. But where did this arrogance and ignorance come from? I think it came, in great part, from having been raised in a culture whose “family values,” and national values, are based upon catering to children.

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