Amer­i­cans like to think we’re ‘nice.’ Are we re­ally?

Scholar Car­rie Ti­rado Bra­men says Trump em­bod­ies our shal­low­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - EZ BD

To­day, “nice­ness” is not a word that most peo­ple as­so­ciate with Amer­i­cans. The bom­bas­tic chau­vin­ism of the Ugly Amer­i­can seems to be ev­ery­where, as per­son­i­fied by our pres­i­dent, who called MSNBC pre­sen­ters Joe Scar­bor­ough and Mika Brzezin­ski “Psy­cho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” in a Thurs­day morn­ing Twit­ter rant. This was only the lat­est in a long line of in­sults the pres­i­dent has lev­eled at ri­vals, en­e­mies and other public fig­ures.

And yet Pres­i­dent Trump has in­sisted on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions that he is ac­tu­ally a “nice per­son” — a friendly kind of guy you would like if you knew him.

The para­dox of Trump’s in­sist­ing on his own nice­ness even while en­gag­ing in dis­tinctly nasty con­duct (po­lit­i­cal and oth­er­wise) has a long his­tory in the United States. In fact, Trump epit­o­mizes the con­ven­tional ver­sion of Amer­i­can nice­ness, which as­sumes that Amer­i­cans are fun­da­men­tally de­cent and benev­o­lent peo­ple with the best of in­ten­tions, whose acts of ag­gres­sion are re­luc­tant and de­fen­sive ne­ces­si­ties de­signed to pro­tect us. (Or, as the of­fice of first lady Me­la­nia Trump put it in re­sponse to the pres­i­dent’s lat­est Twit­ter tirade:

“When her hus­band gets at­tacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)

In a sense, this is quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can nice­ness: a ten­dency to in­sist on one’s own af­fa­bil­ity and friend­li­ness while dis­miss­ing all un­war­ranted or un­nec­es­sary acts of cru­elty as nec­es­sary evils. This is the kind of ami­a­bil­ity that ob­scures the shad­owy side of Amer­i­can life. On the other hand, Amer­i­cans have also his­tor­i­cally at­tempted to trans­form our nice­ness into a na­tional at­ti­tude rooted in jus­tice and mu­tual re­spect by ac­knowl­edg­ing Amer­i­can cru­elty and us­ing it as an im­pe­tus to live up to an ideal of moral in­tegrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Toc­queville was among the first to com­ment on Amer­i­can ami­a­bil­ity, com­par­ing it with the “unso­cia­ble mood of the English.” In the 1840s, Charles Dick­ens, who couldn’t imag­ine an English­man be­ing happy liv­ing in the United States, none­the­less de­scribed Amer­i­cans as “friendly, earnest, hos­pitable, kind.” By the end of the 19th cen­tury, the link be­tween Amer­i­cans and nice­ness had be­come ac­cepted tra­di­tion, with

Reen­ac­tors un­der­take the 1,000-mile Trail of Tears jour­ney on its 150th an­niver­sary in the late 1980s. In the 19th cen­tury, the con­cept of Amer­i­cans as a “nice” peo­ple was used to gloss over cru­el­ties to Amer­i­can In­di­ans and oth­ers.

Rud­yard Ki­pling not­ing in 1891: “It is per­fectly im­pos­si­ble to go to war with th­ese peo­ple, what­ever they may do. They are much too nice.”

Amer­i­cans them­selves re­garded their famed nice­ness as the corner­stone of a demo­cratic per­son­al­ity. The ac­tress and writer Kate Field re­marked in 1873: “To try to please every­body, is demo­cratic; to be in­dif­fer­ent to every­body is aris­to­cratic: con­se­quently, Amer­i­cans, men and women, are the best bred peo­ple in the world.” As a re­fresh­ing al­ter­na­tive to Euro­pean stuffi­ness, Amer­i­can nice­ness con­veys demo­cratic in­for­mal­ity while sus­tain­ing the myth of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism: Amer­i­cans are not just nice but the nicest peo­ple on earth. As Walt Whit­man once put it, Amer­i­cans are “the peace­ablest and most good-na­tured race in the world.”

Since the 19th cen­tury, Amer­i­cans’ be­lief in our own nice­ness has never wa­vered. Yet even then, Amer­i­can nice­ness ob­scured a ten­dency to refuse ac­count­abil­ity for ag­gres­sion and of­fense — and even un­speak­able cru­elty.

In 1814, Gen. Andrew Jack­son su­per­vised the mu­ti­la­tion of the corpses of more than 800 Creek Na­tive Amer­i­cans killed at Horse­shoe Bend in Alabama dur­ing the Creek War. The des­e­cra­tion of the bod­ies in­volved cut­ting off the tip of each In­dian’s nose to count the num­ber of vic­tims, and tak­ing long strips of skin from the dead to use as bri­dle reins.

In­fu­ri­ated at th­ese abuses, Amer­i­can author Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing de­manded that white Amer­ica blush with shame at its on­go­ing legacy of In­dian-hat­ing. Like­wise, in 1836, Wil­liam Apess, a Methodist min­is­ter of mixed An­glo-Pe­quod an­ces­try, elec­tri­fied his Bos­ton au­di­ence, stat­ing: “No grat­i­tude to In­di­ans is shown, from peo­ple saved by them alone.” Like Irv­ing, Apess’s “Eu­logy on King Philip” un­der­stood Amer­i­can bru­tal­ity to­ward Na­tive Amer­i­cans as not only un­just but un-Amer­i­can in its cru­elty: It was, af­ter all, a be­trayal of In­dian hos­pi­tal­ity. Taught how to grow corn and catch eel, the Pu­ri­tans sur­vived thanks to their Na­tive Amer­i­can neigh­bors. Thus the mis­treat­ment of In­di­ans wasn’t only a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem but a pro­found fail­ure on white Amer­i­cans’ part to live up to their Chris­tian rep­u­ta­tion for cour­tesy, re­spect and kind­ness.

This same con­flict could be seen in the is­sue of slav­ery. In the 19th cen­tury, pro-slav­ery sen­ti­ment had long claimed that the prac­tice in the United States was milder than in the Caribbean. South­ern nice­ness, as imag­ined un­der slav­ery, fed this myth of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, lead­ing North­ern­ers such as the physi­cian Oliver Wen­dell Holmes Sr. to claim that slav­ery in the United States was prac­ticed “in its best and mildest form.”

Yet for­mer slave and abo­li­tion­ist Fred­er­ick Dou­glass dis­missed the myth of the kind slave­owner as “most ab­surd.” How can kind­ness play any role in slav­ery, Dou­glass asked, when one is “robbed of wife, of chil­dren, of his hard earn­ings, of home, of friends”? If kind­ness were the rule in the mas­ter-slave re­la­tion­ship, Dou­glass ar­gued, then South­ern news­pa­pers would not be filled with run­away-slave no­tices de­scrib­ing brand­ing with irons and scar­ring from whips.

What lessons do th­ese dif­fer­ent ver­sions, one self-serv­ing, the other truth-telling, of Amer­i­can nice­ness have for us to­day? One is based on his­tor­i­cal for­get­ting, on empty ges­tures and cliches, on re­fus­ing to own up to Amer­i­can er­rors; the other con­nects nice­ness with ethics and jus­tice by rec­og­niz­ing Amer­i­cans’ fail­ures to be the kind peo­ple we imag­ine our­selves to be, both in the past and the present. If the legacy of the for­mer can be seen in Trump’s self-im­age as a “nice guy” who hap­pens to harass peo­ple on Twit­ter and pro­mote ruth­less poli­cies at home and abroad (such as the lat­est in­car­na­tion of his travel ban, which doesn’t con­sider fi­ances or grand­par­ents to be “close fam­ily”), then the lat­ter is ev­i­dent in the grass-roots re­ac­tion against such poli­cies.

Soon af­ter the elec­tion, pop star Lady Gaga tweeted: “Stand up for kind­ness, equal­ity and love. Noth­ing will stop us.” At mass protests such as the Women’s March, signs read: “Em­pa­thy,” “Be Nice,” “Make Amer­ica Kind Again.” As author and model Padma Lak­shmi put it when re­fer­ring to the Women’s March: “This is not an anti-Trump rally for me. This is about de­cency and hav­ing a moral core.”

In “Let­ter From a Birm­ing­ham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fa­mously de­scribed how we are all con­nected in “an in­escapable net­work of mu­tu­al­ity, tied in a sin­gle gar­ment of des­tiny. What­ever af­fects one di­rectly, af­fects all in­di­rectly.” In our cur­rent cli­mate, when cru­elty and cava­lier mean­ness seem in­creas­ingly com­mon, it is more im­por­tant than ever to em­pha­size that Amer­i­cans can and should live up to our long-stand­ing self-im­age as kind, open, demo­cratic peo­ple.

In 2016, we wit­nessed veter­ans at Stand­ing Rock apol­o­giz­ing to the Lakota peo­ple for the atroc­i­ties that the U.S. mil­i­tary had com­mit­ted against them, while Na­tive Amer­i­cans con­tin­ued their tra­di­tion of hos­pi­tal­ity by greet­ing thou­sands of pro­test­ers demon­strat­ing against the Dakota Ac­cess pipe­line. Th­ese ac­tions of pure kind­ness — nei­ther com­pelled nor trans­ac­tional — con­tinue the legacy of Amer­i­can nice­ness. To­day, we must pro­tect that legacy as if our fu­ture de­pends on it. Be­cause it does.

ED LALLO/LIFE IMAGES COL­LEC­TION/GETTY IMAGES

Opinions

Comments

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.