March 13, 2002

OUTSIDE OVER THERE: OK, just read the six excerpts (only excerpts! and only six! lame…) on “What we think of America.” Good stuff, well worth your time. Ivan Klima’s piece is probably the most accurate, though it’s a bit self-congratulatory to cite him since he praises Americans’ willingness to help strangers. John Gray’s take on New Orleans and American art-‘n’-lit is probably the most insightful–the comparison of American and Russian literature is right on, as I’ve (sort of) said before. But his conclusion is off. “America is too rich in contradictions for any definition of it to be possible. For every attitude that is supposed to be distinctively American, one can find an opposite stance that is no less so,” he writes, and sums this up with, “America is unknowable.” But that’s not right. There isn’t just one typical American personality, event, or reaction; there are several, often in fierce combat with one another. But each one is distinctively American. America–like most countries, I should think–can only be understood by examining which contradictory positions and attitudes are clashing.

Interestingly, only the German respondent mentioned Americans’ obsessive, pervasive religiosity.

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