A good many years ago—it must have been during the late 1950s—I happened to be present at a meeting between a senior executive of a European company and an American company’s sales representative. The latter was very much younger than the former, but he was a rising star in his organization. “One of our best men,” his divisional manager remarked. “I just wish the others had half his drive.”
“Call me Sonny. Everybody does,” were the first words out of the American’s mouth, and he wasted no time in getting down to business. “Our company is twice the size of our nearest competitor in the States, but we’re not satisfied with that, by no means.” Saying this, he proceeded to plunge into the details of what he had on offer for a prospective European customer.
His grasp of the material was impressive. Not only did he understand thoroughly and comprehensively the workings of his own company, he was also knowledgeable about the firm whose business he hoped to attract, and he skillfully pointed out the many profitable advantages it could obtain from buying his products.
But this was not all. As he talked on, it became apparent that his interest in the entire transaction went far beyond the ordinary. In his mind, he was involved in something bigger and more important than two businessmen trying to make a deal or two businesses trying to make money.
“It’s about the future,” he exclaimed at one point. “It’s about a better way of life. We are bringing people things they’ve never had before.” He sounded as if he were a missionary of American prosperity to the rest of the world.
The target of his proselytizing was a conservative and somewhat elderly gentleman, who found himself at a loss as to how he should respond. On the one hand, he could perceive the accuracy and persuasiveness of the facts that Sonny was presenting. On the other, he was disconcerted, even repelled, by the brash, insistent manner in which they were being presented. “At moments, I thought I was face-to-face with a religious fanatic,” he said later. The best he could do now was to venture a few tentative and ambiguous comments.
Sonny perceived the hesitation and decided that he needed to try even harder. By nature he was what American businessmen approvingly call “aggressive,” and he became more so. He played high, describing the benefits, not just for the other company and for the community where it was located, but for the entire nation and even for humanity in general. He played low, offering extras (special bonuses, discounts, guarantees), if only his customer would say yes on the spot. Then he went for broke. With a final barrage of argument and appeal, he produced a written contract, ready to be signed, and pushed it across the table. The European stood up, unable to conceal his disgust, and the meeting was over.
Although this happened long ago, I have never been able to forget Sonny’s spectacular performance, topped off at the end by his look of astonished incredulity when he realized that he had failed. He had put forth a tremendous effort, as if he genuinely believed that involved in this one business negotiation were, not only his personal reputation, the success of his company, and the prestige of America, but also the future of a foreign company and its country, as well as the world at large. If the deal had gone through, all these parties would, in his view, have taken a step forward. Since it had not, they had all taken a step backward.
As I grew older, and my experiences in the New World increased, I came to realize that Sonny was not some prodigy of nature but a commonplace American phenomenon in an exaggerated form. His countrymen regarded as desirable and advantageous the personal characteristics that made him conspicuous, and most of them in fact possessed these qualities, though in much smaller amounts.
Among the Europeans in the organization where he had suffered that one unexpected defeat, his name became a byword. They would speak of “meeting another Sonny” in tones, not just of distaste, but also of grudging admiration. However much it pained them to do so, they had to admit that, working together, such people were capable of astonishing efficiency and accomplishment. One manager even exclaimed in a moment of exasperation, “What chance does the Old World have against a nation of Sonnys?”
I shared in the general feeling of uncomfortable bewilderment, but I was not satisfied merely to shrug or sneer and leave it at that. I wanted to learn how all this had come about. How had America become the richest and most powerful country in the world? What made a person like Sonny tick? These questions remained in my mind, and slowly, casually, randomly—in the early stages, without even conscious effort or deliberate intention—I began to look for answers.
Through the years, from personal experience and desultory reading, I collected information and tried to make sense of it, grouping together similar phenomena and linking causes with effects. At first, all was confusing and uncertain, but gradually the contours of a theory began to emerge. They eventually coalesced into what I have called “the American formula,” the two halves of which form the first two parts of the present book.
I had just begun to work in earnest on my project, when the 1990s arrived and along with them the phenomenon known as “political correctness.” It apparently started on the campus, but it quickly spread through public life and invaded the corporate world. In the company where I worked, all employees, including the executives, were required to attend special counseling sessions, where they were warned that a casual derogatory remark about women, black people, or some other “protected minority” might result in their being fired or at least subjected to a ritual of humiliating apology and a demeaning program of reeducation, sensitization, and “consciousness raising.” It was no empty threat. During those years, the national or local news would feature from time to time some prominent person who had run into serious trouble on this account, and there were many more victims who were too lowly to attract public attention.
Foreign observers tended to regard the entire business as crazy and inexplicable. Some dismissed it all as nothing more than a passing fad. Adapting Macaulay’s famous remark, one cynical Englishman commented that the Yanks were just having another of their periodic fits of moral self-righteousness. But I felt there was more to it than that. Beneath the ludicrous trivialities of political correctness, I sensed larger and more significant forces at work.
It was during those years that I met Sonny once again. I happened to make his acquaintance outside of business, and we struck up a casual friendship. He had changed with the passage of time. Gone was a large part of his buoyant energy and optimism. Although he had enjoyed a prosperous career, he had not risen as high as he had desired and expected. Now he was close to retirement.
One day we ran into each other at a club, and in the course of a meandering conversation I mentioned the research I was doing and the book I hoped to write. “National character?” he asked in a mildly interested but puzzled tone of voice. “National culture? National values? Do you really think such things exist? I mean, aren’t we all different? Isn’t America a country of diverse peoples?” I had heard this idea many times before. It had settled in as an article of faith with the prevailing climate of opinion in the 1990s, when it received concise expression in the popular dictum, “All we have in common is our diversity.”
I was taken aback to find that such a notion had penetrated as far as the consciousness of someone like Sonny, who repeated it as if it were an accepted platitude. But he had another, much bigger surprise in store for me. At that moment, his wife joined us. She had evidently had a drink or two over her limit, for she was unusually voluble. A magazine she happened to have in her hand displayed the title of an article, “One of Every Three Women Sexually Abused as Children.” I pointed to it and remarked that it was absurd.
“But I was sexually abused as a child,” she retorted. I was too astonished to reply, and she went on, explaining that she had been undergoing “recovered memory” therapy, which revealed to her that the seemingly innocent attentions of an uncle had in fact been a sexual assault and that, as an automatic and subconscious psychological defense against something so terrible, she had suppressed the memory of it. Regaining something of my composure, I ventured to suggest that the source of what she called a recovered memory might in fact have been prompting from her therapist rather than anything she had actually experienced. But this only caused her to become more insistent that it had all been true, unquestionably.
What amazed me was not so much her conviction—airhead that she was—but the reaction of Sonny. He supported everything she said with approving nods. When I expressed my doubts, he countered with an emphatic assertion that his wife was right. “You don’t realize how often this kind of thing happens to children,” he declared in a tone of characteristic finality.
“Well, what about you?” I asked in a half-embarrassed, half-humorous way. “Did you abuse your nieces or, heaven forbid, your daughters?” My astonishment—already at a high level—rose by perceptible degrees during the seconds that he hesitated. At last, in a voice of troubled doubt, he replied, “I don’t know. I hope I didn’t.”
Once again, I tried to dismiss the idea of recovered memory as a bogus contrivance. “Does it seem likely,” I wondered, “that a person could be involved in the violation of one of the most fundamental human taboos and then simply forget about it?” But Sonny rejected this exculpation out of hand. He adamantly maintained his belief in both the certainty of his wife’s victimization and the possibility of his own guilt. To have done otherwise, he seemed to think, was to be deficient in realistic perception and moral rectitude. It was to be “in denial,” that is, unwilling to confront the sins of the world as well as one’s own personal failings.
At this point, I excused myself on some pretext or other and made my exit. Although Sonny and I continued to see each other occasionally, it was no longer with the old ease and nonchalance. Our conversations were awkward, and they became increasingly brief and infrequent. But Sonny, it turned out, had one last surprise in store for me.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, we happened to meet for what turned out to be the last time. As I expected, he expressed all the conventional sentiments: revulsion at the carnage and destruction, sympathy for the deceased and their families, insistence that the perpetrators be apprehended and brought to justice. Then he paused. He had something more to say, but he felt uncomfortable saying it. At last he got it out.
“I realize there are millions of people living in miserable poverty all over the world. That must breed fanaticism and hatred. The United States with all its wealth and power is an obvious target for them. Of course, that doesn’t excuse what they did. But I can’t help feeling that we bear some degree of responsibility. American foreign policy hasn’t always done what it should. American corporations abroad haven’t always behaved as they ought to.” Then, after a moment of hesitation, he added, “We haven’t always done the right thing at home, either. Inequality is everywhere. You know this is a deeply racist society.”
He fell uncharacteristically silent, and once again I stood amazed. What Sonny had said was a reflection—even if a weak reflection—of what was being said on the political left, particularly in the better colleges and universities. I would have expected him to dismiss such ideas out of hand as irrational and derisory, if he had bothered to take notice of them at all.
After we had parted, I could not help thinking of the contrast between what Sonny had been some forty years ago and what he was now. Where had his tremendous confidence and optimism gone? How had it come about that he could now entertain the most fundamental doubts about himself and his country? It was as if he had become a different person—Sonny Then transformed into Sonny Now. And since Sonny was such an exemplary type, I could ask the same questions about America. Despite a half-century’s increase in power and prosperity, why had the nation gone from the self-assurance of the 1950s to the uncertainty and guilt of the 1990s? The last two parts of this book attempt to find the answers, in light of the theory expounded in the first two parts.