One prominent and highly problematical manifestation of the egalitarian spirit in America is the prevalence of physical violence. It is similar to the vulgarity of manners, which was discussed elsewhere.[ 1 ] Like vulgarity, it is characteristic of the lower classes, it has permeated the rest of society, and it has been present since early in the nation’s history.
During the antebellum era, there was personal violence, with conspicuous examples among prominent people. Andrew Jackson had been a notorious duelist and frontier brawler, and he became the first president to be the target of an assassination attempt. Congressmen carried weapons, occasionally killed one another, and once or twice did so on the floor of the House while it was in session. Usually they kept their lethal attacks for the off-hours and were satisfied to interrupt working sessions with nothing more than fistfights. The rest of the country was no different. Newspapers recorded numerous assaults and murders for various motives or no motive at all. In 1840, when a professor at Jefferson’s University of Virginia attempted to break up a disturbance on campus, one of the students shot him dead.
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There was also group violence. Riots, often accompanied by fatalities, might break out for any number of reasons—a contested election, a bank failure, a labor dispute, racial hatred, religious prejudice, even the failure of a balloon launching. During the 1830s, disorders were so frequent that people—including responsible people with considered opinions—began to predict that society would break apart and the union would dissolve into separate, independent, and hostile communities. Foreign observers shared these fears—or hopes, for many of them wanted to see the great experiment in democracy fail.
Both the pessimistic Americans and the resentful Europeans were proved wrong. Not only did the United States remain intact during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, it prospered. Manufacturing flourished, commerce thrived, the population grew, cities sprang up in the western wilderness. The conveniences and comforts of life increased and spread through all levels of society. Visitors from abroad, including those, like Frances Trollope, who were unfavorably inclined, could not help admiring the energy, inventiveness, and material accomplishments of the Americans. In an unaccustomed burst of positive hyperbole, Trollope declared that the very depths of the ocean would prove no obstacle to them, if they decided that something of profit lay on the seafloor.
Both the violence and the progress continued through the rest of the century and into the next. Conflicts between workers and capitalists were far bloodier in the United States than in Europe, but they failed to impede industrial productivity. By 1900, the more discerning and impartial commentators of the Old World had to admit that their young rival was the greatest power on earth—a position which the passage of the next hundred years has only reinforced. High levels of violence likewise persisted through the Twentieth Century. Even in the 1990s, when crime was rising in Europe while declining on the other side of the Atlantic, America still retained its title as the country with the highest murder rate in the Western world.
This is not as stark a paradox or as total a contradiction as it may seem. In America, productivity and disorder spring from a common source. The ethos of egalitarianism encourages people to disregard restrictions imposed from above and to act on their own desires and inclinations. The practical result has been an outburst of activity at all levels of society, including the lower levels, whose members in other cultures would have been intimidated and repressed. Americans, in contrast, go forth in life, driven by personal ambition and the conviction that they can and should attain success. Consequently, they expend tremendous amounts of productive energy, which fuel the nation’s collective material progress.
At the same time, egalitarianism also prompts people to disorderly conduct. Convinced as they are that they are as good as anyone else and their opinions are as valid, they have little patience for any rules and regulations that they view as unnecessarily standing in their way and restricting them. The result is the rowdy behavior detailed elsewhere, as well as outright violence and lawlessness.[ 2 ]
The same motives that drive an industrious worker also impel an ambitious criminal. The closeness of the two can be seen by examining the practice of competition. Americans have always been avid competitors. They readily compete with one another, they enjoy watching others compete, they praise competition as bringing out the best qualities in people, and they encourage their children to compete. At times, the language of contention can become quite ferocious. “We’d like to see our competitors dead!” growls the aggressive businessman. Of course, all this rivalry is supposed to be limited by certain guidelines and restraints. The Little Leaguer is supposed to play by the rules of the game. One does not destroy General Motors in the process of trying to become its president.
But the emotions being incited and released are powerful and elemental, and there is always a danger that they may run out of control. This is especially the case at the lower levels of society, where restraints are weak and impulses are strong. Since the ethos of egalitarianism encourages everyone to go out and strive for what he wants, it is not surprising that a number of people, especially those near the bottom, with few choices or resources available, respond to the prompting with the direct and forthright actions of crime.
“I miss crime
American criminals display an energy, determination, and self-confidence similar to that of Americans in general. The Dangerous Classes of New York, a best-seller of 1880, observed that their misdeeds “have the unrestrained and sanguinary character of a race accustomed to overcome all obstacles.... The murder of an unoffending old man...is nothing to them. They are ready for any offense or crime, however degraded or bloody.” This is still true well over a century later. In 1992, London experienced more theft and burglary than New York but far less robbery and homicide. The number of deaths that occurred in the course of burglaries and robberies combined was seven in London and 378 in New York.
Tocqueville observed that a Frenchman fought a duel only because he wanted to tell other people that he had done so, whereas an American fought a duel to kill his opponent. I myself recall hearing an Irishman declare on a radio talk show he would never get into a fight with an American because “he might try to kill me.” Yes, indeed, Americans do not engage in violence for honor or recreation; they play for keeps.
In many civilized cultures, after taking another person’s life, the perpetrator often commits suicide. Having relieved whatever compulsion it was that prompted him to the act of murder, he is then overwhelmed by the horror of what he has done. Since obedience to social rules is more deeply internalized at the higher levels of society, it is understandable that the higher a murderer’s status, the more likely he will be to take his own life. American killers do not behave in this way. Far from being remorseful, they are exultant. They regard themselves as competitors who have won. Thirty-three percent of the killers in England commit suicide, and half of them attempt it; only 3 or 4 percent of the killers in the United States do so.
In America, violence, like vulgarity, is not something that has been driven back into the dark and remote corners of social life, but something that is near at hand and may appear at any time. People recognize the possibility of danger and accept it as a matter of course, to a degree that shocks foreign visitors. In 1832, Frances Trollope remarked on the casualness with which the natives treated incidents of assault, robbery, and even murder. Exactly a century and a half later, the Spectator, a prominent weekly magazine in England, printed the following as a news item worthy of national attention: “A man was beaten to death after he remonstrated with a group of youths who had disrupted his family barbecue.” In the United States, such an episode would have been treated as nothing more than a minor local event. Each year since 1975, a nationwide lifestyle survey has asked Americans, including women, how well they think they would do in a fistfight. To a middle-class European, such a question would be an insult, implying as it does that he might become engaged in such lower-class behavior.
The absence of violence in other countries provokes a reciprocal astonishment in Americans. They could hardly believe that during England’s general strike of 1926 no riots occurred and no lives were lost; in the United States such a dispute would inevitably have resulted in fighting and bloodshed. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, an American athlete complained, “I miss crime and murder.... There hasn’t been a brutal stabbing or anything here the last twenty-four hours.”
In view of such attitudes and practices, the widespread ownership of firearms in the United States is understandable. In the last two decades, thirty-three states passed laws that permit the carrying of a concealed weapon. About half of all American households have at least one gun on the premises. Every year, there are from 65,000 to 80,000 shootings in self-defense. Efforts have been made to restrict the possession of handguns, but they encounter adamant opposition from the public. Some people regard the attempt to deprive them of their weapons as “the psychological equivalent of government-imposed castration.”
For Americans, violence is more than just a danger against which one needs to take precautions. It exerts a fundamental allure, as its ubiquitous presence in various kinds of popular entertainment testifies. Violence in the media is a topic that has been discussed and fretted over endlessly, but the phenomenon poses no real mystery. A violent person is simply expressing himself in a dramatic, direct, and elemental way, and its depiction gives the audience a wicked but safely vicarious thrill. Its appeal is like that of vulgarity, but it is far stronger and more dangerous, and its fans usually have sufficient prudence and self-control not to try it out in their own lives.
Americans are the
lower classes “gone
out of control.”
Some Europeans, especially the English, after seeing the vulgarity and violence on the surface of American life, have imagined that Americans are the lower classes “gone out of control.” This is a misperception, similar to the mistake of concluding from egalitarian manners and behavior that the United States is a genuinely classless society. One needs to disregard the lower-class tone and look deeper. Just because a person in a position of prominence occasionally acts vulgar does not mean he is a wild low-lifer. Just because an incident of violence occurs does not mean the public order is seriously threatened. The very reverse is most likely the case. From time to time, Americans have employed collective, informal violence as a means, not of creating disorder, but of suppressing it.
In 1837, Harriet Martineau explained to her European readers that the leaders and participants in some recent American riots were people, not from the lower levels of society, but from the higher levels, and that their purpose had been to stop those who were creating disruption. The same was generally true of lynch mobs. They tended to be organized and headed by the respectable elements of a community, who wanted to eliminate a pernicious and often criminal element. During the labor disputes of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, it was the capitalists and their allies in government who inflicted most of the violence, to enforce order and repress the workers.
Beneath the occasional noise and fury that make headlines, a profound stability has dominated national existence from its early years. As Tocqueville discovered, an election might be preceded by ferocious rhetoric and rioting at the polls, but once it was over, everyone accepted the results as valid, and tranquility prevailed. In a less secure society, the presidential deadlocks of 1876 (Tilden/Hayes) and 2000 (Bush/Gore) would have resulted in disruption, disorder, civil turmoil, and perhaps even war. The fact that they did not is evidence of the fundamental presence of an inherent and abiding order—so much so that the ship of state does not always require the guiding hand of a chief executive at its helm. According to someone who should have known (that low realist Richard Nixon), the United States needs a president only to handle foreign affairs; domestically the country is able to run itself with nothing more than “a competent cabinet.”
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The underlying stability that exists in the United States rests on a profound unanimity, which is itself reflected in the very nature of what it means to be an American. To become an Englishman or a Frenchman or almost any other nationality requires passing the impressionable years of one’s childhood among that people and in the process unconsciously absorbing a subtle and indelible integument of mannerisms and attitudes that will forever after mark one as a member of that tribe. To become an American requires the learning of mannerisms and attitudes which are fewer, simpler, and more obvious—closer to the level of conscious perception and choice—and which are linked to a particular set of openly professed and commonly shared principles and beliefs. Such a panoply of personality and conviction can be acquired by a person at almost any age. One Indian, who spent his early years in Asia, moved to the United States and, after two decades, declared that he truly felt he had “become an American.” He added that it would not be possible for someone to do the reverse. An American might move to India, but after twenty or forty years or a lifetime, he would not have “become Indian.”
“It has been
our fate as a
nation not to
but to be one.”
Just as Americanism can be acquired by a deliberate act of will, it can also be forfeited. The word “un-American“ implies this possibility. It was first used in 1818, and it refers to actions or opinions that violate an unwritten ideological consensus. To be a Communist during the Cold War, for example, was called un-American, and those who were Communists were considered unworthy of American citizenship. In other countries, such an expression and such a test of national identity make no sense. One is an Englishman or a Frenchman by birth and for life. He may be a pariah among his countrymen and a traitor to his country, but he cannot be un-English or un-French. In the United States it is different. If one rejects certain values that are considered to be fundamentally American, he loses his Americanness.
“It has been our fate as a nation,” declared one historian, “not to have ideologies but to be one.” Americans share a single, coherent system of fundamental beliefs. Other countries lack such a unity. One Indian immigrant recalled that his high school in Bombay contained students who professed to be “monarchists, Fabian socialists, Christian democrats, Hindu advocates of a caste-based society, agrarians, centralized planners, theocrats, liberals, and Communists.” European universities contain a similar variety of people, holding distinct and unrelated political and philosophical points of view, and ready to expound and defend them. Such a farrago of ideologies is not to be found on an American campus, nor a fortiori anywhere else in American society. The possibility of its presence in an American high school, that habitat of mindless and banal teenage conformity, is too preposterous even to imagine.
Americans, it has been observed, “behave as though all of the basic questions of life have been settled.” Thanks to this unanimity, they have enjoyed profound social stability. Where there is underlying agreement, the disputes that arise are over suitable means rather than fundamental ends and accordingly tend to be superficial and transitory. Without such agreement, disputes may develop into controversies over essential objectives and primary questions, and consequently persist through time, fester, and cause lasting damage.
of the pie counter”
The contrast between stability in the United States and instability elsewhere can be seen in a comparison of American and European politics. Ever since the early years of the Nineteenth Century, travelers from both sides of the Atlantic have remarked on the differences. In Europe, momentous issues were raised, with rival ideological systems locked in combat and the future direction of entire societies put in question. By contrast, the issues in American politics have been ordinarily pedestrian, if not trivial: the personalities of candidates, local and special interests, the spoils of office (getting “within grabbing distance of the pie counter,” as one homely metaphor put it).
Since so much is at stake in European politics, they have attracted wide participation and intense interest among the populations of their respective countries. The opposite is true of Americans. The appearance of some burning controversy may arouse them momentarily, but normally they are indifferent to politics. The percentage of citizens who bother to vote is far below that of Europe, and their declining interest stands in contrast to the rising popularity of consumer products and entertainment. That is no wonder: American politics are mundane—in a word, boring. Aside from a tiny minority of fanatics, ideologues, and idealists, the people who invest significant time and effort in political activity only do so in the hope of gaining special benefits or solving specific problems. The candidates they elect look to find practical solutions and pragmatic compromises that will satisfy as many of their various constituencies as possible.
This slow, steady, undramatic functioning of the political process has been much more difficult to achieve in Europe, owing to the presence of conflicting ideologies. The feeling that one’s basic beliefs and fundamental interests are involved inflames the individual participant and transforms him into an intransigent partisan. Practical measures and realistic considerations give way to demands for theoretical rectitude, unquestioned loyalty, and outright victory. In Italy, for example, such a mind-set can turn something as bland and ordinary as a meeting of a Parent Teachers Association into an argumentative battlefield. One American observer predicted as far back as 1947 that the Italians would never achieve domestic tranquility and prosperity until they turned their attention away from politics and acquired the preoccupations of a consumer society.