By Tibor Machan
When one has contrarian views, it is not always easy to enjoy oneself. I often sit through movies with much to offer, only to find that characters unhesitatingly denounce something I value, such as capitalism, business, or some great feature of American culture.
The same fate faces me when I pick up a best-selling novel.
Most recently I have been reading the works of Donna Leon, who is an English professor at a university near Venice, Italy, and who churns out some pretty decently plotted stories with an Italian police detective as her protagonist, all taking place in and around Venice.
Having spent quite a bit of time in the region in the mid-’80s, when I was a teacher at the American college in Lugano, Switzerland, I am especially fond of revisiting the area by means of Leon’s stories.
Sadly, however, this novelist does not manage to restrain herself from offering various slightly nasty generalizations about Americans.
For example: “In the past, both during Interpol seminars that had included Americans and during three months of training in Washington, he had often come up against this national sense of moral superiority, this belief so common among Americans that it had somehow been given to them to serve as a glistening moral light in a world dark with error…”
So, Americans are supposed to be morally arrogant. This comes following a little exchange between the Italian police detective and an officer in the U.S. Military who explains to him that someone he is to meet about a criminal matter is a female officer in the Army. Leon has the officer saying “the Captain is a woman,” which is followed by: “There was more than a trace of smugness in his voice as he added, ‘And Captain Peters is also Doctor Peters.’ ”
Leon seems to believe (a) Americans have no justification for feeling pleased about the fact that women tend to have greater access to professional careers in the USA than they do in other regions of the globe, including Italy; and (b) all Americans are smug about such things. All or at least most Americans, mind you, not just this particular character in Leon’s novel.
The issue of what members of various cultures believe, how they feel about their own and other cultures, is a fascinating topic that cannot be dealt with in sufficient detail here. Suffice it to note, however, that when it comes to Americans, such generalizations are nearly impossible.
Sure, Americans have some attitudes not often held elsewhere — mainly a kind of causal confidence that they can pretty much handle most problems they will face in life. Yet even this is confined to just a fraction of them. Because American culture is, in fact, an amalgamation of innumerable other cultures that are, themselves, often smaller amalgamations, making generalizations about what Americans think, what attitudes they have, their religious beliefs, politics or other systems of ideas simply will not work. And anyone as smart as Donna Leon would probably know this.
So, then why the gratuitous dissing of Americans anyway? Any answer to this question would itself run the risk of committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. But I have read enough and been to enough foreign places to hazard the guess that there is some envy lurking behind these passages and sentiments.
This resentment was evident during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, when a collection of different foreign journalists commented that in Europe, for example, no one would be shocked with any of what went on, given that they are so much more sophisticated than Americans. I don’t know about being sophisticated — Americans are all over the map on that score — but for sure, Europeans would be self-deluded to think that having mistresses is a sign of superiority!
Indeed, many European and other cultures’ practices, especially having to do with the treatment of women, are inferior to what is commonplace in America.
So, these little side comments, such as the one I found in Donna Leon’s Death in a Strange City, are anything but wise and sensible. They tend to reveal a sense of defensiveness.
Maybe what readers get from them is a lesson that certain elements of American culture hold out valuable lessons for the world.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at