Amid rampant Russophobia and Sinophobia, America’s penchant for Cold-War “national character analysis” will — if left unchecked — lead the U.S. into deepest trouble.
By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News
Ruminating on the American condition some years ago, I invented a word to describe us as we are. America is a “geophobic” nation, I figured — a people with an aversion to the world’s spaces and populations that manifests as indifference to any genuine knowledge of either.
This indifference, this ignorance of other places and people — and Americans’ indifference to their ignorance — is perfectly evident as a thread running through the whole of American history.
Americans are, at bottom, a fearful people, spooked by what lies beyond their shores. Has this ever been more so than now, in the twilight of the empire?
Geophobia, strange as it may seem, has served America well in certain respects — assuming, this is to say, one has a very narrow understanding of well-being.
America made up its mind to make itself an empire following the Spanish–American War, paradoxically, in part to keep the world at bay. It could extend its accumulating power beyond its shores in the certain knowledge the rest of the world’s people were fallen, a blur, and what they thought or wanted did not matter much.
We all know the exercise: Can you find, say, Malaysia on a map? As you wave the blue-and-yellow banner off your front porch, can you find Ukraine on a map? This is what I mean by geophobia.
On the material side, geophobia permitted Americans to indulge their greed and selfishness in amassing an undue share of the world’s wealth without having to think about their greed and selfishness. George Kennan made this point after the 1945 victories: America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, consumes roughly half of its resources, and the objective of U.S. policy must be to keep things this way as long as possible.
This reinforced America’s fundamental phobia — its long-abiding fear that the rest of the world looked upon it with a threatening, volatile envy.
National Character Studies
At the time Kennan was mulling these matters, American scholars — and what would we do without our scholars? — were developing a line of thinking that came to be called national character studies. And of all the appalling habits of mind America’s geophobia has induced in its citizens, the national character discourse has got to rank among the very worst.
It behooves us now to understand all of the errors of America’s geophobic ways, because they are going to serve the republic badly in the 21st century. But, with Russophobia and Sinophobia rampant among us, two variants of the generalized geophobia, it is the assumptions lurking in America’s preference to view others according to national character that are landing the U.S. in the deepest trouble.
It is not difficult to explain the national character phenomenon for the simple reason there is not much to it — as is always the case when the core precepts are racism and fear of the Other. A national character argument is at bottom essentialist, postulating ineradicable traits as defining of any given people.
Example: The Japanese did this, that, or the other because that is what Japanese people do. Let’s try this again to bring things closer to home: The Russians think this way, that way, or the other way and will always act in the same manner because that is who the Russians are, how Russians think, and how they will always conduct themselves.
It follows that we must always fear them.
Jean-Paul Sartre mauled the case for essentialism with suitable mercilessness in Being and Nothingness. “Existence precedes essence,” he famously argued in that difficult but highly rewarding book. This is not a hair-split. It means that human beings, what they think and how they act are determined by the choices they make in response to the conditions of their lives, not by some innate aspect of their character.
We are free to be who we choose to be, in other words; individual freedom being among the existentialists’ highest values. And with freedom comes a minute-to-minute responsibility for everything we decide to do; which is why most of us, while professing our belief in freedom to the very skies, display a bottomless dread of freedom whenever we are threatened with actually having any.
My own quarrel with the national character crowd hangs off Sartre’s case for being superseding essence. National character arguments paper over politics and history — the ever-in-flux forces that truly matter in determining how the world turns.
I choose the case of the Japanese advisedly, because national character studies arose in large part as America decided it was time to understand the Japanese after the Imperial Navy’s air corps attacked Pearl Harbor in the final days of 1941. The key people who went to work on this question were trained as anthropologists and psychologists — a sure sign, I have always thought, that trouble was on the way.
One of these people was Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist (and an intimate friend of Margaret Mead’s) who undertook to tell the Roosevelt administration and anyone else who might be interested who the American military was up against as it crossed the Pacific. Her famous book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was not published until 1946, but the work that went into it was part of the war effort.
Every correspondent sent to cover Japan, assuming correspondents still read books, gets through The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In it, Benedict tells you all about the immutable Japanese character, so explaining everything they do — because, the original case in point, what they do is what they have always done and will always do.
Among the curious things about Benedict and her book is that the war made it impossible for her to conduct her research in Japan: It was all a matter of study and careful surmise from a distance — an early case, by force of circumstance, of America’s geophobia. It’s also interesting to note that Benedict’s first book, published in 1934, was called Patterns of Culture, wherein she argued, “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.”
Got the picture?
National character studies might have disappeared as another Cold War artifact. Indeed, the better scholars of Benedict’s time, and every generation has a reliable few, vigorously trashed the new discipline from the outset. But how often do conscientious scholars win the arguments of their time? (And when, exactly, did the Cold War end?) At this point national character analysis suffuses America’s public discourse, from the bar at your local Applebee’s to the Biden White House.
There is the case of Wendy Sherman, for instance. Sherman, who now serves as deputy secretary of state — the No. 2 under Antony Blinken — first caught my eye in the autumn of 2013, when Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president, wowed the U.N. General Assembly and opened the door to talks that led to the 2015 agreement governing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programs.
Sherman was to lead negotiations but had to satisfy the Senate of her bona fides beforehand. “We know that deception is part of the DNA,” she asserted in reference to the Iranians.
Now have you got the picture?
It passed for diplomacy then and it passes for diplomacy now. America’s prevalent take on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s determination to intervene are a sinkhole of national character nonsense. This is why it is next to impossible to have a rational conversation with 99.9 percent of Americans about the complexities of the Ukraine crisis. Nope: It’s all about those Rrrrrussians and what they always do.
Oh, Wendy, Wendy, what went wrong, oh so wrong?
Certain types of people and societies tend to be afflicted with the fallacies of the national character position. Wounded civilizations are often very vulnerable to it.
Again, there is the Japanese case.
Over many years of work and travels to and fro in China, I was always saddened to find how deep and scarring were the injuries the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted upon the Chinese in the 1930s and 1940s — the massacres, the atrocities, the infamous rape of Nanjing. The Chinese — and the Koreans have their own variant of this — put it all down to who the Japanese are.
May the day come when the Chinese, a people I greatly admire, come to understand that it was the global politics of the time and the history of Japan’s tortured modernization that led imperial Japan to all its wrongs. The Japanese built an empire and ran it as they did, let us not forget, in part because Westerners had empires that subjugated others and they must have one to be the Westerners’ equal.
Closer to our time and circumstances, there is the case of the Poles and other East Europeans — and the Ukrainians, of course. It has long been conventional wisdom that in all matters Russian, those in the former satellites and Soviet republics know best, having lived under Soviet domination.
I cannot think of anything more misguided. The Poles and Ukrainians, in particular, are the last people to ask for sound, balanced judgments of Russia and its people, as their perspectives are more or less defined by presumptions of national character.
And how Americans love the national character presumptions of the Poles and Ukrainians.
Any nation’s leaders and diplomats are supposed to guide their citizens against excesses of hatred and xenophobia rooted in ideas of national character. Not America’s. They stoke this fire every chance they get: It’s good for the campaign to debilitate Russia, good to secure support for the war among those professing to be antiwar, and good for making sure the American public keeps flying the yellow-and-blue.
Not to be missed, it is the constant emphasis on national character that obscures — but precisely — the history and politics of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Russia’s position vis-à-vis NATO and European security, China’s perspective on Taiwan and other such matters, and so on indefinitely.
Apart from the wounded, it is the geophobic who are most inclined to use national character as they look out upon the world. It is an excellent system of classification and nothing, the geophobic allow themselves to assume, will ever change. Since Sept. 11, 2001, I should add, America has been a wounded nation as well as a phobic nation, fearful of its empire’s fate.
There are good reasons for America’s ingrained geophobia, having to do with its history, its size, the oceans on either side of it. But if Russia’s insistence that its security concerns be taken seriously, if China’s emergence as a world power, if the non–West’s demand for global parity have anything to tell us, it is that the time has come to leave America’s geophobic habits behind.
Indifference to others, the bliss of ignorance, the coloring-book presumptions inherent in national character perspectives: These are not America’s essence, as Sartre would put it, but choices it has made. It can either grow beyond these or fail in the 21st century. This is America’s choice now, and it is free to make it either way.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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The national sport phenomenon is part of the “national character phenomenon” Patrick Lawrence describes. When two football fans from out-of-state meet, the partisanship observed for their respective teams vs. rabid, racism-like “Otherness” for the non-hometown team is based on intra-US geophobia.
Just as Grandpa wouldn’t eat sauerkraut because it’s German, most Americans won’t look at all of the football teams’ statistics objectively, examining their longterm record to find the best team. Who has the most winnings in the past 10 years, playoff wins, winning streaks and seasons, Super Bowl appearances and Super Bowl wins? Which team shares the profit from ticket sales equally with all of the players vs. 99% of it going to the NFL team owner? Most Americans can’t justify their football team any more than they can justify their political party. It is the rare American who can claim a team 2000 miles from home as their own, based on merit.
If you’re still not sold on New England, well, I’m sure you’ll be seeing us in Glendale, AZ for Super Bowl LVII. Cheers!
I like the geophobia creation. But really, what you describe in part is exactly the same racism that the US struggled with back in the day. It wasn’t until the ’60s that it became socially unacceptable to be a bigot but even today it still exists. The Vietnamese that we perpetrated war crimes on were gooks and zipperheads and the Middle Easterners ragheads and to steal from Firesign Theater – Spicks and Wops and Niggers and Kikes with noses as long as your arm, and Micks and Jinxs and Gooks and Ginks and Honkeys who never left the farm, that’s America buddy! So we have a long history of denigrating other peoples. Heretofore we’ve been so important that everybody was forced to swallow their pride and get along with us. Those days are coming to an end. As Mr. Lawrence said elsewhere, for all the hullabaloo, the only countries joining the US are our vassals in Europe and the Pacific Rim of East Asia. A third of the world’s population – India and China – have rebuffed the warmongers at least three times. Maybe they’re feeling isolated instead of the other way around.
If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t Japan self-isolated for some time, only to have its borders force-opened by the likes of Commodore Perry (USA)?
I also remember reading once that Mao Zedong saw the Japanese as brothers of the Chinese and condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What happened ever since his passing, and what was it like before?
On certain parts of the Chinese internet I still see certain commentariat who believe that the nuking of civilian targets like Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary, that they were ‘just desserts’ for atrocities committed by Japanese military forces. Based on what I learned, it was not the nukes that led to Japan’s surrender, but rather the Soviets’ efforts in defeating the Kwantung army.
The USA also dropped bombs on Chinese soil as well. Not something a ‘savior’ would do.
May the day come when the Chinese stop looking to the USA’s use of nuclear weapons against unarmed women and children as a godsend, let alone the catalyst for Japan’s surrender, and instead see it the same way Vladimir Putin does – as a war crime.
Hmm, and one might think that a sense of exceptionalism and superiority is a large component of the American national character. It may not be innate, but it has been around for a very long time.
As chairman, chief executive officer and, only member of the Neutralist Association of the United States, we take Mr. Lawrence’s article as an affirmation of our principles even though we have no right to.
Americans should feel free to do in their country whatever they feel like but…PLEASE!!! leave the rest of the world alone. The problem is, too many these days think that our planet revolves around the US, that we can’t manage without the Yanx. Oh, yes…we can!!!
I like many of the writer’s works on CN, but for me Patrick Lawrence stands out because of his style.
It’s as if we are in a little wooden boat, him at the stern. My head rests the prow, looking up at cream-puff clouds as they scud across the sky. Mostly, we drift with just a hint of a breeze. He is holding a paddle but rarely uses it. And he is talking. It is all so thoughtful–so elegant–so rational.
Patrick Lawrence’s style is that of a novelist of the old order.
Here he is is keying in on a psychological tendency I myself have engaged in at times. Thank you.
Well, blessings upon you, Mark Stanley. How v generous a word, a vote of encouragement.
& thank you to all others commenting, per usual.
Let us all do what we can to counter this rampant censorship regime that rolls at us like a big, black bowling ball, the PayPal seizure of Consortium’s account and balance bringing things closer to home.
& let us not forget: It is spring, time of renewal, of life after our great and small crucifixions. We will find our ways through this. It’s no time for flinching.
Thank you for the well written and rational commentary.
Ironically it was news of PayPals actions that inspired me to look into Consortium News.
Let me add: Quotin the Beach Boys… Good call bro… Always cool when you sneak in that sly humor!
Alice Walker wrote a book “Sweet People Are Everywhere.”
Many countries are mentioned, including all mentioned in this article. Nice drawings of people. Even Iceland is in her book, a wonderful place to visit.
The hell raiser Twain said, “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” The only part of that he got wrong was that we don’t ever actually even learn geography out of our wars. Out of sight, out of mind.
I wouldn’t say that Americans necessarily are indifferent to their own ignorance. My impression is that many are proud of what they don’t know.
Indeed, all evidence points to exactly that being the case….
A tweet from a Senator:
Sen. Marsha Blackburn
China has a 5,000 year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change…
8:52 AM · Dec 3, 2020·Twitter for iPhone
And the US has a little over 200 years to do about the same. Is the senator bucking for another 3800 hundred years to do the same?
yes, I can (find those countries,and most of the rest, on a map). This article seems to me a perfect example of “geophobia” – directed against the US. It is also a barrage of unsupported allegations – granted that it drove me away before long at all.
It is true that the US is an empire and behaves accordingly; but in this, it is pretty much like other empires, including the relevant current ones, rather than pexceptional – much as we’d like to think we’re special.
Actually, geographically speaking, the U.S. is unique among empires. We enjoy the natural protection of
very large oceans to east and west; a large in size but small in population, friendly neighbor to the north;
and a more heavily populated but economically and politically weak neighbor in a much smaller and less
resource – rich country to the south. Added to that, the U.S. has benefited from literally appropriating an
entire continent’s worth of resources.
Compare that to other ’empire’ countries, which have been depleted of resources over millennia.
The most striking thing about Europe, to me, is how very ‘old’ it all feels. And China is even older.
We do have geophobia, conditioned by the hubris of our lucky location between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Actually, our “lucky” location is the result of conquest, a history oddly similar to Russia’s.
You make good points, but I don’t think they change mine.
The conquest of North America was very different, in many respects, from the long history of the Slavs.
My point was, we cannot compare the mindset of the US, comfortably cordoned off between the world’s
great oceans, to the mindset of the countries occupying the wide-open steppes of central Europe. Mentally,
the oceans serve the same purpose as old-fashioned blinkers on cart horses — they create tunnel vision.
Wrong. The US is, by far, the most dangerous empire–country–on the planet. I’ve seen this argument before; the US is an empire, sure, but just one of a few, apparently all on equal footing. Even a quick look-in at the US’ conduct over just the last 30 years proves the falsehood of this view. The US’ virulent and terminal case of geophobia is the most dangerous because the US itself is the most powerful and dangerous country right now. And, anybody who has ever listened to the inanities and chauvinistic lies babbled by our leaders–Blinken and Pelosi come immediately to mind, but a dozen others at least would work–should be able to grasp the unique and overarching character of our deadly geophobia.
I mentioned about a month ago that I had been reluctant to contact my siblings since February 24. But I wanted to speak with my younger brother to check on his health, and so I coached myself for many hours how to avoid a shouting match. All for nothing: when I said “I haven’t called since Feb. 24 because…” it was like I stepped on a land mine. Not a little one like an anti-personnel mine, but a big one like an anti-tank mine. Everything Patrick Lawrenc says here was exposed in the those few hot minutes until my brother shouted, “I’m going to hang up now, because you are INSANE.” I had been attempting to get across the idea that this crisis could have been avoided had the “West” appreciated Russia’s historical perspective and experience in the last several centuries.
But no, it was all Putin is evil, wicked, and murderous, and now on top of that ALL Russians are evil, murderous, wicked, barbarians. My brother is not a stupid person; I can’t express how demoralizing this is to me.
I can understand how you feel, after having tried, unsuccessfully, with my siblings. What I find so disturbing is that in so many supposedly ‘intelligent’ people, reasoning and logic has all but disappeared, and replaced with a manufactured visceral hatred of all things Russian. The effect of this is the economic chaos caused by irrational sanctions and seizures of Russian assets and property, along with the increased levels of propaganda and censorship. Adding fuel to the fire is the every increasing supply of money and weapons to Ukraine, none of which are likely to be used fully as intended. Millions of ordinary people around the world are suffering needlessly because of a handful of truly evil and dangerous people in US and Europe who have lost their minds. I say evil because that describes a person who has the power, and uses it, to deliberately inflict suffering on others to further their own ends.
To my mind, it is further proof of how uncivilised we really are, although fortunately there are also many exceptions to this – but we/they are being systematically silenced and threatened.
Unless some sanity emerges pretty soon in the Western governments they are going to lead us into a devastating global war and a massive economic collapse. This is, in my view, rapidly becoming an existential crisis for the world, one that threatens us immediately.
I now expect the Doomsday Clock to be reset again. But to how close to midnight?
It may well be past midnight. We are likely a dead planet walking and just don’t yet know it.
When I see perfectly safe, secure and formerly sane countries like Finland and Sweden deliberately choose to sign on with the hyper-belligerents in Nato (this after the organisation’s intense lobbying to recruit the statelets of Montenegro and North Macedonia), who are ceaselessly inflamed with rhetoric by the bellicose maniacs in Washington, I cannot find any path that any of these people have left themselves to avoid an all consuming war that simply ends civilisation everywhere. To even query about off-ramps from this road to perdition is “streng verboten!” Now Nato is putting intense pressure on Serbia, which Nato bombed back into the stone age, to commit to its campaign against Russia! Serbia, an EU member, will probably be sanctioned if it cannot bring itself to kiss the feet of its tormentors.
This is all mass insanity.
We’ve all known them.
Some are our friends—some family.
They latch onto what seems
don’t let go.
They defend the worst of the worst
for the sake of party or religion or ego.
We can know them. We can love them.
We need not be them.
By TP Graf from “Looking Out onto Our World”
This intriguing article rekindled thoughts about our country’s delusions of grandeur and manifest destinies. In the eighties, when I had the opportunity to visit the Orient, I was thrilled with the anticipation of visiting China, but I was ready to skip the visit to Japan. I was still filled with anger and hate engendered by WWII. The trip was enlightening. I fell in love with Japan and the beautiful countryside with the neat patches of farm land, the beautiful Shinto and Buddhist Shrines and the friendly people. It felt ashamed of my childhood-acquired prejudice. By the way, after WWII, the US turned over military armaments to Japan…not China.
Beginning with the slaughter of The First Peoples, the US was born out of war and has been at war since inception. We followed the conquering entitlement attitudes inherited from England and considered ourselves “the best”.
In the forties, Edgar Cayce, and other seers, predicted Russia would become the Hope of the World and the hope of freedom, not communism. However,, Russia has only one warm water area for ports. It is in Crimea on the Black Sea. Without securing this area, during winter Russia’s Navy and shipping could be ice-locked in. The US has The Monroe Doctrine which we use to protect our country from threat of invasion. But the US acts as if Russia does not have similar rights. We also have three warm water port shores on the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Gulf. Crimea used to be a part of Russia.
During the 2013-2014 US financially backed Ukraine Coup, (led by Biden), the US helped Ukraine oust the Russian-friendly and democratically elected president. The US has destroyed and killed in countries where it had no geographical connections.. Another threat to Russia are the US biological labs which are creating germ warfare. A big secret has been the shelling of Russian-speaking civilians, reportedly by the NAZIs which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Donbas area civilians.
With the pretend pandemic, there has been increased US censorship. The Controllers do not desire US Citizens to be informed. We are taught by propaganda to be Xenophobic so the military can conquer and control. I suggest that it is brainwashing and not hynosis which is controlling people.
Sanscrit writings tell us about the Yugas, periods which have different energies control our destiny. We are reportedly beginning to come out of the worst. I have wondered if our penchant for killing everything is because of Earth’s present Yuga. The WEF and other Controller goals is to genetically redesign all of Nature, become God and control the world. This includes changing Humans into Cyborgs and Chimeras, after killing off billions. Do Humans deserve to exist as Humans? Or are we a failed experiment? Perhaps a nuclear war will decide it.
As Woody Guthrie said, “Which Side Are You On?
I understand what you are going through, though your case is worse than mine. I have avoided any political talk at all with family, after a bad encounter over Joe Biden’s, um, shortcomings after that “towering mediocrity” (Jennifer Matsui’s perfect phrase) was elected. I like to imagine that family members understand, even the true believers, that Biden is exactly that, after all.
The best thing to do is to not speak about these things, and kill them with kindness. I will not speak of these things unless asked to, and prefer now to talk politics only with nieces and nephews. I’m afraid it’s too late for the oldies.
I have recently become more aware to the fact that intelligent != ingullible. Also, there is a big push for the conformists/yes men to be smart/intelligent. Just pour them money for agreeing with the systems views and allow them to reaffirm themselves as exceptional. A never endless circle jerk, while feeding them illogical views such as dont read from source X, it is enemy propaganda. why cant a person read both sides of a story and make up their minds anymore?
It feels like only one narrative is allowed in the West and geophobia helps mend it. Excellent article.
Hilarious, if not so annoying.
Exactly the same with both my brother and Mum.
I triggered a tactical nuke when I called. WhatsApp crashed, I’m banned.
The only thing that saved me was the ocean between.
Negotiations will make Zelenskyy’s eventual treaty look like a cake-walk!
I must add one observation – this kind of landmine was already laid during the 2008 crash – followed by Brexit, then Trump, two anti-tank mines, and now Russia, tactical nuke mines.
Already battle scarred and hardened from the previous 3 encounters, I was ready for them.
Patrick Lawrence points to 9/11 before the 2008 crash being key.
So this did not happen over night, nor over 8 years, it is actually a 20 years long assault.