American Psyche



American Psyche


Suppose you wanted to explain why it is that people in America speak English. America is far from England and its native people were not English speakers. The obvious answer is that Americans speak the language of the British immigrants who founded the country. They spoke English and their descendants learned language from them by imitative learning or some such. It isn’t some kind of strange coincidence or the result of a general law (English isn’t a human universal). The propensity to speak English is the result of historical facts that could have been otherwise—if the original colonizers were Spanish speakers, Americans would speak Spanish today. I want to suggest that much the same is true of other aspects of American culture: Americans are as they are mentally and behavorially because of the original British settlers.  [1] There is an unbroken (though modified) imitative chain leading from those settlers to contemporary Americans, and not always to the credit of either party. If you want to explain why people living in Great Britain are as they are, you do well to look to history; and the same is true of people living in America biologically descended from the original British settlers. Since British culture was the dominant force in America, despite other incursions, we find that American culture reflects British culture. Albion begot America, warts and all. This is not at all surprising, but the traits that originated in Britain, particularly England, may not be so obvious, or welcome.

            I am going to paint with a broad brush and from first-hand experience (I’m not a sociologist or historian). The traits I identify are four: puritanism, violence, social supremacy, and insularity. Different labels could be given and the psychological formations labeled are complex and multi-faceted. What is called puritanism might also be described as inhibition, repression, buttoned-up-ness, austerity, conformism, primness, prudishness, stuffiness, and straight-out sexual shame. I take it this is an old story and needs no defending. Violence is an aspect of British culture that is all too familiar to the inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly alcohol-driven street violence from predominantly working-class youths (I recall an American female graduate student in Oxford who was beaten up twice on the streets of that city by British thugs). My own school days were full of it. But let’s not forget the state-sponsored violence of the British Empire, which again is an oft-told story. The British are a violent people and proud of it (“Bring back the birch!”). By social supremacy I mean the burning desire to be better than your fellow man, or to be thought better: snobbery, class division, acting posh, looking down your nose, being well-bred, associating with the better sort of person, etc. etc. This desire to outclass others has racial and nationalist forms, but it should be remembered that it applies within the class of white British nationals. It is a desire for supremacy over others—foreigners, northerners (or southerners), the differently accented, the improperly educated, or the dubiously mannered. By insularity I mean a concern only with local affairs, a “little England” mentality, narrow-mindedness, a suspicion of “abroad”, a conviction that your way is always the best way, a lack of interest in anything beyond your own daily life. Much more could be said about these four traits and their connection to national peculiarities, like excessive drinking and football violence, or a rigid class system, or a tendency to get sunburned while holidaying in hot places; but I think I have said enough to convey the general picture. It is not an edifying spectacle, and many have been the souls that have fled it in search of other climes.

            Now we move to America: don’t we see the same basic pattern playing out, though in gaudier colors? Do I even need to spell out the American national character? The chief difference is the influx of other immigrants to the American continent (voluntary and involuntary): this has given a peculiar twist to the underlying personality type. A fanatically puritanical frame of mind, extreme violence, appalling racism and bigotry, and a magnificent indifference to anything beyond these American shores: the basic components are all there. Above all, there is a sublime lack of awareness of the American psychopathology. England is an island nation and so is America, and people like it that way: they don’t want anyone interfering in their traditional ways. And it isn’t as if both countries are models of internal harmony: the internal conflicts of the British Isles, many within England itself, are notorious; and the United States is a country with deep divisions, not to mention hatreds. In both countries we have a combustible mix of contempt, insecurity, supremacist thinking, and a refusal to heed the interests of others. At its crudest we have raging hatred and simmering (as well as overt) violence. The American psyche has adopted the characteristic traits of the British (mainly English) psyche and amplified them to screeching levels—bigger, nastier, and stupider. Combine this with unrestrained capitalism and simple greed and you get a version of Albion that is quite recognizable but also grotesque. The love of personal destruction is one of the manifestations of this pathology: lynching, legal execution, imprisonment, financial ruin, Internet defamation, and a callous disregard for human suffering (not to mention animal suffering). That is America and always has been, but it derives from the culture that created it—the culture of Great Britain. Look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail and you will see the bare bones of England satirized; now transpose this to a continent three thousand miles away. Of course, there are differences, born of climate and geography, of indigenous and neighboring peoples, but the toxic mixture of puritanism, violence, social supremacy, and insularity is present in full force. How could it not be, given that the architects of the country as it now exists were themselves steeped in this kind of culture? It didn’t disappear when British feet touched American soil; it was simply transplanted to a new place. Indeed, it might be argued that America allowed the pathology greater freedom to express itself, thus assuming more virulent forms.

            American English is recognizably the same language as British English (which itself has multiple forms) but with certain accretions and deformations: some would say it is harsher-sounding than its British progenitor (it is certainly spoken more loudly and confidently). American culture is the same: it is recognizably a version of British culture, but harsher, more extreme, and less modulated. Or to put it in more old-fashioned language, the American soul is really the English soul unleashed.  [2]            


  [1] This basic thesis was defended at length by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). I have given my own version of the general idea but without following his precise division of traits and without tying those traits down to geographical locations in England. For example, he traces the origins of American violence to the Scottish and Irish borderlands with their distinctive history, while I see British violence as a far more distributed characteristic of British society. His perspective is based on the American experience; I am drawing on my experience growing up in England (I moved to the USA when I was forty). Neither Fischer nor I wish to condemn both countries without qualification—there are good things about both places and other countries can be terrible too—but we want to present a clear-eyed picture of the realities of the countries in question. In many ways American history is just a continuation of British history, though occurring in another land: a “special relationship”—no doubt about it. What about the relationship of identity? 

  [2] What I have offered here is a general framework for thinking about American culture and Anglo-American relations, obviously in need of fleshing out. I doubt that I have said anything remotely original. If we want an acronym we could use “SPIV”: Supremacy, Puritanism, Insularity, Violence. There have always been critics of SPIV culture, internal and external, and some progress has been made in overcoming its direst forms, but it has proved remarkably resilient. Everyone should ask himself or herself to what degree he or she is a walking embodiment of it. We are all creatures of history.

2 replies
  1. Ken
    Ken says:

    I think that supremacy (esp. racial and gender), puritanism, violence, and insularity are at their most extreme on the American right. The American left’s supremacy and violence (not sure about repression and insularity) take different forms – all of which are exhibited most prominently by academics: intellectual snobbery, ostracism, arrogance, vindictiveness, and verbal aggression.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.