Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some of my best friends . . .

Who says we won't have Nixon to kick around any more?

Nixon is indeed the gift that keeps on giving: From even beyond the grave that unmistakable voice periodically speaks with fresh fulminations about liberals, Jews, blacks, and (in the batch of new White House tapes released just the other day) even the Irish and Italians. (According to Nixon's deep sociological analysis, the Irish drink a lot.)

Nixon's creepy obsession with the Jews was clearly a mania that went well beyond his more general penchant for crude ethnic profiling ("I'm not prejudiced, I've just recognized that, you know, all people have certain traits. The Jews have certain traits, the Irish have certain traits," Nixon told Charles Colson on February 13, 1973, then proceeded to demonstrate his complete freedom from prejudice by observing that "virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks, particularly the real Irish," that Italians "don't have their heads screwed on tight," and "the Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”)

Jack Shafer at Slate catalogs some of Nixon's earlier paranoid ravings about the Jews ("What about the rich Jews? … You see, IRS is full of Jews, Bob. … That's what I think. I think the reason they're after [the Rev. Billy] Graham is the rich Jews"; "The Jews are born spies. You notice how many of them are? They're just in it up to their necks. … Also, an arrogance, an arrogance that says—that's what makes a spy. He puts himself above the law"; "Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. … All right. Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?")

Yes, an absolutely vintage sampling for all true Nixon connoisseurs.

All of this, though, has had me musing about (on the one hand) the once-widespread beliefs about ethnically unique human traits one encounters in the late 19th century in particular — traits usually deterministically ascribed to genetics, race, climate, or social "stages" of development — and (on the other) the almost complete failure of modern social history to offer in place of such racist-inflected pseudo-science any convincing explanation for the cultural differences one undeniably does encounter in different societies.

When I was researching my book on the War of 1812 (coming soon to a bookstore near you), one of the first books I read was Theodore Roosevelt's famous and still quite admirable account of the naval war, written when he was a very young man during the grand age of social Darwinism. It is startling, amidst Roosevelt's very straightforward and meticulously reconstructed accounts of battles at sea, to suddenly come across pages of racial-genealogy mumbo-jumbo earnestly establishing that "native" Americans were as racially pure as their English foes whom they encountered on the high seas ("The infusion of new blood into the English race on this side of the Atlantic has been chiefly from three sources — German, Irish, and Norse; and these three sources represent the same elemental parts of the composite English stock in about the same proportions in which they were originally combined, — mainly Teutonic, largely Celtic, and with a Scandinavian admixture. The descendant of the German becomes as much Anglo-American as the descendant of the Strathclyde Celt has already become an Anglo-Britain . . . ")

And on and on he goes, analyzing the relative intelligence, bravery, hardiness, and fighting spirit of such subspecies as the Celto-Turanian, the anglicized Welsh of Cornwall, the Dano-Irish, the Huguenots. (He starts lumping, however, when it comes to the Italians and Portuguese, whom he treats as one big happy family of not very good navy material: "They were treacherous, fond of the knife, less ready with their hands, and likely to lose either their wits or their courage when in a tight place.")

What we do know about cultural norms and behaviors, I think, is that they exist; they are not products of genes (as the social Darwinists thought) or temperature and rainfall (as Buffon claimed); that they are amenable to change with remarkable swiftness at times (witness the way dueling and flogging, both accepted and even lauded in the "civilized" worlds of 1812, and in their navies in particular, would just a generation later be seen as positively barbaric); and that historians and sociologists and anthropologists, for all of their blather about "discourse" and Foucault, really have gotten nowhere in offering a convincing mechanism of explanation for why societies differ and how and why they change.

One thing that does unmistakably come through from contemporary accounts, letters, and diaries from the War of 1812 is that Americans really were different from their European counterparts of the time in some basic traits of character and behavior, and that these differences went very deep — that is, they were indeed "cultural" and were the product of some fundamentally different conceptions of the individual and his lot in life, his self-worth, and his acceptance or rejection of fate.

One of my favorite examples of this was the many often quite humorous accounts by American prisoners of war of how they drove their captors to distraction with their refusal to accept their lot the way the British expected (and the way the French prisoners in the same prisons did). Just days after the crew of the American privateer Frolic arrived in Barbados, the British jailer of one of the Americans told him that his forty men were more trouble than the five hundred French prisoners he had: “A Frenchman settles down at once in a prison, into habits of quiet order, industry, mild gaiety, and respectful submission, . . . but your men have such a wild, reckless, daring, enterprising character that it would puzzle the devil to keep them in good order.” And the much-harassed commandant of Britain's notorious Dartmoor Prison, where 6,000 American seamen would be held by the war's end, made almost exactly the same numerical comparison:  He had, he told an acquaintance, never  “read or heard of such a set of Devil-daring, God-provoking fellows, as these same Yankees; I had rather have the charge of five thousand Frenchmen than five hundred of these sons of liberty." (He was kind enough to add: "And yet, I love the dogs better than I do the damn’d frog-eaters.")

A long excursion from Richard Nixon's anti-Jewish ravings to Captain Thomas G. Shortland's admittedly equally shallow comparisons of Yankees and frogs; yet I wonder still what it was about Americans of 1812 that made them different. 

There's several new advance reviews of Perilous Fight posted at my author website (follow the "News and Reviews" link) as well as a large crop of early reader reviews now up on Amazon. All authors have profoundly mixed feelings about Amazon's practice of vox populi reviewing, but what I come away with, no matter what, is always a bit of encouragement that people are actually reading books!