The Jennings blog has moved!

As of October 1, 2011 the Jennings Project blog has moved and joined forces with Constitution Daily, the Center’s daily digest of smart conversation on the Constitution. All new posts will be published there, so be sure to subscribe and follow Constitution Daily on Twitter. If you are interested in submitting a post to Constitution Daily, please email Stefan Frank at

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How the First Amendment Shapes Americans' Personalities

Thanks to Tracey O'Connor, an Australian-American friend, for pointing me to an interesting piece in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. You can read it here. There, British novelist Geoff Dyer writes admiringly of Americans' hospitality, generosity, and relative good humor when compared to his own countrymen's national sneer. I'll let you read Dyer's essay and comment on your own, but do take note of this excerpt for its nod to how the Constitution informs our frame of mind:

"Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer
examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being
overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just
about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk
offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or,
more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free
speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing
you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the
premise that America is better than anyplace else. No such belief animates
British life. On the contrary. A couple of years ago a survey indicated that
British Muslims were the most fed-up of any in Europe: a sign, paradoxically, of
profound assimilation.

If the typical American interaction involves an ostensibly contradictory mixture of the formal (politeness), the casual and the cordial, what happens when one moves beyond the transactional? Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked. It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm. The French put a rather charmless emphasis on charm, are consciously or unconsciously persuaded that it is either part of a display
of sophistication or — and it may amount to the same thing — a tool in the
service of seduction. "

No comments:

Post a Comment