Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Americans: The View From Abroad
by james c. simmons
crown, 239 pages, $19.95

A zealous convert once decided to grade his own spiritual progress and under “humility” wrote: “97 percent.” The moral of the story is that, on matters of religion, you don’t grade yourself; others must do it for you. The same rule applies to nations.

Contemporary American intellectuals, including especially those who speak for the old-line religious establishment, consistently assign the nation a failing moral grade. Thai position is often said to reflect the majority view toward this country around the world. But is that in fact the case?

Not according to the contemporary Tocquevilles canvassed by former San Diego State professor of literature James C. Simmons in Americans: The View From Abroad. If their views are by no means all favorable, neither are they predominantly disapproving.

The range of attitudes can be seen in the observers’ comments on religion and morality in the United States. “Americans have a really low morality, especially the females and teenagers,” says Armenian immigrant Lucy Kouyoumdjian, now a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She finds young people “having sex at an early age,” which “brings a lot of trouble in the end.” She wishes she could help American teenagers understand that sex involves “very serious responsibilities.”

While some foreigners see America as a bastion of prudery, a number of others agree that this is a sex-obsessed nation. Many suggest that there has been in recent years a shift from moral restraint to, as one put it, a “complete removal of taboos and restraints.”

Japanese professor Saeki Shoichi, who taught for a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, saw in this “upheaval” a “weakening of the society’s Christian underpinnings.” He got the impression that “a vast chasm yawns within the soul of the American people, a gnawing hunger that, to the outsider, is almost grotesque.” Shoichi wondered if the religious impulse suddenly had found itself “without an object.” He sees traditional American religious fervor now displaced onto such secular causes as the antismoking crusade.

In similar vein, English observer Jane Walmsley contends that what distinguishes Americans from Europeans is the apparent American belief “that death is optional.” She believes that this explains the national obsession with “health, aerobics, prune juice, plastic surgery, and education.”

The book is filled with acute observations on the habits of the Americans. One visitor marvels that American parents will make any sacrifice for their children except to stay married to each other. Another is convinced that America doesn’t know where it is going but seems determined to “set a speed record getting there.”

Most observers, even those who generally dislike the place, continue to see Americans as friendly and generous, if at times naive and immature. An English clergyman complains that American Christians are far too generous with their hugs.

In the realm of economics, a Japanese businessman challenges the belief, popular among conservatives, that American economic decline is largely due to organized labor. “American executives are too aristocratic,” he says. “Very few of them have ever worked on a production line themselves and they have little or no contact with their workers, whom they treat as interchangeable parts.”

Such observations are not simply set down at random by the author but are helpfully categorized and introduced. The larger sections concern themes such as American culture, the American people, and the nation as a symbol. Smaller sections range over subjects from Disneyland to Gary Hart to U.S. foreign policy. The contributors vary from anonymous scribes and tourists all the way to movie stars and diplomats. Many of the selections delight and instruct at the same time. Russian comedian Yakov Smirnov, for example, is grateful for parades “without missiles.”

Simmons includes boilerplate anti-American invective but balances it with foreign criticisms of the genre. British author Paul Johnson notes that attacks on America have been so venomous as to merit the description “witch hunt” and even “racism.” Russian novelist Vassily Aksyonov believes that anti-American sentiment is “of such intensity that it can only be called hatred.”

Overall, the selections give the impression that foreign views of America are generally favorable. For many, the United States remains a kind of promised land, where talent and energy can find free expression. Even many of those critical of the country seem to prefer to live here.

Anti-Americanism is not of course restricted to foreigners, as reflected in some editorial reluctance toward Simmons’ project, a clear winner of an idea that should have been taken up long ago. “Only a patriot,” sniffed one publishing executive, could possibly be interested in a collection of views about America. But it is not just “patriots” who understand the value of paying close attention to what others are saying about us.

K. L. Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Policy of the National Council of Churches