May 16, 2006


Cooke's Tour: Notes From WWII America: THE AMERICAN HOME FRONT, 1941-1942 By Alistair Cooke (Jonathan Yardley, May 16, 2006, Washington Post)

Late in the winter of 1942, a young journalist named Alistair Cooke "drove out of Washington with five re-treaded tires" and began a journey around the United States. [...]

That his publisher chose not to release the book at the time is a mystery, but better late than never. [...]

Writing about Henry Ford's mixed record in converting his celebrated Willow Run plant into an efficient manufacturer of trainer airplanes, but not the fighter planes he'd boasted of being able to produce, Cooke somewhat dourly observes:

"Willow Run will be cited at grandfather's knee as the very type of majesty before which other nations bow their heads in envy. But I have told its melancholy story because it symbolizes the grandiosity that is to other nations the most unpleasant of all American traits -- the unbridled promise, the wild freedom of untested assumption, the invitation to share the cornucopia that is stuffed with the peculiar American riches: such unique things, the native honestly believes, as devilish ingenuity wedded to unequaled material and spiritual resources. What exacerbates the foreigner's annoyance is his secret awareness that there is an uncomfortable measure of truth in the boast."

How many foreigners would feel that "secret awareness" today certainly is open to questions, but the rest of Cooke's indictment is as true now as it was then, perhaps even truer as the rest of the world eyes our Middle Eastern adventures with skepticism at best. Cooke admired American energy but despaired of American provincialism and ignorance.

With the possible exception of Richard Bernstein a the NY Times, Mr. Yardley is probably the best regular book reviewer in America and the least likely to yield to liberal cant, which makes it all the more peculiar that he seems not to have processed the lest bit of that quoted passage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2006 8:16 AM

Don't you get it? Foreigners don't like us! Nothing else matters!

Posted by: David Cohen at May 16, 2006 8:33 AM

No, I get that part. It's just surpassing strange to cite Cooke to the effect that much of the dislike is because they realize we're right and then agree with the foreigners' criticism.

Posted by: oj at May 16, 2006 8:38 AM

Yeah, but Cooke was on the road from being a foreigner to being an American. Yardley is going the other way.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 16, 2006 9:20 AM

If you start from the premise that foreigners are right in their disdain for the current U.S. government, it's easy to see how you would take a quote from someone as well-known as Cooke from 63 years ago and try to use it to bolster your argument, even if you've got to totally misinterpet the context to do so.

Posted by: John at May 16, 2006 11:23 AM

"but despaired of American provincialism and ignorance."
I've gotten that line directly from more than a few Democrats following the last two Presidential elections. I believe that most of their "elite" honestly feel that way, although they might not express it directly. Pity for the poor slobs who support them as their useful idiots.

Posted by: Genecis at May 16, 2006 1:04 PM

"Cooke admired American energy but despaired of American provincialism and ignorance." What provincialism? We know more than the foreigners will ever acknowledge. The reason we are "provincial" is because a huge chunk of us were "foreigners", we know them and we don't much care about them. That's why we are here, and they are there. We Americans are blissful in our ignorance of things that are not important to us. That's a good thing.

A few questions: How many Brits know about China more than a Chinese American right off the plane from China? How many Germans appreciate a 'Polish plumber' more than a Polish American who comes to join his family? How many French have enjoyed an authentic taco from an authentic Mexican?

Posted by: ic at May 16, 2006 5:19 PM

There's nothing dumber than the notion that Americans are somehow more "provincial" than Europeans. An average American is likely to live in many different places during his lifetime, all with quite different cultures, geographies, & histories. The notion that a 30 American who has lived in, say, IL, CA, TX, FL, & VA, but never had a passport is more "provincial" than a frog who has lived in Paris his entire life but has gone on short vacations in a few neighboring European countries, is asinine.

Posted by: b at May 16, 2006 6:01 PM