Upon hearing that someone had just published a lengthy study of American
niceness, undoubtedly the work of years, my first impulse was to pity
her unfortunate timing. Of all the things this era may eventually
connote, it seems fair to assume that niceness will not be one of them.
But then, have Americans ever been nice? Already it is difficult to
remember the not-so-distant past, but the most familiar epithets would
seem to suggest otherwise: the Ugly American, the Loud American, the
Vulgar American.

According to Carrie Tirado Bramen, an English professor at the State
University of New York at Buffalo and the author of “American Niceness:
A Cultural
History
,”
these archetypes are merely one side of a single national coin. Bramen
acknowledges that the very idea of a national affect may seem quaint,
perhaps even regressive, recalling the catalogue of dusty national
archetypes—the efficient German, the lazy Irishman—that began as
xenophobic spectres and somehow persist even in an era of accelerated
globalization. But she’s interested in how this temperament has been
constructed as a sociopolitical device across the past two and a half
centuries. If those back in the Old World aspired to civility, a rigid
code that moderated social interactions between the classes, the
so-called New World went for niceness, a cruder virtue. Rather than
cultivating the discipline required to avoid stomping on toes in the
first place, the nice American assumes a spirit of cheery sociability to
compensate for a host of transgressions.

“American Niceness” was inspired, in part, by the aftermath of 9/11,
when the question “Why do they hate us?” became such a popular refrain
that George W. Bush included it in his speech to Congress weeks after
the attack. For Bramen, the question was another way of asking “Why
don’t they like us?” It obscured the history of American interventionist
tactics in the Middle East by making the tragedy into “a failure of
likability.” At the root of this query, Bramen locates a willful
innocence, a national ethos that refuses to acknowledge its own capacity
for violence. “Niceness implies that Americans are fundamentally
well-meaning people defined by an essential goodness,” she writes. “Even
acts of aggression are framed as passive, reluctant, and defensive acts
to protect oneself against the potential aggression of another.” At this
point, my pity for the book’s seemingly ill-timed publication
vanished—its immediate relevance was obvious. “Well, I think I’m a nice
person. I really do,” Donald Trump said, in 2015, on “Meet the Press.”
He added, “When I made, you know, harsh statements about various people,
that was always in response to their criticism of me.”

Bramen traces this impulse back to our nation’s origins, when the
passive framing of the Declaration of Independence (“it becomes
necessary”) presented the Revolution as a grudging act of war instigated
by British tyranny. But niceness came into full fruition, she argues, in
the nineteenth century, her area of scholarly expertise. This was the
period when America became an imperial power, and Bramen demonstrates
the ways in which niceness served as a cheery façade pasted over
violence and injustice. The culture of “Southern hospitality”
perpetuated the belief that American slavery was a kinder, more
compassionate variety than that practiced in the Caribbean. Later in the
century, the annexation of the Philippines was heralded as a mission of
“benevolent assimilation,” a phrase that President William McKinley used
in his 1898 speech to the occupied nation to suggest that, unlike the
Spanish empire, Americans would be nice. “We come not as invaders or
conquerors but as friends,” McKinley proclaimed. Bramen also examines
feminine niceness in the novels of Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher
Stowe (“a major theorist of American niceness”), and in female-led city
missions like Jane Addams’s Hull House. During an era of exploitive
industrialism and urban alienation, women were often encouraged to take
on acts of “neighborliness,” reflecting the assumption that
“interpersonal amiability can placate class tensions.”

Any nation that lays claim to certain principles, just like any person
who dares to do so, opens itself up to the charge of hypocrisy. Some of
the best moments in Bramen’s history ask what might happen were we to
actually live up to our ideals. Appeals to niceness, she notes, have
fostered ethical practices and brought attention to human-rights abuses.
Bramen cites John Augustus Stone’s 1829 play, “Metamora,” which
dramatized Native American hospitality for white audiences in order to
portray the genocide of indigenous peoples as a tragedy of niceness
betrayed. Reviews of the play suggest that it helped at least a few
Jackson-era Americans come to terms with national guilt.

Such narratives point to what Bramen calls a “counter-tradition” of
niceness, “one that linked a shame-based model of moral outrage with a
call for national humility.” Still, she remains skeptical that such
gestures can have a lasting effect. If niceness allows us to reckon, on
occasion, with legacies of violence, these gestures just as often become
merely therapeutic, another avenue to catharsis and forgetting. A sunny
spirit of inclusion can obscure structural inequities, and the rehearsal
of clichés and truisms—even those meant to acknowledge past errors—can
reinforce the illusion of our own blamelessness and ease the conscience
into a kind of historical amnesia. The political scientist Michael Rogin
has dubbed this process “motivated forgetting.”

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