Question 1

As scholars of American Studies, we absolutely have to examine the film’s motivating assumption: “The American temperament reflects many of the qualities that anarchism idealizes: distrust of government, suspicion of authority, and belief in the plain old ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic.” Do you agree/disagree? Can you think of any American authors or texts that demonstrate an “anarchist” temperament? Does the documentary validate this thesis, why or why not?

On a different note, what is an “American temperament”? Does it make sense to think of national identity as reflective of certain political ideologies? How can we reconcile the ideal of a national tradition with a political philosophy calling for the elimination of the nation-state?


10 responses to “Question 1

  1. Comment on the film: Anarchism in America
    In my opinion the American temperament reflects the qualities of anarchism only to some extent. First of all we need to examine the American temperament and its characteristics. To me, especially patriotism plays an important role when it comes to the American temperament. But like Murray Bookchin states in the documentary, “patriotism has total opposing characteristics than anarchism.” Therefore the belief that the American state is something special that needs to be preserved has nothing to do with the anarchic belief that you should organize an opposition against the state. Furthermore, the so called Do-it Yourself ethic is as well not very anarchic. In my understanding Anarchists actually do not only focus on themselves and their own advantages but try to find solutions for the common good. On the other hand, of course not all Americans are patriotic and one could say that the idea of ‘work hard to achieve something’ reflects the anarchic opinion of taking care about your life, your environment and the development of yourself and the world you live in. All in all I actually question that if the American temperament reflects most of what anarchism idealizes, why would there be a government in power right now? Since there obviously is an American government, the most important features of anarchism and the American temperament differ from each other.
    The documentary tries to give a broad insight into American Anarchism and also examines the American Temperament and its connection with anarchism. I think that the film tries to show parallels between the American temperament and anarchism but to me these attempts are not totally convincing. In my mind, it is difficult to “reconcile the idea of a national tradition with a political philosophy calling for the elimination of the nation-state” because they differ so much from each other. But I think Bookchin’s opinion about this problem contains some great ideas to find a compromise. He states that it is impossible to live a total anarchic life in a capitalistic world, but at least we need to try to support our values and worldviews in order to live an ethical life. To him (and apparently to me) the libertarians seem to offer a good compromise.
    Thinking about literature that demonstrates an “anarchist” temperament, I directly thought about Walden by Thoreau. (probably because we also talked about this in class already) His text contains several ecological aspects that support anarchic ideas. For example the influence of the government. Walden does not pay any taxes and lives all by himself in harmony with nature.

  2. [Justus’s response from the Google Forum]

    I agree to the statement that the American temperament reflects many of the qualities that anarchism idealizes. Anarchism embraces factors like distrust of government, suspicion of authority, and belief in the plain old ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic. Without those factors America would look totally different. The history of America is a history of the struggle for independence; independence from governments and authority that suppresses the people. Examples for this would be “The Declaration of Independence” by Thomas Jefferson or Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Furthermore the ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic was fundamental to the founding of the US. This ethic is about the farmer attitude and self-reliance. It is about the belief in the people that it is possible to build a promised land and a bright future with trust and belief. An example for a text that incorporates that spirit is “The Great Nation of Futurity” by John L. O’Sullivan. Those few examples show that it is fundamental for the American temperament to move against the grain to create something new. In a way that is what anarchist try to do; to challenge fixed concepts and create something new out of it.

    All those mentioned aspects constitute the American temperament. It is about the belief in the people to create something new and a better place with their own hands. They should have the power to challenge governments and concepts that are outdated. The political philosophy of the national tradition is calling for the elimination of the nation-state for a reason. It is the belief that it is possible to create something better and uniquely American.

  3. [Nora’s response from the Google Forum]

    I totally agree with @Justus that the history of America is a history of the struggle for independence. But this film only shows how anarchism can/could be used to make this world a better place – if the idea of anarchism is used by the right people. By “right” I mean people who really do care for their fellow humans and do not want to make any financial profit.

    Check out by Alex Jones and see how the idea of anarchism can totally go wrong. Even though Alex Jones does not call himself an anarchist, he does feature all of the qualitites mentioned above: “distrust of government, suspicion of authority, and belief in the plain old ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic”.

    In my opinion his way of broadening peoples´ minds is a very dangerous one because it it obvious that Jones does not really care for other people but he cares about money big time. He creates fear so people buy his products. Alex Jones feeds people the ideas of anarchism to make money.

  4. Comment to the film:
    All the believes and values picked up in the movie generally appear to me as central beliefs of Americans about their own culture. Most Americans I got to know stick to their “do it yourself” philosophy and also openly disagree with the American government. I would not say that they are distinctively anarchist but part of the cultural identity itself. I liked the structure of the movie a lot since it started out with a rather negative and ignorant point of view about anarchists in America. By showing what different kinds of people actually participate in this I would call “movement” or share these believes the viewers get a different impression on stereotypical point of views which predominate societal opinions. The motivation behind this documentary is not convincing other people to live an anarchist lifestyle but maybe inform or even to educate the American people.
    As Judith already mentioned, I would have also suggested “Walden” by Henry Thoreau because he also decides to run away from society and also from the government. His prior motivation might not necessarily the freedom of the government but he wants to decide on his own about his life without any interference of any other person.
    I would say to some extent, the documentary validates the thesis but it also misses a few significant aspects of American temperament such as patriotism. To my understanding, patriotism simply opposes anarchists view because it stands for the pride people feel for their country ruled by a (functioning) government. It also symbolizes the pride in the army which only exists due to the government.

  5. Some recent “events” in America seem quite anarchic to a European person. First, there is the distrust of governmental welfare called “Obamacare”. Second, there is the positive attitude towards possession of firearms. Of course, these two opinions are not shared by every American. But from a European viewpoint where welfare is taken for granted (with a rather positive connotation) and guns belong to the Wild West, these two show what was called an “American temperament” in the film; “American” because it is not imaginable in Europe. If we consider what Li’l John said in the film about independence and the farmer about “responsibility for own survival”, the “American temperament” seems to be similar to the principles of Anarchism.
    But to quote Murray Bookchin that “anarchism is against big companies, too” and that it “questions every hierarchy”, anarchism does not seem to fit to American capitalism.
    All in all, this leads to my personal conclusion that there is a tendency towards anarchism in the so called “American temperament”. The question is: Where does it come from?
    I agree with @Justus that the answer lies in the history of America, but I absolutely disagree referring to the foundation of the US. As @Judith already mentioned, anarchism opposes the state as such and therefore cannot be the idea behind it’s foundation. Besides, the political system of the US works with a lot of representatives, which is a no-go for anarchists (Chomsky’s definition), as it restricts independence and self-responsibility.
    So, from my viewpoint, the historical roots of American anarchism do not lie in the foundation of the nation-state US, but rather in the immigration and settlement of America. And referring to this I would talk about “Do It Yourself” and distrust of (not only European) governments. I try to distinguish here between the country of (North-)America and the nation-state US, as it was suggested in the film.
    So I would conclude that the “American temperament” (with emphasis on the missing “US” before “American”), as it was pictured in the film, is somewhat anarchic and that because of the American history.

  6. After having watched the film, it makes sense to connect the thoughts about anarchism and its ideals to the foundation which the US is built upon. This is because, as the question already suggests, there are certain similarities between anarchist and “american” ideals. Freedom and independence in general play a very important role in what we would call the “american way of life”. It is very interesting, thought, to have a look at how this freedom is achieved. On the one hand we have a democratic apparatus which needs its citizens in order to function (through the means of votes and general political participation). These citizens however accept their government and do so because they get something back from their government (some might claim that they have no other choice than to accept politics the way they are) or at least believe that it can be beneficial to them. This is noted in the film in the segment about libertarianism: utilize the government to achieve your own goals etc. On the other hand we have the anarchist movement which declines any kind of government and wants to transfer all political power to the individual self. This is where the conflict begins. Both parties want to achieve the same thing but through different measures and to different extents. Can true freedom even be reached if there is something like a government? The anarchist believes this to be not the case. It has to be noted, however, that in order to a state to be able to function without any kind of political leaders, mankind itself has to be good aligned or at least neutral. To finally answer the question: although there are many similarities between the “American temparement” and anarchist ideals, I do not agree. Many philosophers and political theories had already dealt with contracts between individuals, state, citizens etc. long before the US has existed so this is definitely not something which I would call typically american. The essay Civil Disobedience by Henry D. Thoreau (1849) is another example of government vs individual freedom and proves that these kind of ideas were really popular back then, when ideas about freedom and independence were still in peoples minds.

  7. Basically I’d like to comment on the first part of your first question: “The American temperament reflects many of the qualities that anarchism idealizes: distrust of government, suspicion of authority, and belief in the plain old ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic.”

    And now I’ll come back to the good old NSA-affair. Sorry for that.
    Instead of thanking Snowden for his big sacrifice which is mainly his whole life he could have had in peace and harmony, they’re accusing him for having done something completely wrong. As I was looking up statistics on Snowden and the public’s opinions on his actions (look at, I was shocked. Honestly I cannot even understand how people can think that he has “harmed public interested” and that the government “should pursue a criminal case against him.” I can understand when the government says stuff like that, but not the citizens as he revealed that their data was collected en masse. Due to that perspective, I cannot really agree to the point of distrust of government – if Americans had distrusted their government truly, a lot less people would want Snowden to go to jail, in my opinion. They’d work with the information gained against the government to gain their personal aspect of freedom, which was and will, probably, always be a very important aspect for Americans, back. But right now, nobody really cares, and this is the same in other countries – in Germany as well.

    Coming back to the idea of Anarchism: Up to now, I cannot really think of an author having and/or showing an anarchist temperament. Hopefully, this course will make me think of someone particularly. 🙂 Maybe Thoreau with Walden which has already came up in the discussion, both here and in the course.

    I didn’t think by now about the American inhabitant’s culture partially being anarchist or something similar. But to be honest, I didn’t have to do with the culture “in a real way”, just through the (German) media and the university courses (and a few American exchange students I have seen, but rarely spoken to) I had. So I don’t really feel confident and knowing enough to commend on such a big theme like that as I don’t want to state something wrong. But, so far, I’d agree to the things Nora said – my American Cultural Studies and Cultural History courses have taught us that America was struggling for independence, struggling against frontiers and that those frontiers have a significant importance to the people – but it seems to me that only a few people are actually doing things to get stuff to work the way they want.
    Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone and hopefully I didn’t go too far from the film.

    See you tomorrow!

  8. Referring to the film, I would rather agree on the statement that the American temperament reflects many of the qualities that anarchism idealizes.
    Thinking about this question, my first thought was that Americans could be kind of prone to be anarchists, as their forefathers left their countries, which included going away from their country’s political systems to find something new, something more fulfilling. Taking this fact into consideration, it is quite natural that they pursued a better political system which would act in favor of the individual. But, as was mentioned in the film, with government having great power, there often comes misuse of power and this always at a disadvantage for the weak people. A speaker in the film defined anarchism as “personal freedom” or as “creating space for people doing what they want to do”, which fits to the American ideal of “do it yourself” and lets the individual becoming more important that the system itself. Therefore some Americans seek anarchy. Another issue which came to my mind thinking about the question was the lacking health system and the Americans insisting for their right to use weapons, as this also shows more trust in caring for oneself than in the government caring for the people. Referring to the thought of caring for oneself, I also had to think of Thoreau’s “Walden”, as he leaves society and prefers caring for himself.

  9. [Arni1199’s response from the Google Forum]

    I don’t completely agree with the film’s assumption that many aspects of the American temperament reflect the qualities that anarchism idealizes. In my opinion distrust of the government, suspicion of authority and the “Do It Yourself” ethic are similar to the beliefs that most Americans have but they are only some aspects of the American temperament and I would not generalize them by saying that every American is a convinced anarchist. That is why I totally agreed with Annika when she said that Americans aren’t “distinctively anarchist but part of the cultural identity itself”. In the film Phillip Levine says, “I didn’t break the laws so much because I was an anarchist, it was just because I am an American”, which supports my idea that not every American is automatically an anarchist (even though Phillip Levine calls himself an anarchist). I think that some of these aspects, like the “Do It Yourself” ethic or breaking the law e.g. walking through a red traffic light, belong to the personal attitude of someone.

    I also have the American author Henry David Thoreau in mind when I think about “anarchist” temperament. In Walden (from 1854) he demonstrates this temperament by describing an experiment he conducted to reach personal independence. He separates himself from the preindustrial society and the government by moving in a house in the woods. In his opinion everybody should have the chance to be him-/herself.

  10. Yes… I found that statement indeed very interesting. I have noticed that this mentality is especially prevalent in the American mind. I think that this “American Temperament” has a twofold reason for existence. The first reason is the one that I think a few people have mentioned, and that is that it’s been kind of one of the fundamental traits of the national mentality. The entire reason for existence is rebellion, and so it kind of lends itself to this always kind of mistrusting mentality. The other reason I think that it has continued to exist is because the U.S. federal government and government in the U.S. in general has become way more overbearing and kind of bastardized from its original purpose, which I believe both of the writers spoke to. I noticed this because the German police meddle in the everyday affairs of citizens less just by the nature of the laws here, and that this pattern is common in Europe. However, in many ways I would say that American police forces are far to overreaching and that has become the reason that this mentality of constant distrust remains.

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