Alexis de Tocqueville observed that because Americans live in “perpetual adoration” of themselves, “only foreigners or experience can make certain truths reach [their] ears.” Political scientist Russell Hanson agrees, adding that the assessments of a single outside observer may not be enough to “inspire self-criticism on the part of Americans.” Needed, says Hanson, are the comparative observations of “different foreign eyes.” In keeping with these insights, this book traces the travels and writings of four foreign visitors who spent time in the United States, returned to their home countries, and then wrote about what they saw. The four outside observers journeyed to the New World at different historical moments – Alexis de Tocqueville (1831–32), Max Weber (1904), G. K. Chesterton (1921; 1930–31), and Sayyid Qutb (1948–50) – and hailed from four separate countries (France, Germany, England, and Egypt respectively). While the visitors emphasized distinct features of American society, one also discovers common themes in their analyses. In that their visits spanned a period of nearly 120 years, their common observations say something about the enduring relevance of American national character. Beyond the contested notion of national character, their collective assessments continue to bear directly on matters of pressing national and international concern.
My initial interest in the subject was sparked, in part, by my previous book, Legal Accents, Legal Borrowing, which investigated the transplantation of innovative criminal court programs from the United States to five other common-law countries. Curiously, while legal actors in the other countries eagerly borrowed what were clearly American-grown legal products, they sometimes did so in explicitly anti-American terms, evincing what could be called a sort of “ambivalent anti-Americanism.” Such ambivalence, as recent international surveys demonstrate, is not isolated to the transference of new criminal courts. Findings from international surveys show that a majority of citizens in a number of countries around the world oppose the spread of American ideas and customs in their countries, while at the same time they welcome and admire American technology and cultural products. These findings, again, reveal a curious paradox that invites further exploration.
Another impetus for this book was the public commentary that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Immediately after 9/11, it was not uncommon to hear Americans ask, “Why do they hate us?”