LONDON (Reuters Life!) - British anthropologist and civil servant Tristram Riley-Smith’s posting to Washington led him to consider the forces which have shaped U.S. society and whether the struggle to define and preserve liberty has become a curse as much as a blessing for modern-day America.
In “The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty” Riley-Smith sets out to paint an even-handed portrait of the United States with the clinical scrutiny of his anthropological training, exposing its mythology and analyzing the genuine virtues upon which American society rests.
A: I was talking to an old friend of mine, the British film director Graham Baker, and he told me that I guess back in the 1970s, when he was about to go to LA for the first time, he had read a book called “The Americans” written by a Brit called Geoffrey Gorer and he recommended it to me. To my surprise I discovered that Geoffrey Gorer was also a social anthropologist and like me he had done his research among Himalayan tantric Buddhists and then like me he found himself posted to the British mission in Washington D.C. In his case, it was during World War Two and in my case during what I suppose would become the global war on terror.
A: I think I would say for the intelligent layman. It is most definitely not a book of scholarship. It is not designed for scholars. I very deliberately avoided footnotes. It is rich, packed with material and information. Stylistically the individual who influenced me was Peter Ackroyd, thinking about the books he’s written whether it be “London: The Biography” or “Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination.” Those are not books written for scholars, but they are books written for intelligent laymen.
A: The reality is that the questions I ask about the balance between freedom and social justice, which then inevitably bring us to questions about the individual versus the state, these are questions that to a lesser or greater degree separate Republicans and Democrats in America. Certainly they are used as bullets to fire at one another and therefore the fact that I have raised the question is likely to make my book more amenable to a Democrat readership. The American poet Cole Swensen said when she read the book: “At least 50 percent of Americans are going to enjoy this.”
Q: THE BOOK APPEARS TO HAVE TAKEN GREAT PAINS TO PROVIDE AN
A: First and foremost I would hope that as any good anthropological work should be, it is an outstandingly good and true portrait of a society. If you are a great artist like Rembrandt and you’re going to do a portrait, you’re going to show the wrinkles and the bags under the eyes and the warts and the hands in a way that’s less than flattering potentially, but hopefully in a way that’s true.
A: It is in no way anti-American, but some of the things that I show in the book are in my view probably quite uncomfortable for Americans. The reflection of consumerist society is the most obvious example,
Q: SO WHAT‘S AILING AMERICA THEN?
A: I go so far as to do the diagnosis. I try to avoid the therapy. The diagnosis, tentatively put forward, is that this thread of positivistic energetic passionate advocacy for liberty, which can at times become like a hyper-individualism, is what appears to be causing so many of the paradoxes. But that’s a hypothesis. I’d love to see that debated, discussed. I’d love to see arguments put forward to demolish it. I don’t think that would ultimately damage the quality of the book, 95 percent of which is a portrait of America.
HOW FAITHFUL DID YOU REMAIN TO “THE AMERICANS?”
I very deliberately closed Gorer’s book having read it and taken some notes at the very start of my research. I didn’t open it again until after my book was published. I knew that the only thing in a sense that I was hoping to be faithful to was the pattern of activity that he reflected. I was following a similar path to his, trying to follow in the spirit of anthropology which seeks to be dispassionate or objective about the society it’s looking at with the goal of seeking to help people outside America understand what America is about. There is nothing else in Gorer’s work that I would aspire to replicate or update simply because we work in very different ways.
CRACKED, IT CAN BE RECAST. SO THINGS AREN‘T WAY OFF COURSE?
A: The first point to make is that by nature I -- actually like most Americans -- am a glass half full guy. I‘m an optimist. Secondly one of the reasons I said that... I was really struck by the idea that America is still so young as a society, speaking as a member of the old world.
One of the reasons for my optimism (also) has to be that I am aware that there is a vast current of opinion in America that is concerned about social justice, is concerned about what can be done to create a post-racial society and what can be done to address poverty and so forth...
"The Cracked Bell: Afflictions of Liberty" By Tristram Riley-Smith Skyhorse Publishing, $26.95; Constable, 8.99 pounds