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Who’s In Charge Here?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980
Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-century America. By Ronald T. Takaki. Knopf. $15.95.

Paris, December 2. It is the day after the general strike. We have been waiting three weeks for the plumber to fix a leaky pipe in the kitchen. Today his wife calls to ask if he can come at nine. At nine thirty she calls back to say there is a power failure and the elevator in our building does not work; her husband does not want to climb five flights of stairs just now, so can he come in the afternoon? Today is also the day I am to pick up my identity card at the prefecture. Leaving the apartment, I glance at the elevator door, which is partly constructed of translucent glass. The elevator is stopped between the fifth and sixth floors, and there are a pair of feet at eye level. I tap on the glass and the person inside bends down. It is my upstairs neighbor. He says that his wife has called someone for help and that he doesn’t expect to wait long, so I leave for the prefecture.

It is my sixth time there: the first time I didn’t have all the requisite documents, the second and third times the lines were too long, the fourth time I waited all afternoon but was told on reaching the front of the line that no one else was to be processed that day, the fifth time I lined up outside at a quarter to seven in the morning and completed the application process four and a half hours later. Today I am to pick up my identity card at last. After a two-hour wait, I get the card and am about to sign when I notice that the expiration date is May 18. I am told that I will have to come back in April if I want an extension. I say that I do not understand why my wife’s card is valid until August 21 and mine expires three months earlier, but the woman behind the desk says that she can do nothing about it and that I will have to come back. Bof! I complain, hoping a Gallic epithet-will ease my way, it’s because I am an American, Mais non, the woman says proudly, it’s just as difficult for the French!

On the way home I buy a few things at the grocery store. There are no bags on top of the checkout counter, so I reach behind it and take two. What are you doing, Monsieur, asks the cashier. Taking some bags, Madame, I reply. Ah, but you must ask for them, Monsieur, she says. Why, I ask. Don’t question me! she snaps. Just ask for the bags next time!

I return to the apartment building. The elevator is working, and my upstairs neighbor is gone. The plumber comes, and I ask if the earlier power failure was an accident or a continuation of the general strike. It was the strike, he says, and advises me to use the stairs—there will be periodic blackouts for the rest of the day.

Thus went part (and only part) of a typical day during the year I spent in Paris recently. Who’s in charge here, I kept asking myself. I never got the full answer, but one thing was clear: it wasn’t me. The difference between being an American and being a European is considerable, and Takaki explains why. Notwithstanding the subtitle of this learned, often brilliant book, Takaki reveals less about the nature of racism per se than about those aspects of American culture which set it apart from other cultures. And like-the best imaginative writers, he has written about things hidden from himself. To put it another way, he has explained perfectly why it is impossible for an American to become a Frenchman.

Takaki’s contribution is to what Norman O. Brown calls “the psychoanalytical meaning of history.” Brown takes the Freudian view: in his seminal Life Against Death (of which the phrase quoted above is the subtitle), he writes that “mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself.” It is society that makes us crazy, says Brown: “society imposes repression”; therefore “neurosis is an essential consequence of civilization or culture,” and “man the social animal is by the same token the neurotic animal.” It follows logically that the nature of one’s society will determine the nature of one’s neurosis, which is where Takaki comes in.

According to Takaki, the problem in America began in 1776 when we (the white majority) overthrew the European model of government with its father-king at the head and put ourselves in charge of our own destiny. True, we were free from external authority, but how were we to control ourselves? Only through the construction of a series of “iron cages”: first, the republican iron cage which dictated that everyone own property, obey the law, and live in a state of society rather than a state of nature; second, the corporate iron cage which appropriated Indian and Mexican land and exploited black and Asian labor in the furtherance of bureaucratic capitalism; and third, the demonic iron cage which trapped white America in a compulsion to power in the Far East. In “The Strenuous Life,” an address which justifies the expansion of American authority all the way to the Philippines, Teddy Roosevelt explained to the Hamilton Club in Chicago on April 10, 1899, how self-control must become control of the world:

The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the overcivilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind. . .—all these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a navy and an army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag.

This excerpt encapsulates perfectly the bulk of Iron Cages, which shows how people who take charge of themselves want to take charge of everyone sooner or later. In his best chapter, Takaki juxtaposes brilliantly Walt Whitman, the “critic of hope” who sang of an America where people of all colors mingled in a nationwide community of harmony yet of rich cultural heritage and diversity, and Herman Melville, the “critic of despair” who discerned death and destruction in Asia nearly half a century before the Spanish-American War. In a way, Moby-Dick is the body of the America of which Iron Cages is the anatomy. The Pequod is a floating factory of boilers and try-pots and furnaces. The masters are all white; a significant number of the men are blacks, Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Asians. Like Roosevelt, Ahab does not shrink from his neurotic destiny, and he destroys the Pequod (Takaki reminds us that the Pequots were a tribe of Connecticut Indians destroyed by whites in the 17th century), its crew, and himself.

Back in Paris, while waiting for the plumber to arrive or the electricity to flow or the line at the prefecture to shorten or the cashier at the grocery store to be nice to me, I used to read Jean-François Revel, a Francophobic Frenchman who gave me aid and comfort during those trying days. In Without Marx or Jesus, Revel observes that in America individuals believe they can better their circumstances, whereas in a typical European society the average person feels he is trapped, that the best he can do is to slip around one obstacle or another from time to time. In scornful moods, General de Gaulle referred to his countrymen as cattle, and indeed there is a strangely passive quality to the average Frenchman. He does not seem to mind standing in the long lines that curl down every sidewalk, for instance, nor does he object when someone breaks in front of him. No doubt this is a self-protective quality, one that stems from the Frenchman’s intuitive recognition of the fact that he is not in charge of his own affairs. It is also a quality utterly foreign to Americans, which explains why they can be only partly successful at attempts to blend into other cultures.

Yet how terrible it is to be in charge all the time! Tocqueville (Takaki quotes him copiously) observed that the American is always on duty, that he is always “serious and almost sad.”

In aristocratic communities [writes Tocqueville] the people readily give themselves up to bursts of tumultuous and boisterous gaiety, which shake off at once the recollection of their privations. The inhabitants of democracies are not fond of being thus violently broken in upon, and they never lose sight of themselves without regret. Instead of these frivolous delights they prefer those more serious and silent amusements which are like business and which do not drive business wholly out of their minds. An American, instead of going in a leisure hour to dance merrily at some place of public resort, as the fellows of his class continue to do throughout the greater part of Europe, shuts himself up at home to drink. He thus enjoys two pleasures; he can go on thinking of his business and can get drunk decently by his own fireside.

In Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana (whom Takaki also quotes) compares an Italian ship to the American one on which he served. The Italian ship was much smaller than the American vessel, yet there were three times as many crew. The American ship was run more efficiently, yet the crew was silent and seemed discontented. The Italians divided the work among more sailors than did the Americans and they were doing something else differently as well, noted Dana. They were singing.


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