Culture  /  Book Review

The Dark Side of Nice

American niceness is the absolute worst thing to ever happen in human history.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris/Library of Congress

In American Niceness, Bramen argues that, while the more obnoxious chest-thumping Americans have garnered headlines as well as critique, “more banal attributes such as friendliness[,] […] the rhetoric of sociality and the importance of likability” have been the quiet complements to an enduring and chameleonic American exceptionalism. Niceness has always been crucial to American culture. At times, it has provided cover for our worst crimes and inequalities; at others, a means of ameliorating or reforming them.

Bramen begins by noting how American niceness differs from European civility, which requires “a mastery of social form that involves disciplining one’s impulses and passions for the sake of manners and decorum.” Conversely, the nice American was “rough around the edges,” innocently rude, compassionate if unable to adhere to social protocol. This emphasis on niceness as innocence has always helped to paper over the obvious disconnects between American actions — typically violent and exploitative — and explain them away under the cover of amiability and naïveté. Amid myriad manifestations of American niceness, the most common one, dating all the way back to the post-Revolutionary moment and Thomas Jefferson’s shock at finding a “spirit of hostility” against the Republic when visiting Great Britain in 1786, can be boiled down to the oft-used 21st-century phrase, “Why do they hate us?” And here we encounter the damning affliction that plagues our status quo, what Bramen calls “the persistent enabling of Americans’ desire to see themselves as the victims, more sinned against than sinning.”

Bramen sets the table by delving into the histories of some of the earliest avatars of American niceness as well as their victims: Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Given the prominence of the Plymouth story in American mythology, Native American hospitality represents something of a primal scene: Samoset warmly greets the beleaguered Pilgrims, Tisquantum teaches them to grow corn, Massasoit promises protections, all culminating in the amicable multicultural gathering of the first Thanksgiving. In this “literal rather than pejorative” display of “Indian giving,” the most famous colonial roots of the US nation were planted.

By the 19th century, the Plymouth narrative was being put to several different uses. For Native American speakers and artists, the story of the first Thanksgiving was one of hospitality betrayed; for self-conscious Anglo-American writers, it served to shame advocates of and contributors to the violence of Manifest Destiny.

View on Los Angeles Review of Books