Was Steinbeck correct? Do we American's tend to act in the extreme? Undoubtedly. Isn't that true of all human beings? Much of western literature has found ways of complaining about people acting like they are members of a herd of cows or a flock of sheep. Today we know a lot more about primatology, so we know that we are much more like a group of monkeys or apes in a troop. Which is to say, we are social animals and we tend to react as a group rather than as individuals.
Even more fundamentally we are emotional beings. All the fantasies of so many philosophers notwithstanding, we are not generally a rational animal. We are an animal that is very emotional and is capable of being rational, if we really work at it. It is not the default setting. The default setting is to react emotionally and then think up some rationalized reasons to support what we have already decided on a purely nonrational basis.
This is not entirely our fault. It is our emotions that control and direct and guide us in or daily activities. As Antonio Damasio has pointed out in his books, without emotions we are completely nonfunctional. Strip a person of his emotions, the neuroscientist pointed out, and he will have no particular motivation to remember to breathe, eat, run from danger, or take any other action to save his life. If he takes the time to figure it out, he will already be dead before he can decide on what's most important. But when we let our emotions run wild and don't keep a check on them, we create serious problems.
Years ago, as I drove my grandson across town, he and I had a conversation. I told him that human beings must work at being rational. When we get scared, I said, we act like chimpanzees running screaming through the forest in terror. I told him it it had happened several times during my life, but that it doesn't happen a lot, at least not to that extreme. I added that it certainly would happen in his life at least once.
About a year later, 9/11 occurred. I believe it was necessary to take military action in Afghanistan but not in Iraq. I never supported that war. I never believed it was the right thing to do. While standing in line at the DMV at a later date, he and I were discussing the Patriot Act. I told him my experience was that the more noble sounding the name, the more awful was the law that it was covering up. I added that while Al Qaeda could kill me; the Bush administration could enslave me. So that meant I was more afraid of George Bush Jr. then I was of bin Laden. I got a lot of dirty looks from other people in line, but thankfully, no one said anything.
After the Iraq war had started, when polls showed that over 90% of the American people were supporting it, I said to some friends in the local college philosophy club, "The day will come when the American people will ask, 'How did we get into this mess?'"
The answer of course is that we got frightened so we panicked. Faced with an extreme situation, we reacted in an extreme manner. Instead of thinking rationally, we ran screaming through the jungle in a state of terror.
Plato said that a human being is like a chariot. The human intellect is the man controlling the two horses. The horses are our base emotions and our higher emotions. The emotions provide the power to take us where we need to go. The charioteer, our intellect, is supposed to guide the whole process. The problem is, the charioteer too often listens to the horses!
In his book Hellfire Nation, James A Monrone contends that America is a particularly extremist nation. He believes that this is a result of the deep religious fervor that Americans feel. Because so many of us think God is on our side, we tend to go to extremes. We don't feel the need to think things through, because if God has told us to do something, who needs to think about it?
This sense that we Americans are superior to other people gives us the right to give orders to the rest of the world. The same rule applies to other groups of Americans. I think it is fair to say that all human beings tend to let their emotions run away with them in times of great stress. We Americans add to that our deep religious beliefs and our conviction of our own moral superiority, which that just makes us even more extreme.