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Einstein’s View of America a Century Ago
Hello, Five O’Clockers! Here we are at the end of the Fourth of July week. In a wonderful little book called Ideas and Opinions, American immigrant and world-great physicist, Albert Einstein, wrote down some of his thoughts on various subjects, including what he calls, My First Impressions of the U.S.A. This particular essay is taken from an interview he did for the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant in 1921. It’s short, so I publish it here in its entirety.
Regarded as the founder of modern physics, Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Kingdom of Wurttemberg, German Empire. He was educated in Munich and Zurich. In 1905, he published four papers in the scientific journal Annalen Der Physik that included his work on the photoelectric effect, relativity, and mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2). The papers reformed the views on space, time, and matter and established Einstein as a major physicist. In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his “services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect.” In 1933, he joined the Institute for Advanced Study in the United States, and by 1940 he would become an American citizen.
After beginning with some modesty, Einstein touches on the topics of materialistic vs idealistic, individual vs social (pop quiz: are Americans more or less individualist than Europeans?), attitude to life, and technology and science.
Here you go, Einstein on America:
"I must redeem my promise to say something about my impressions of this country. That is not altogether easy for me. For it is not easy to take up the attitude of impartial observer when one is received with such kindness and undeserved respect as I have been in America. First of all let me say something on this score.
The cult of individuals is always, in my view, unjustified. To be sure, nature distributes her gifts unevenly among her children. But there are plenty of the well-endowed, thank God, and I am firmly convinced that most of them live quiet, unobtrusive lives. It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few of them for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate, and the contrast between the popular estimate of my powers and achievements and the reality is simply grotesque. The awareness of this strange state of affairs would be unbearable but for one pleasing consolation: it is a welcome symptom in an age which is commonly denounced as materialistic, that it makes heroes of men whose goals lie wholly in the intellectual and moral sphere. This proves that knowledge and justice are ranked above wealth and power by a large section of the human race. My experience teaches me that this idealistic outlook is particularly prevalent in America, which is decried as a singularly materialistic country. After this digression I come to my proper theme, in the hope that no more weight will be attached to my modest remarks than they deserve.
What first strikes the visitor with amazement is the superiority of this country in matters of technology and organization. Objects of everyday use are more solid than in Europe, houses much more practically designed. Everything is designed to save human labor. Labor is expensive, because the country is sparsely inhabited in comparison with its natural resources. The high price of labor was the stimulus which evoked the marvelous development of technical devices and methods of work. The opposite extreme is illustrated by over-populated China or India, where the low price of labor has stood in the way of the development of machinery. Europe is halfway between the two. Once the machine is sufficiently highly developed it becomes cheaper in the end than the cheapest labor. Let the Fascists in Europe, who desire on narrow-minded political grounds to see their own particular countries more densely populated, take heed of this. However, the anxious care with which the United States keep out foreign goods by means of prohibitive tariffs certainly contrasts oddly with the general picture…. But an innocent visitor must not be expected to rack his brains too much, and when all is said and done, it is not absolutely certain that every question admits of a rational answer.
The second thing that strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life. The smile on the faces of the people in photographs is symbolical of one of the greatest assets of the American. He is friendly, self-confident, optimistic—and without envy. The European finds intercourse with Americans easy and agreeable.
Compared with the American the European is more critical, more self-conscious, less kind-hearted and helpful, more isolated, more fastidious in his amusements and his reading, generally more or less of a pessimist.
Great importance attaches to the material comforts of life, and equanimity, unconcern, security are all sacrificed to them. The American lives even more for his goals, for the future, than the European. Life for him is always becoming, never being. In this respect he is even further removed from the Russian and the Asiatic than the European is.
But there is one respect in which he resembles the Asiatic more than the European does: he is less of an individualist than the European—that is, from the psychological, not the economic, point of view. More emphasis is laid on the “we” than the “I.” As a natural corollary of this, custom and convention are extremely strong, and there is much more uniformity both in outlook on life and in moral and esthetic ideas among Americans than among Europeans. This fact is chiefly responsible for America’s economic superiority over Europe. Cooperation and the division of labor develop more easily and with less friction than in Europe, whether in the factory or the university or in private charity. This social sense may be partly due to the English tradition.
In apparent contradiction to this stands the fact that the activities of the State are relatively restricted as compared with those in Europe. The European is surprised to find the telegraph, the telephone, the railways, and the schools predominantly in private hands. The more social attitude of the individual, which I mentioned just now, makes this possible here. Another consequence of this attitude is that the extremely unequal distribution of property leads to no intolerable hardships. The social conscience of the well-to-do is much more highly developed than in Europe. He considers himself obliged as a matter of course to place a large portion of his wealth, and often of his own energies, too, at the disposal of the community; public opinion, that all-powerful force, imperiously demands it of him. Hence the most important cultural functions can be left to private enterprise and the part played by the government in this country is, comparatively, a very restricted one.
The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.
There is also another way in which Prohibition, in my opinion, undermines the authority of the government. The public house is a place which gives people the opportunity to exchange views and ideas on public affairs. As far as I can see, such an opportunity is lacking in this country, the result being that the Press, which is mostly controlled by vested interests, has an excessive influence on public opinion.
The overestimation of money is still greater in this country than in Europe, but appears to me to be on the decrease. It is at last beginning to be realized that great wealth is not necessary for a happy and satisfactory life. In regard to artistic matters, I have been genuinely impressed by the good taste displayed in the modern buildings and in articles of common use; on the other hand, the visual arts and music have little place in the life of the nation as compared with Europe.
I have a warm admiration for the achievements of American institutes of scientific research. We are unjust in attempting to ascribe the increasing superiority of American research work exclusively to superior wealth; devotion, patience, a spirit of comradeship, and a talent for cooperation play an important part in its successes.
One more observation, to finish. The United States is the most powerful among the technically advanced countries in the world today. Its influence on the shaping of international relations is absolutely incalculable. But America is a large country and its people have so far not shown much interest in great international problems, among which the problem of disarmament occupies first place today. This must be changed, if only in America’s own interest. The last war has shown that there are no longer any barriers between the continents and that the destinies of all countries are closely interwoven. The people of this country must realize that they have a great responsibility in the sphere of international politics. The part of passive spectator is unworthy of this country and is bound in the end to lead to disaster all round.”
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