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American Exceptionalism and White History

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In the Oklahoma version of the attack on AP U.S. History standards, the bill (now withdrawn) read:

“founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”

In other words, AP U.S. History standards should conform to stories that confirm current Republican positions.

But the whole idea of American exceptionalism is an inherently white construction, as it celebrates, rather than critiques, the history of a white settler state centered around the oppression of minorities and the dispossession of land from indigenous people, ignoring those critical issues in understanding it. Historians David Wrobel and Amanda Cobb-Greetham:

David Wrobel, Merrick Chair of Western History at the University of Oklahoma, says in response to Fisher’s position, “The idea of American exceptionalism is deeply connected to the mid-19th century idea of Manifest Destiny…. But it’s important to bear in mind that Manifest Destiny developed as a justification for American expansion…. To accept it as the explanation for American development, to say as historians that God favors one nation over other nations…would be to write history on faith rather than engage in historical analysis.”

Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Chickasaw, director of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, has another take on the term, “In its classic form, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation because of the principles and beliefs on which it was founded, democratic ideals of individual liberty, freedom, justice, equality. To my mind, if we’re exceptional, it’s because we continue to strive for those ideals, not because we have met them in every circumstance. We haven’t.”

That’s nicer than I would have been.

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  • LeeEsq

    I’m probably going to forfeit my history B.A. but I’m inclined to argue that there needs to be some sort of balance in teaching history in public schools between the patriotic version and the worts and all version.

    Most Americans are somewhat to very patriotic and want American history classes to teach kids what they see as the positive aspects of American history as they see it. The unfortunate thing for them is that American history like the history of everywhere else has a lot of negative factors. Western word expansion was only because because the American government waged war against Native Americans. African-Americans were persecuted through out the United States. The reality of history rarely strictly conforms to the needs of any ideology. The unfortunate thing for our side is that people are free to ignore the reality of history and see it through a patriotic lens no matter how much we want it otherwise. They also have the demographics to get things their way in many parts of the country through perfectly legitimate democratic means.

    The only way to avoid a continual war of attrition that no side can win when it comes to teaching history bellow the college level is to reach a compromise of sorts between both versions of American history. The conservatives won’t get their completely mythical-patriotic version but teaching an entirely worts and all version of American history from a leftist perspective is probably not possible either. There will always be some elements of the patriotic version that get in even if it seems ridiculous to people who perceive history through a leftist lens. The American Revolution is always going to be taught as a great and glorious event to a certain extent, same with Westward expansion to a lesser extent.

    I would say the same applies to every country listed above.

    • Nobdy

      By warts and all do you mean the truth?

      I went to very liberal schools. We learned the “warts and all” version of American history. We learned over and over about the various genocides against American Indians. We learned about slavery. We learned about the oppression of women. We learned about the extermination of wildlife and poisoning of the environment.

      It didn’t really serve to make us less patriotic, just more aware.

      When you learn “warts and all” history you don’t come away hating America, because every country has warts. Living in a society means you will be connected to a past that has shameful aspects, no matter what. What you learn is to question the actions of the present and try to project how they will be viewed in the present. You learn to watch out for current injustices because you know your society is imperfect. You know that people thought George Wallace was right, and Robert E. Lee was right.

      I see such questioning as purely a good thing, and I have no interest to giving an inch to false patriotism and the lies of Republican fools.

      • DrDick

        Hell, I learned warts and all in high school in Oklahoma in 1968. It was not as warty as it is now, owing to the general state of American history at the time, but it was not the rah-rah version the legislature wants to impose now.

      • LeeEsq

        By warts and all, I don’t mean the truth but more along the lines of what can be called “the self-flaggelation school” of history where everything is seen in terms of near religious sin. I went to a liberal school too that taught about slavery, racism, lynchings, the Japanese internment during World War II, the war against Native Americans, and more. However, not everything was presented in negative terms. To use an example, the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution were taught more along patriotic lines that these were great events in human history for liberty, etc. than the American Revolution wasn’t a real revolution or the Constitution was a bunch rich, white men getting together at the expense of everybody else.

        • Gator90

          slavery, racism, lynchings, the Japanese internment during World War II, the war against Native Americans

          In what sense is teaching students about these historical realities “self-flagellation”? Must we identify so strongly with country that teaching and learning unsavory facts about its past are experienced as pain?

          • ScarsdaleVibe

            I have no idea. Lee and his brother Newish are an interesting psychological case study. They both have these really bizarrely idiosyncratic ideas about things that they assume other people share. As often as not, it’s completely incoherent or poorly thought out, as here. From an anthropological perspective though, it’s fascinating. I wonder what Aimai and DrDick think.

            • LeeEsq

              Just because Newish and I do not follow site orthodoxy on every subject, does not mean that we have “bizarrely idiosyncratic ideas about things that they assume that other people share.” A lot of my beliefs are based on the idea that we are never going to have anything closely resembling perfect agreement on all important and non–important issues in a nation of over 300 million people. There needs to be room for “reasonable people can disagree” about a wide variety of subjects, including some very important ones involving matters of literal life and death, in order for their to be a public peace. The only other alternative is a system to enforce one orthodox or another, and that never works out well regardless of the orthodoxy being enforced, or a continual, permanent non-ending war of attrition where no side makes any police. I’m not really keen on all politics ending up as the Western Front of World War I.

              I simply do not believe that any side is ever going to achieve a psychological victory in any ideological debate. Racism was alleviated, but not eliminated in this country through a lot of hard work by diligent African-American and other people of color activists with help from politicians and changes in society. What did not happen and most likely never will happen, is the majority or even a plurality of White Americans assuming guilt for the crimes committed against African-Americans in the past. Maybe in an ideal world, that should of happened but I do not think this is how people generally operate on group level or individual level. The same thing happened with LGBT rights. Through hard work and helped by social change, LGBT activists were able to great decrease, but not eliminate, many of the acts of discrimination and persecution against them and increase their rights. What did not happen, was an admission of guilt from heterosexuals en masse because that is not how people think. What more or less happened was that many heterosexual people decided for a variety of reasons that they do not have problems with LGBT people. Some might have had guilt of some sort for the persecution of the past but most didn’t really.

              So ultimately, I find X group trying to get Y group to admit that they were morally wrong and guilty for acts of persecution to be an exercise in futility that impedes progress rather than helps this. I think this true for Jews who are continually trying to get groups that persecuted Jews to confess to their anti-Semitism over the centuries as well. Its just a useless activity that backfires a lot in my observation from how the political scene is working out.

              • DrDick

                Nobody is actually trying to get white people to “take the blame” for historical atrocities. All most activists want is for them to acknowledge that they were atrocities and that they had consequences which endure into the present, as well as to take responsibility for the ongoing discrimination and injustices.

                I also now, based on this screed, expect you to denounce Zionism and to never mention the Holocaust, which happened long ago.

              • CP

                I think this true for Jews who are continually trying to get groups that persecuted Jews to confess to their anti-Semitism over the centuries as well.

                For my money, Germany is a VASTLY better place for having frankly and fully admitted the Holocaust for what it was and not shied away from the “self-flagellation” that came with that. Our country and others could do far worse than to follow in their footsteps.

              • joe from Lowell

                Lee what are you doing?

                The “white guilt” mode of history you’re arguing against is 99% straw man and 1% so fringe as to be irrelevant. Meanwhile, there is a real debate going on, which pits the shallow, partisan “American Exceptionalism” version of history you oppose against the very compromise version you say you want – that is, the type of history described in the national AP American History standards?

                Why would you come out, repeat the talking points of the Exceptionalists about their opponents, when you say that what you want is the opponents’ position?

          • MikeJake

            It’s fine to teach students that the United States waged war against the Native Americans to push them off the land. But if you’re not also presenting the long history of settled states conquering their weaker tribal neighbors, and that all human societies seek to expand, then you’re not providing needed context. It’s just another Evil White People story.

            • Yeah, because our students are just so overwhelmed by stories about the history of evil white people in this country….

              • MikeJake

                You are way too enamored with polemics.

                • No, it fits me well.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Erik seems to indulge his glib shallowness here so he can be serious in his real work.

            • Pseudonym

              But that’s kind of the point, that America hasn’t been exceptional (in either sense) when it comes to dealing with weaker neighbors.

          • joe from Lowell

            Hmm…let’s compare:

            I don’t mean the truth but more along the lines of what can be called “the self-flaggelation school” of history where everything is seen in terms of near religious sin. I went to a liberal school too that taught about slavery, racism, lynchings, the Japanese internment during World War II, the war against Native Americans, and more. However, not everything was presented in negative terms.”

            So, we have Lee talking about how covering this material isn’t “self-flagellation.”

            To which he receives the response:

            “In what sense is teaching students about these historical realities “self-flagellation”?”

            I don’t think it’s Lee who is confusing “self-flagellation” with the teaching of the truth here.

        • busker type

          I dunno… I guess the self-flagellation view of American history is a real thing. But the proponents of the Exceptionalist myth use it as a club To shut down the teaching of real history way out of proportion to actual examples of people who believe in it, let alone try to teach it.

          • Linnaeus

            But what do we mean by “self-flagellation”? You’ll get different answers depending on whom you ask – there’ll no doubt be folks who think that teaching “too much” about the conquest of Native Americans or the oppression of African Americans is self-flagellation. Others might say, okay, those things should be taught, but when we get into talking about, say, the economic inequities of the Gilded Age, that’s going too far. And so on. So where does the truth end and self-flagellation begin?

            • busker type

              I guess for me, history isn’t really about morality at all, it’s about understanding causes and effects. So saying that the atlantic slave trade was a horrible thing that happened for specific economic and cultural reasons is solid history. Saying that the slave trade happened because Europeans, as a group, are unusually evil is self-flagellation.

              • Linnaeus

                First, not everyone makes the distinction that you do. For those folks, saying the Atlantic slave trade “was a horrible thing that happened for specific economic and cultural reasons” is, prima facie, an argument that Europeans (and, by extension, Euro-Americans) are unusually evil. I, you, and everyone in this thread would certainly dispute that. But then we’re back to square one, and any compromise is sunk because the categories upon which the compromise relies are being contested.

                Second, I’d be willing to wager (and I’m not at all a betting man) that the number of history educators in American public schools who adhere to the self-flagellation school as your or I might define it is very, even vanishingly, small. At least I’ve seen no evidence otherwise. What’s happening here is that the folks in the Oklahoma state legislature want to institutionalize their own politically correct (though it will not be called that, of course) version of US History.

                • busker type

                  I don’t see where we disagree.

                • Linnaeus

                  Fair enough – I just wanted to unpack the idea of a self-flagellation school of history.

                • busker type

                  It is useful to point out, as you do, that this is a form of political correctness from the right.

          • “Self-flagellation” is itself the outcome of American exceptionalist thinking. When you’re taught mostly about American history in school, and you’ve absorbed the concept that the US is an exceptional nation, the natural response to learning about the evils of our history is to see the US as exceptionally evil.

            • busker type

              yeah, I think you’re on to something here… if you believe that the USA is exceptionally righteous, then you will be particularly shocked to learn that as a people we behave more or less like any other nation. And for righteous people to behave in this mediocre way seems way worse than for mediocre people to behave like that.

            • Bingo. The only realistic counterbalance to people running around claiming that we’re somehow better than everyone else is to point out that we’re not, which is then read as self-flagellation.

            • CP

              Or to assume that people who want you to take notice of the evils of our history are trying to make you see the U.S. as exceptionally evil.

        • MAJeff

          “the self-flaggelation school” of history where everything is seen in terms of near religious sin

          It’s amazing how often you mirror right-wing talking points.

        • Nobdy

          Not everything about America is bad, especially when you learn about what other countries have done. Japanese interment was terrible, but it doesn’t compare in evil to the Great Leap Forward. Democratic ideals were good. The Civil War is a mixed bag because it’s bad if you look at the South, but pretty impressive in some ways if you look at the North, where white men died in the hundreds of thousands in a war against the slavery of African Americans (this is an oversimplification but not untrue.)

          The “self-flaggelation” view of American history does exist, but only among those who don’t know world history and know that a “pure” society has never existed.

          I also have never seen anyone push for “self-flaggelation” teaching standards even if individual teachers might push the view (individual teachers always deviate) In any case I don’t think we really need to worry about overcorrection right now. American students are still learning that the constitution is good and the American revolution was good.

          • J. Otto Pohl

            My guess is that most American students don’t learn much history outside of US history. So they will never have heard of the Great Leap Forward or know that slavery existed in Brazil and Cuba after it was abolished in the US. What you get is another type of exceptionalism in reverse.

            • Lee Rudolph

              Fifty-odd years ago in Ohio, the standard curriculum was one year of “World History”, one year of U. S. History, and one year (I think, though it’s hard to believe; maybe it was one semester?) of Ohio History (!). Advanced Placement was an extra year (12th grade), and at least when I took it, it was more American History&Frederick Jackson Turner and Frederick Lewis Allen are the only two names I remember.

        • Hogan

          “the self-flaggelation school” of history where everything is seen in terms of near religious sin.

          Is anyone anywhere arguing that that should be how we design public school history curricula? Or is this just another “you don’t agree with the exceptionalists, so you must think the exact opposite, leaving only me to occupy the reasonable middle” schtick?

          • Of course, almost any high-school curriculum could be improved by handing the kids cats-o’-nine-tails.

    • Manny Kant

      I don’t see how anyone can argue that this “compromise” is not what we already have in APUSH without being either ignorant or disingenuous.

      • Linnaeus

        I’ve tutored students in AP US History for several years now, and as a result, I’ve become familiar with the APUSH curriculum at some of the schools in my area, both public and private. APUSH, at least as it’s taught in the schools in my area, is as you describe. Anyone who thinks students here are somehow being taught to “hate America” or just “the bad parts” of American history not only doesn’t know the curriculum, but doesn’t really understand history.

    • busker type

      I might agree with this if I thought there was some level of compromise that would be acceptable to the forces of jingoism and white supremacy. But there isn’t, and it will always be a struggle to keep the fullness of our history in view.

      On the other hand, when all you hear in school is the great and glorious myth of American exceptionalism, you really start to hunger after the rest of the story, so maybe we’re breeding better historians than we would be in an liberal utopia?

    • Lee Rudolph

      the worts and all version.

      Every thread’s a beer thread!

    • medrawt

      I took my last US history class in the spring of ’01, so I don’t know what passes for the “warts and all” school, but is anyone in the US (at least under the college level) teaching a version that doesn’t leave substantial room for patriotism? By high school I was certainly getting some real talk from my teachers and textbooks about bad things “our” “forefathers” had done. As a grade schooler it was probably more simplified and positive-leaning, but it’s hard for me to disentangle what I learned in school and what I learned from my parents (two well educated liberals, one with an undergrad history degree, one an immigrant).

      None of it (including the messages from my parents) felt unpatriotic, or made me unpatriotic; believing otherwise gives in to letting crazy people define patriotism as religious fundamentalism.

    • djw

      The only way to avoid a continual war of attrition that no side can win when it comes to teaching history bellow the college level is to reach a compromise of sorts between both versions of American history.

      This is delusional, in exactly the same way William Saletan and his ilk’s position that “if only pro-choice advocates would make concessions XYZ, we could finally put this ‘abortion’ issue behind us” is delusional. There’s no magic formula to escape ongoing, intractable, ultimately unwinnable political battles on many issues, including this one. “a continual war of attrition that no side can win” is simply a description of politics, and the question of whether patriotism demands a morally and historically serious reckoning with our past or self-congratulatory myths is a fundamentally political question. The advocates of the latter position are highly unlikely to stop contesting it if they win partial victories.

      • Pat

        Exactly. After progressives beat conservative thoughts and memes to a no-longer-identifiable-pulp, then conservatives abandon them and choose new battles. Women’s rights to vote is one battle where conservatives got royally screwed over. Interracial marriage, and soon gay marriage, are another. Medicare, and soon Obamacare, are a third.

        Giving them partial victories only prolongs the agony.

    • It isn’t necessary to teach history from a leftist perspective to be honest. On the other hand, the idea that it’s necessary to lie about or smooth over history in order to be “patriotic” is itself pretty non-patriotic. Is the US such a colossal force of historical evil that it’s necessary to lie to children so they don’t grow up hating it? I don’t think so, personally.

      • Gator90

        It isn’t necessary to teach history from a leftist perspective to be honest.

        No, but honesty has a leftist bias…

        • J. Otto Pohl

          Leftwing governments haven’t shown themselves to be any more honest in their history curriculums than right wing ones. If anything the history taught in the USSR during the Brezhnev era or in North Korea under Kim Il Sung was far less objective than anything currently being taught in the US.

          • The Dark Avenger

            Kinda dishonest to call Communist regimes “lefwing” unless you also stipulate that The Third Reich, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan are “right wing”.

            Don’t bullshit a bullshitter, Jotto. You’re not inherently dishonest enough to pull it off successfully.

  • c u n d gulag

    What was it that Al Franken once wrote?

    FSM bless “Teh Gooooooogle!”:
    “They (conservatives) don’t get it. We love America just as much as they do. But in a different way.
    You see they love America the way a four year old loves her mommy. Liberals love America as grown-ups. To a four year old everything mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes mommy is bad, Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work and is the best thing in the world.

  • Colleen

    I had an APUSH teacher that was way ahead of his time, as it was in APUSH I got any version of US history that wasn’t the full Kool-aid version. Every other year of state and US history was the glossy, easy narrative that everything unfolded effortlessly. It was only when Mr St Germaine assigned reading of the new novel Light Can be Both Wave and Particle that I first learned their was any doubt about the US winning WWII. In all the patriotic fawning, I had never even realized their existed the possibility the US might not take it in a walk. In a way, its complications- the infighting, the loss, the difficulty- made the struggle brave and real to me as a teen in a way the propaganda never did.

    • rea

      How the hell is it patriotic to claim that WWII was a cakewalk which we never had a chance of losing?

      • Hogan

        Because if you don’t believe it about WWII, you won’t believe it when we invade Iran, because you hate America,

      • It’s the “sleeping giant” angle. The US wanted to stay out of the war, but then Pearl Harbor, so then America strode out to war and smashed the enemy with our glorious might, because America never wins a war and is the most powerful nation ever.

        • Hogan

          It’s like The Incredible Hulk without the psychological nuance.

          • The Dark Avenger

            One of my friends in college, although 2 years older than I, had parents that were of my grandparents generation, and thus adults before and during WWII. He said that there was a lot of Isolationist sentiment in Missouri and other areas of the country before Pearl Harbor, so perhaps the fear of losing was a sublimation of the overt Isolationist feeling which Pearl Harbor made untenable afterwards and war inevitable, along with the unforced error of Hitler declaring war on the U.S. A few days later sealing the deal in Europe as well.

    • I first learned their was any doubt about the US winning WWII

      The Red Army might want to have a word with your teachers, excluding Mr. St. Germaine.

      • Ronan

        We were always taught in school that Irish neutrality was the crucial factor. The fear of a potential declaration of war from Ireland terrified Hitler into attacking the USSR.

        • It’s hard to argue with that.

          • Ronan

            Just to clarify, I’m an autodidact in history.

            • Clio is a sexy minx.

            • Pat

              Autodidact, or auto-diddly?

    • J. Otto Pohl

      There is a reason it was called a “world war” and not the US vs. the Axis war. Most of the fighting against Nazi Germany was done by the USSR after Berlin decided to break the two year old non-agression pact with Moscow. Talking about a US rather than Allied victory in World War II is part of the problem. Without the British Empire and especially the USSR it is hard to imagine any type of US victory over Germany.

  • Nobdy

    The thing that bothers me most about “American exceptionalism” is that it’s blatant and obvious magical thinking. America doesn’t have to abide by the rules of other nations and won’t follow the path of history because…I said so….or because it’s favored by God or whatever.

    There’s no there there. No reason behind the claim. It’s no different from people who deny climate change because to acknowledge it would be inconvenient.

    To teach such nonsense in school changes school from a place to learn into a place to be indoctrinated. Of course Republicans don’t really understand the concept of “learning” so maybe they already think that indoctrination is all there is.

    • Davis X. Machina

      The thing that bothers me most about “American exceptionalism” is that it’s blatant and obvious magical thinking. America doesn’t have to abide by the rules of other nations and won’t follow the path of history because…I said so….or because it’s favored by God or whatever.

      We’ve got a a very-efficient, zero-inventory, kanban-style supply chain for excuses, that’s all. Because post facto is too late.

      American management savvy for the win!

    • Lurker

      On the other hand, all great powers have myths of their own. The American Manifest Destiny is, of course, a construct that is no different from other myths. Even smaller nations have similar myths thast define the nation.

      The hallmark of a civilised person is a functioning doublethink: the ability to understand that such myths are superstitions and yet use them in a positive way as a personal and collective encouragement towards a better society. Only a barbarian really believes in such myths, and only a completely immoral person fully neglects the national mythos.

      • Davis X. Machina

        The Whig version of history in England puts Manifest Destiny to shame. I’ll take Macauley and give the points, against Bancroft or Turner… maybe both of ’em. Cage match.

        I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.

        Drops early Victorian mike…

        • Lurker

          I’ll see your Victorian Great Britain and raise you Gogol’s czarist Russia:

          And you, Russia of mine—are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? Is not the road smoking beneath your wheels, and the bridges thundering as you cross them, and everything being left in the rear, and the spectators, struck with the portent, halting to wonder whether you be not a thunderbolt launched from heaven? What does that awe-inspiring progress of yours foretell? What is the unknown force which lies within your mysterious steeds? Surely the winds themselves must abide in their manes, and every vein in their bodies be an ear stretched to catch the celestial message which bids them, with iron-girded breasts, and hooves which barely touch the earth as they gallop, fly forward on a mission of God? Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes—only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!

          • burritoboy

            and those are as nothing compared to nineteenth-century German narratives of their history, in which Kant and Hegel fully penetrate the mysteries of knowledge, making the German nation not just the most virtuous or the most good nation, but also the most metaphysically necessary one.

            • Davis X. Machina

              Thanks. I was planning to get through to suppertime without thinking of Hegel or Kant penetrating anything, thank you very much.

              Now that’s shot.

        • rea

          BOATSWAIN:
          He is an Englishman!
          For he himself has said it,
          And it’s greatly to his credit,
          That he is an Englishman!
          ALL.
          That he is an Englishman!
          BOAT.
          For he might have been a Roosian,
          A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
          Or perhaps Itali-an!
          ALL.
          Or perhaps Itali-an!
          BOAT.
          But in spite of all temptations
          To belong to other nations,
          He remains an Englishman!
          He remains an Englishman!

          • sibusisodan

            …The English are moral, the English are good
            And clever and modest and misunderstood.

            And all the world over, each nation’s the same
            They’ve simply no notion of playing the game
            They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
            And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!

            The English, the English, the English are best
            So up with the English and down with the rest.

            It’s not that they’re wicked or natuarally bad
            It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad!

            • The Dark Avenger

              Civilization is at its lowest mark in the United States precisely in those areas where the Anglo-Saxon still presumes to rule. He runs the whole South–and in the whole South there are not as many first-rate men as in many a single city of the mongrel North. Wherever he is still firmly in the saddle, there we look for such pathological phenomena as Fundamentalism, Prohibition and Ku Kluxery, and there they flourish. It is not in the northern cities, with their mixed population, that the death rate is highest, and politics most corrupt, and religion nearest to voodooism, and every decent human aspiration suspect; it is in the areas that the recent immigrations have not penetrated, where “the purest Anglo-Saxon blood in the world” still flows.

      • Murc

        The hallmark of a civilised person is a functioning doublethink: the ability to understand that such myths are superstitions and yet use them in a positive way as a personal and collective encouragement towards a better society. Only a barbarian really believes in such myths, and only a completely immoral person fully neglects the national mythos.

        That’s awful.

        I view the American national mythos as having done vastly more harm than good over the course of our history, and I long for the day it is dragged from its pedestal and hung from a light pole. This position is in no way immoral; indeed, I arrived at it only after long consideration of the moral calculus involved.

        Also, screw “functioning doublethink.” If you need doublethink to make your vision for your society work, you are doing it wrong.

        • Lurker

          There is no such thing as a completely coherent world view. Any attempt to have a thoroughly logical ethical system of ethics and social thought has arrived either at nihilism or suppor of immoral atrocities. At some point of your train of thought, you need to be illogical.

          The national mythos, be it American Exceptionalism or an other set of illogical beliefs about the legendary history and (apocalyptically glorious) future of any nation is a tool too important to be discarded. Like any tool, it can be used for good and bad. It can be used for jingoism and xenophobia or as an encouragement to form a better, more enlightened society. And if you discard a national myth, it either comes back or is supplanted by another, with no guarantee that the new one will be better.

          • Nobdy

            How and when is it used for good?

            • Lurker

              The US national myth, which is, foreign to me, does have a basis in the philosophy of the enlightment. If you stress the values of human liberty, rule of law and freedom of conscience and use the national mythos to pursue them, the myth is used for a good purpose.

              Personally, I find the subject called “US history” to be an absurd concept. In Finnish schools, there is only a subject called history abd social science. The obligatory course in the senior high is divided to five equal parts:
              * cultural history of the world, with a heavy Western focus
              * economic and social history of the world
              * political history of the world since Congress of Vienna, with clearly less euro-centric focus
              * Finnish history since 1809 (the beginning of autonomy)
              * Current Finnish society and government

              Political history prior to Congress of Vienna and the early Finnish history are elective courses. Each course unit consists of 38 lessons.

              Studying only national history without a solid background in the general history is ultimately a futile attempt.

              I admire the solution of the Europa schools, which are international schools for the children of EU civil servants at cities with EU establishments. There, all students are required to study history in a foreign language, instructed by a teacher from a foreign nation. This is a good way to get rid of national myths, but serves to replace them with a common European one.

              • The Dark Avenger

                A lot of Americqn history is connected to the history of the world, as it is tough here. You usually don’t get those kind of details until high school and college. It’ll probably blow your mind that many states mandate state history standards that are much more exacting than those for US history.

              • joe from Lowell

                That’s actually how it works here, too. Students take a history course each year, and each year focuses on a different aspect. In middle schools in Massachusetts, for instance, it’s ancient history in grade 6, medieval history in grade 7 (ending with the beginnings of the European settlement of the Americas), and American history (beginning at the European settlement of the western hemisphere) in grade 8.

                • Linnaeus

                  That’s very similar to how we did it when I was in school – in the elementary and early middle school years, history was mixed with subjects like geography as part of a combined social studies curriculum. You got to US history in 9th grade, which continued into 10th grade.

            • joe from Lowell

              How and when is it used for good?

              One example would be its invocation by the leaders of the civil rights movement, as they made the argument that advancing black equality and the protection of black rights would bring America closer to its founding ideals.

        • djw

          I view the American national mythos as having done vastly more harm than good over the course of our history, and I long for the day it is dragged from its pedestal and hung from a light pole.

          Right. The *positive value* in that quote is simply assumed; it’s as much a myth as anything. It bears a distinct family resemblance to the kind of anti-atheism views widely held in certain religious circles (and by John Locke), that without a God or Gods to worship and fear, people will become dangerously unconstrained and lawless. I’m afraid the patriotism version of this argument doesn’t offer a much more compelling empirical story.

          One common value of patriotism often aserted by apologists for it is that it promotes communitarian sacrifices and gives us a reason, beyond ‘shared humanity’, to care about our fellow citizens. This one in particular seems particularly hard to promote with a straight face in America today.

          • Murc

            Also too: I am second to none in my dim view of human nature, but a lot of people seem to look at it and just give up. Lurker’s viewpoint seems to boil down to “people are awful, so we should lie to and emotionally manipulate them through a combination of fear and groupthink. Of course, we, the civilized elite, will be above such matters, but even we should drink a cup of the Kool-Aid every so often to ensure its heady rush keeps us in line.”

            And that’s just vile.

            • djw

              I’m pretty willing to accept our mental lives will always include a variety of narratives that could plausibly be identified as ‘myths’ and we’ll use them to make sense of our world and our place in it. I don’t see any reason to accept that those myths must take on the project of the glorification of state and nation, and if we don’t manipulate future generations into mythologizing state and nation in the right way, all hell will break loose.

              Patriotism apologists often try to leverage arguments for the overwhelming likelihood or inevitibility of myth and meaning-making as a general practice to justify a very specific type of myth and meaning-making narrative.

              • burritoboy

                Well, aren’t you denigrating the potentials of myth-making? Isn’t the right goal less manipulation, and more an attempt to praise the good and criticize the evil? One doesn’t simply have to imagine what this could look like – look at Shakespeare’s history of England, which attempts to create a history such that Englishmen can rally around and recognize the good things Shakespeare perceives in their collective history, while not shying away from the horrors Shakespeare knows about within that history?

                • djw

                  This is precisely what I’m talking about. I am not denigrating myth-making, I’m arguing that “myth-making” isn’t subsumed or defined by myth-making in the service of patriotism, and that particular approach isn’t inevitable or necessary. I’ll certainly concede we can find less monstrous versions of patriotic myth-making in literature (and even in real life!) than the more typical versions, but I’m at a loss to see how anything of relevance for my argument follows from that.

            • burritoboy

              Or, is it so vile? I wonder. I think there’s something to be said for some sense of overarching purpose or good for most governments and communities and their histories – with the ready recognition that every government or community has failed, sometimes grotesquely, to match up to that.

              The failures should never be concealed or hidden. But there are levels of understanding. Each person should be free to pursue whatever level of understanding he or she likes to or can achieve. Saying that only the highest or best level of understanding is permissible or good is highly implausible and impractical – many people cannot pursue that level of understanding, much less achieve it, often due to no fault of their own. Indeed, they may be neglecting their understanding of history in order to pursue even more fundamental understandings – the great physicist is devoting most of his mind to the understanding of the physical world and unfortunately cannot therefore devote enough time to history. It’s probable that most of us here haven’t spent enough time on it, either.

              So, history as popularly understood must contain some elements of simplification. That simplification is more or less erroneous, or not a full understanding. What is that other than a mythos? Of course, each mythos can be more or less inaccurate or erroneous, and the ones that are more erroneous must be criticized and corrected to the extent possible.

              Further, there are always competing mythos – and it’s not sufficient simply say they are all false (which they all are). Some are massively more false, and do massively more harm, than other mythos. Some contain considerably worse moral teachings or conclusions than others.

              • Pat

                Well, scientists construct models, which are an interpretation of the results of experiments that try to explain how thing work in the natural world. All models simplify the experimental results, and then over-extend them to other areas that have not yet been tested. But they provide hypotheses that allow us to further investigate the world.

                Eventually all models are found to have errors in them. They are defended, and then amended, through the application of the scientific process.

                Maybe you want to make an equivalence between mythos and model here.

          • Vance Maverick

            Well, what motivates the magnificent self-sacrifice of our troops, if not patriotism? And surely you’re not going to doubt the value of the missions for which they’re sacrificing themselves — that would be unpatriotic!

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Nice to see two OU colleagues quoted like this here! :-)

    • DrDick

      ;-)

    • rea

      David Wrobel wrote a book called, “The End of American Exceptionalism”–it’s surprising that the legislature hasn’t revoked his tenure.

      I sure learned a lot at OU back in the day (class of ’75)–even about some things other than sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll . . .

      • Wrobel is British so I’m surprised Oklahoma Republicans haven’t called for his deportation.

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