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American exceptionalism

When I was a junior in high school, my history teacher, Jimmy Johnson, tried to liven the subject with a series of debates. The most verbally agile in the class, I was always assigned the unpopular side: the Loyalist side at the Revolution (if I had only encountered Samuel Johnson’s “Taxation No Tyranny” then instead of a decade later) and opposition, like Lincoln’s, to the Mexican War.

The inclination to try to see history whole thus got early encouragement, and it leaves me seeing doubly during gusts of patriotic oratory. You may imagine that I nodded vehemently when I came across this line of Kipling’s that Sarah Vowell quotes in Unfamiliar Fishes, her book on American imperialism in the McKinley era:

“I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community setting examples to brutal mankind.”

The Fourth of July, particularly in a year when a presidential campaign is beginning to lumber toward cascades of hoopla and distortions, is a time when the exceptionalists tend to give the “city on a hill” line a workout. Aspiration is a good thing. The national ideals are a good thing. Attempting to live up to them is a good thing. But it is also a salutary thing to recollect, amid the gassy exhalations of the holiday, that in our role as an example to the rest of unenlightened humankind, we have sometimes made a shoddy job of it.


ADDENDUM: Before you invite me to leave for Russia, Blighty, Scandinavia, or wherever you would like to consign me, I do not aspire to be an expatriate. I’m an American citizen (birth certificate proffered on request). I’ll be at the Towson Fourth of July parade on Monday. And on Sunday, at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, as the temperature climbs toward the nineties, I will be at the console of the wheezing Casavant, accompanying the congregation in the singing of “My country, ’tis of thee” and playing for the postlude a march by John Philip Sousa. Spare me any air-conditioned patriotism.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (10)


It is a common practice of all people to "forget" those shoddy attempts at setting an example. After all, who would like to keep in mind the worst? Plus, there only a few of those smudges, right? Not worth really griping over. The Native Americans were already on their way out, anyway.

You were very lucky to have such a teacher. On the whole, I had very few teachers I would give any credit to. But, one important individual had a similar effect on me as Jimmy Johnson had on you. How many people credit their mothers for their learning? Probably not enough, but it is done frequently. My mother never accepted a partial answer from me and encouraged seeking out different perspectives and reports. One source simply isn't enough.

I'm feeling some anxiety about the impending campaign. I'll try not to think too much on that this weekend, though.

I recently finished Howard Zinn's commendable "A People's History of the United States." The late Mr. Zinn would have been relegated to the lowest circle of communist hell by Joe McCarthy, but thankfully, this country does have free speech. As a child growing up in the forties, I learned all about the wonderful heroes who "discovered" the New World, and later about the heroic men who created "one nation under God." Despite the disgusting and unforgiveable genocide perpetrated on the original owners of this country, I still believe in the dream, but no bloviations from the pols will ever fool me into believing that we've achieved that "perfect union." Happy Independance Day.

Mind if I steal "air-conditioned patriotism"?

Simon Schama on a similar topic:

Old Rudyard could have surely added to the long list of early faux-benevolent foreign interlopers of native peoples pristine lands, the British incursion into Australia and New Zealand w/ their systematic, purposeful, and relentless 'extirpation' of the so-called 'primitive' Aboriginals (and Maori), as well as the Boer/ Africaners, and British settlement of South Africa w/ their eventual dehumanization and marginalization of the majority indigenous 'colored' population; modern day apartheid being the grievous officially sanctioned manifestation of the systematic and unrelenting suppression and exploitation of its native population.

I dare say, my native land of Canada has an equally shoddy and embarrassing historical record in regards to how our First Nations Peoples have been officially (and unofficially) viewed and treated since 'first contact'. But I digress.

On a brighter note------HAPPY CANADA (Dominion) DAY to all my fellow Canucks out there in the greater blogosphere, eh.

On July 1st, 1867 we became a proud nation, independent of direct British rule w/ the passage of the pivotal British North America (BNA) Act, yet remained, to this day, within the Commonwealth, recognizing the reigning British monarch as our symbolic, non-political leader. Traditions die hard.

This Moose Head ale's for YOU!


And an early Happy 4th to all. Be safe out there.


P.S.: ----Tim from Canada, whereabouts in The Great White North do you currently abode? Just curious. I have roots in both Ontario and British Columbia (Vancouver Island), via Scotland going back a generation on both my dad and mum's sides of the family, but spent my first three-and-a-half decades in the greater Toronto area, and the last thirty-plus years in Los Angeles. Still remain kind of a Canadian chauvinist at heart, eh?

I think it's Casavant. Air-conditioned wheezing notwithstanding.


GrandBoy, Dog and I - and a few others - will be at the Kingsville Parade. We'll be sitting on tombstones in the Episcopal churchyard.

And Blighty has rules these days about whom it will let in.

Ives' "Variations on America" usually hastens the congregation's departure.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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