His almost chosen people?
January 18, 2005 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Americanism—and Its Enemies
Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and professor of computer science at Yale. This essay helps to explain American religiosity..to the rest of us.
posted by dash_slot- (49 comments total)

 
I know not everyone likes long, explanatory essays - on American idealism, or anything else - but for those of us that struggle sometimes to place [some] American politician's fervour for transforming the world, and insisting on US moral leadership in an 'evil' world, this provides an immense amount of valuable context.
posted by dash_slot- at 2:50 PM on January 18, 2005


"But is it not true that the Declaration of Independence—one of America’s holiest writings—treats religion in a cool, Enlightenment sort of way? It does. But we ought to keep in mind an observation by the historian Ralph Barton Perry. The Declaration, Perry reminds us, was an ex post facto justification of American beliefs."

So because the Declaration was written by someone who wanted to be remembered for setting America on track to be religiously tolerant and who himself was skeptical of organized religion, and because the reference to God in the Dec. is muted, to say the least, yes indeed--America is an incredibly Christian country.

As a history teacher, this is just drivel. For every Bradford or Winthrop there was a John Smith.
posted by bardic at 3:01 PM on January 18, 2005


Methinks Gelernter should be fired -- what an assload of self-satisfied claptrap.

I hate to be dismissive, but it's hard to know where to start with this one -- the tone and waggish assumptions of the very first paragraph are made larger and more sweeping the further you read.

It's like watching a hog swallow dongs. Next.
posted by undule at 3:13 PM on January 18, 2005


Whoever built this site is apparently unaware of the existence of Firefox.
posted by zoogleplex at 3:16 PM on January 18, 2005


Huh? Worked fine in Firefox for me.

I don't necessarily disagree with the central thesis of this essay, though it was over-long and a bit dull for me to make it through to the end.

It's difficult for Americans to comment on this essay. Not only are they less aware of how the world perceives them, but they are less aware of how religion permeates society differently in America to other places. Gelernter may be wrong, but Americans should not dismiss the theory out of hand.
posted by salmacis at 3:21 PM on January 18, 2005


what undule said. How dare he speak of humanitarian decency as a lasting legacy of the intolerant bigots he selects (for the most part). I'd say Gore was absolutely right with his quote (and we're seeing it in action now). And we hated Reagan because he damaged this country in many ways (the poisoned fruit of which we're still seeing now), not because we hate America.

There's no place for me or mine, or millions of other Americans in that view of Americanism put forth in that essay, and it's antithetical to everything that i was ever taught to value about this country--Its respect for others, its diversity, its acceptance of difference, its welcoming of immigrants from all over the world, its valuing of the individual and his/her rights over what any bible or dictator or leader may say--in fact it's in direct opposition to what's put forth in that essay. (maybe it really is time to leave?)
posted by amberglow at 3:26 PM on January 18, 2005


Where to start?

The central error in this screed, and many others of its ilk, is the reification of what they call "anti-americanism". If you believe it exists, that it's an organic movement or philosophy, than there must be an "americanism" it's opposed too, right?

Wrong.

Nobody hates, or dislikes, or is critical of the U.S. for its "Americanism", or what it "Stands for", or its "philosophy" or "way of life", but rather for what it does, what cities it shells, what dictators it props up, what holy sites it tramples on, etc. It's about actions, not isms.

Simplistic worldviews beget simplistic essays, I guess.
posted by signal at 3:33 PM on January 18, 2005


Yes, he gets the whole "anti-Americanism" thing very wrong. There is nobody who is against the "American Ideal" and calling it a religion is just dishonest.

As for his main thesis, linking Puritanism and Americanism--it's possible but I rather doubt it. The Bush policy is very, very, very different from any policy that has come before it. There is a great big leap from "everybody deserves to be free" to "America should invade unfree countries and force them to be free." Further, the article is practically revionist history. The war was not sold as an attempt to liberate the Iraqi peoples. If this had been the main argument it's quite unlikely the people would've bought it. So his construction of Americanism and its ascendance under Bush is pretty doubtful.
posted by nixerman at 3:40 PM on January 18, 2005


spengler had (long :) a rebuttal in the atimes a little while ago...

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 3:47 PM on January 18, 2005


I really admire Galernter's 1939, but he has a way of accepting turns of speech as fact. That was true of 1939 (that year that everything changed), and it's true of this.

The President’s faith, said one prominent American politician in September 2004, is “the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, and in many religions around the world.”

The speaker was former Vice President Al Gore. His comments were offensive and false. Today’s radical Islam is a religion of death, a religion that rejoices in slaughter. The radical Christianity known as Puritanism insisted on choosing life. Americanism does, too


I am not really sure what 'choosing life' means. Our religious right practices the death penalty with zealous fervor, and our military campaigns and sanctions are killing far more than Islamic terrorism. Moreover, there is relatively little outcry. Typically, when a bomb goes off, the headlines only report American deaths. And while we do not send our children out on suicide missions, we accept the deaths of soldiers with surprising sange-froid. Islamists are genuinely appalled by the deaths of Arabs. My head explodes with the lack of detail and clarity in his writing.

I'm not saying that he can't make an argument that American fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists are different; i'm just saying that he doesn't. He finds a thin piece of writing, and reports it as fact. Shame on you, and yourr expository writing teacher, Mr Galernter.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:48 PM on January 18, 2005


I don't really agree with this. For many on this side of the ocean, American puritanism is more a subject of confusion and at times good laugh. It's message being: "America tolerates everything and anything as long as it has nothing to do with sex."
The only example I can think of where puritanism could be a factor in anti americanism is the fact that one president was almost impeached for lying about a private matter, while another could lie to a whole nation and send it to war and get away with it too.
As for any other example, the rest of the world could care less if you have problems with nipples being shown on prime time.

It's also hard to believe that Europeans would blame Americans for believing in god when the center of practically every European village, town and city is a church. While here may be on the downfall, it is still very much ingrained in it's history and culture.

Anti-americanism has more to do with the balance of power in the world and the fact that America and Europe are headed in two different directions. This is more about ideologies then religion.
posted by Timeless at 4:05 PM on January 18, 2005


dash_slot, thanks for posting this. David Gelertner has written really astoundingly good fiction in Commentary for years, and his "Judaism Beyond Words" feature was really fine. It's interesting to see him write something more... political.
posted by koeselitz at 4:13 PM on January 18, 2005


Americans, virtually alone in the world, insist that freedom, equality, and democracy are right not only for France and Spain but for Afghanistan and Iraq.

What a load of crap. He just drops this bomb at the end of a section and does nothing to back it up.

Yet, to a remarkable extent, those who hated [Reagan] are the ones who hate America [...]

And again.

In modern times, anti-Americanism is closely associated with anti-Christianism and anti-Semitism.2

At least this one has a footnote. Let's see what the footnote cites to back this assertion up:

2 It has been many centuries since Christians in the West have been routine objects of organized hatred; they do not even have a word for it. But they had better find one.

Errr. What an ass.

“the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, and in many religions around the world.”

The speaker was former Vice President Al Gore. His comments were offensive and false. Today’s radical Islam is a religion of death, a religion that rejoices in slaughter. The radical Christianity known as Puritanism insisted on choosing life. Americanism does, too.


At first the article seems to be a poor attempt at being some scholarly observation on the historical context of modern American religious fervor, but slowly, with the trollish statements noted above and finally with the above quote, we see that he is merely an apologist for American religious fanaticism.

I hate this guy. And it has nothing to do with Puritanism, America, or GW.
posted by effwerd at 4:14 PM on January 18, 2005


I'll have to disagree, here. Gelertner is putting forth this proposition and defending it as a good thing; I accept the proposition and will claim that it is, at least to the degree to which his claim is true, a bad thing.

A messianic, extreme, and, in a sense, intolerant ethos lies at the very core of American culture and the very idea of America as it actually exists and has existed. Gelertner is completely right when he argues that the founding documents, and many of the people associated with them, were sort of a revisionist gloss on a culture that pre-existed and had an impetus toward this sort of social organization that had as much to do with religiousity as it did liberal enlightenment.

But the existance of the Puritans relied upon the enlightenment, and similarly this Americanism.

Gertner is quite wrong to strongly devalue these enlightenment sentiments in terms of how they have shaped America and American culture. They're there, they're just at some different levels, and institutionalized and internalized by the American people. But he's right, completely right, when he connects the dominant naive and vulgar Americanism with Puritanism and not with, say, the liberal ideals embodied in the Decleration of Independence.

The truth is that America, and, really, Americanism, is both of these impulses. And these two impulses are in constant conflict. Indeed, understanding this conflict and what it means may be how to truly understand American culture.

But to ignore or deny the messianic impulse that resides in the core of American cuture is to be foolhardy. And, I think it's worth pointing out (and, I suppose, agreeing with Gelertner to some degree) that this messianic impulse can come in quite handy sometimes. Sometimes, the world needs a situational Messiah.

Oftentimes, though, it doesn't.

That we, as Americans, mostly can't tell the difference is one of our biggest problems.

Timeless: your view of "Puritanism" is pretty narrow and uninformed. In any case, "Purtinism" as a synonym for "anti-sexuality" is not at all how Geleterner was using the term. It includes that meaning, but only as a relatively trivial manisfestation of a much larger ideology.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:16 PM on January 18, 2005


I am surpirsed that no one has pointed out that Geleterner is the guy whose hand was blown off by the mail bomb sent to his office by Unibomber. Dave G is articulate, well read, very religious, very conservative...he might consider for a moment that it was not that many years ago that Yale, with its Hebrew embossedz motto, had a quota for Jews to be accepted into Yale...then this changed. Later, faculty accepted Jewish profs...finally a Jewish president at one point...all things change. Even "Americanism."
posted by Postroad at 4:23 PM on January 18, 2005


Nobody hates, or dislikes, or is critical of the U.S. for its "Americanism", or what it "Stands for", or its "philosophy" or "way of life", but rather for what it does, what cities it shells, what dictators it props up, what holy sites it tramples on, etc. It's about actions, not isms.

That was worth seeing again. That would have been exactly my point as well, thanks signal.
posted by psmealey at 4:28 PM on January 18, 2005


but Gelertner isn't arguing that, Post--he's ignoring his own life and that of millions of other Americans, and our roles in helping shape what America is, and isn't. That's the biggest sin of this, i think. Jumping over so much to make a point like he does (a point which actually invalidates his own life and achievements and those of other children of immigrants, etc) is a real disservice, i think.
posted by amberglow at 4:30 PM on January 18, 2005


That essay is emetic revisionism.
posted by orange clock at 4:39 PM on January 18, 2005


This is not a good essay, but don't let it put you off Gelertner all together. His writing is undisciplined, but it can be thought provoking. 1939 is a very flawed book, but I really enjoyed reading it.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:56 PM on January 18, 2005


Islam=hot
Islamism=not

America=hot
Americanism=not
posted by chaz at 5:05 PM on January 18, 2005


For many on this side of the ocean - Timeless.
Which side of the ocean are you on?
posted by dash_slot- at 5:18 PM on January 18, 2005


In remarks centered on the "shining city on a hill" trope, Gelernter reveals his central thesis:

Reagan’s use of these words connected modern America to the humane Christian vision—the Puritan vision—the vision (ultimately) of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish people—that created this nation.

This article is a piece of "special pleading" aimed at creating an argument to support the conclusion that "Americanism," or Stealth Puritanism, is "the vision of the Jewish people." Gelernter, no historian, selects quotes like a bad lawyer who picks bits of case rhetoric that support his position without reference to the legal proposition they actually stand for. The article is a grand example of the post hoc, propter hoc ("after this, because of this") fallacy in action.

Moreover, Mr. G. does not appear to know beans about the history of Protestantism in Europe and the erstwhile New World. Nor does he appear to understand the politico-religious complexities of an early Colonial America that also included non-Presbyterian independent commonwealths of varying confessionality: Catholic Maryland; Quaker Pennsylvania; Lutheran Delaware; as well as the predominantly Church of England Virginia/Carolinas.

This piece does not provide "immense valuable context" for anything except Gelernter's idosyncratic and erroneous speculations.
posted by rdone at 5:24 PM on January 18, 2005


What signal and rdone said.

I find it strange people claim Gelernter's well-read; he strikes me more as somebody who scans history, picks choice quotes out of context to back his points, and ignores what actually happened.

Gelernter's closing piece, about "No Saudi fanatic, no Kashmiri fanatic could have written those words.", goes a long way to destroying any illusions one may have had about him being learned.
posted by cosmonik at 5:50 PM on January 18, 2005


This piece does not provide "immense valuable context" for anything except Gelernter's idosyncratic and erroneous speculations.

Quite. It's very easy to extrapolate grand self-vindicating themes from history when you're ignorant of the details. As a historian of American religious and philosophical belief, Gelernter makes for a good computer scientist.

It's actually sophistry squared: most commentators content themselves with a comforting strawman formulation of 'anti-Americanism', despite the evidence to the contrary. Gelernter goes beyond that, using his strawman to define a fallacious 'Americanism'.

There's one particularly egregious bit of contemporary revisionism:

And what on earth would make an Idaho or Nebraska farmer—that man about whom Tony Blair spoke so feelingly in his eloquent 2003 address to Congress—believe that it was his responsibility to protect the Iraqi people and the world from Saddam Hussein?

Um, perhaps it was the lies about a link with 9/11, or the colour-coded warnings bringing 'terror alerts' to Boise or Omaha, or the tales told of anthrax-laden unmanned Iraqi planes primed to attack the mainland United States? All of which has fuck-all to do with 'protecting the Iraqi people and the world': it's a basic appeal to fear.

In short: he's a trolling bullshit-merchant. He's either mendacious or ignorant, and displays the symptoms of both in spades.
posted by riviera at 5:56 PM on January 18, 2005


David Gelernter is anything but a "trolling bullshit-merchant." First of all, it's hardly "trolling" to publish stuff like this in a relatively innocuous and small conservative magazine like Commentary. Second, he's got a history of writing really good stories and novels and of putting together worthwhile expositions on relevant topics within religion and culture.

This is a perfect example of the rule that is proven again and again in every American meme, from Commentary to Metafilter: politics ruins everything, and conversations are always shit when politics is even remotely a subject.
posted by koeselitz at 6:21 PM on January 18, 2005


Metafilter: politics ruins everything
posted by radiosig at 6:36 PM on January 18, 2005


cosmonik, rdone: look around a little. As gesamtkunstwerk said above, he's not all bad. Although lots of other people have found his work provocative.
posted by koeselitz at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2005


Is it politics to call bullshit on a writer who presumes to write about stuff he knows nothing about? The article is a pastiche of concepts thrown together for rhetorical purposes. Mr. G. may know lots about computers, but he does not have a grasp of the complex history he frolicks through. The redoubtable Spengler--no liberal-- rips G. a new one over this article (link above) because it is ahistorical. In short:

America stems from a religious movement and displays a marked religious character, but its actual religious life is splintered among scores of major denominations. Gelernter wants to lump it all into a generic American religion. He is just as wrong as the Islamists. Both confound American religion with the Bush administration's strategic agenda. American Christianity at once is more personal and strategically more powerful than either the Islamists or the neo-conservatives imagine.

Gelernter, for political purposes, embraces the Bush agenda and tries to back-calculate a pro-Israel religious underpinning for it based on an absurdly simplistic view. He is oblivious to the fact that many Christians pray nightly for the conversion of the Jews as the prerequisite to the return of the Son of Man. He is simply deluding himself by trying, by dint of rhetoric alone, to construct an alternative explanation that finds a niche for the children of Israel in a future world dominated by Christian Reconstructionism.

Yes, koeselitz, Mr. G has provoked me. I think it's that "humane Puritanism." It always gets me Irish up.
posted by rdone at 7:05 PM on January 18, 2005


As a historian of American religious and philosophical belief, Gelernter makes for a good computer scientist.

I'm amazed that he's a computer scientist. This is a field which requires mental discipline and a solid grasp of logic, applied against an exactingly-defined foundation of knowledge: all qualities whose absence from this article constitute its most salient characteristic.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:30 PM on January 18, 2005


"This is a perfect example of the rule that is proven again and again in every American meme, from Commentary to Metafilter: politics ruins everything, and conversations are always shit when politics is even remotely a subject."

Exactly. Gelernter has huge blind sides. Many of his conclusions are flawed, but he's not a Rush Limbaugh, and he does have interesting observations. Sometimes you can learn something by going along for the ride, seeing how other half thinks.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:36 PM on January 18, 2005


Americans, virtually alone in the world, insist that freedom, equality, and democracy are right not only for France and Spain but for Afghanistan and Iraq.

I couldn't read past here. I was really hoping, when he started off by saying that several nations have held themselves up as superior in the past, that he would present a questioning analysis of the Americans' current belief in their own greatness (perhaps this is because I didn't know this was an American conservative magazine). What we get instead is a bunch of self-righteous wankery.
posted by purtek at 7:39 PM on January 18, 2005


koeselitz, I'm not sure what you think those links show, other than that he's a computer scientist who earned the ire of the Unabomber (not exactly a difficult feat for somebody who is pro-tech).

Just to be clear, I'm not saying he's a totally useless human being, but as a historian he is flawed and suspect.
posted by cosmonik at 8:16 PM on January 18, 2005


But my thesis is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism.

BAM! In the third section of the essay he states his thesis. DO OVER
posted by bingbangbong at 8:39 PM on January 18, 2005


The author's concluding paragraphs are a weird leap in tone and subject matter. Furthermore I don't see how starting a war on shaky pretenses is "choosing life."
posted by bingbangbong at 8:52 PM on January 18, 2005


Next time let's try for a history essay from a professor of history.
posted by mek at 9:29 PM on January 18, 2005


I'm anti- most all kinds of -isms.

Wing nuts who don't like that can bite me.

He's either mendacious or ignorant, and displays the symptoms of both in spades.
posted by riviera at 5:56 PM PST on January 18


What riviera said.
posted by nofundy at 5:37 AM on January 19, 2005


Ethereal Bligh: your view of "Puritanism" is pretty narrow and uninformed. In any case, "Purtinism" as a synonym for "anti-sexuality" is not at all how Geleterner was using the term. It includes that meaning, but only as a relatively trivial manisfestation of a much larger ideology.


My whole point is infarct that the world view of American puritanism is indeed narrow and uninformed. It's a new phenomena that doesn't really compute with the images that Hollywood has been sending us for the past decades.
Topics such as the fact that Bush is closer to god then any other president before him, the use of god in oaths versus the separation of state and creationism don't really make headlines outside of US media.
It has only been with the last election that people outside of the US are starting to see that there is some sort of cultural clash going on in the States.
But most Europeans probably don't understand what the stakes are or why it's happening. For them it's almost natural that church and politics mix, even in a secular state. The church has only very slowly been loosing its grip on power in Europe and many of its institutions still stand.
That's why I don't believe that this is a main factor in explaining anti-americanism.

dash_slot: European side
posted by Timeless at 6:55 AM on January 19, 2005


For one thing, early Puritans believed that a woman could not get pregnant unless she had an orgasm.

For another, the last large-scale Puritan faith is the Quakers of Society of Friends. These folks are some of the most liberal and un-Conservative out there.
posted by nathanrudy at 7:31 AM on January 19, 2005


One needs only to study the history of American art with its overwhelming theme of manifest destiny to realize Gelernter has a valid point.

The idea of manifest destiny is a legacy every American shares.

We are destined to rule, albeit democratically, and this is unquestionable.
posted by lacus at 7:37 AM on January 19, 2005


I was really hoping, when he started off by saying that several nations have held themselves up as superior in the past, that he would present a questioning analysis of the Americans' current belief in their own greatness (perhaps this is because I didn't know this was an American conservative magazine). What we get instead is a bunch of self-righteous wankery.

Not only that, what we get is a passionate defense of the idea that where Britain, Germany, France, et. al all thought they were superior, the United States really is superior, really is closer to God.

Well. That pretty much justifies everything, doesn't it?

Shit, then, why are we pussyfooting around with covert ops in Iran - why not just drop a f*ckin high-yield nuke right on Tehran? It's OK! We're God's chosen people, interested only in democracy for oppressed people... those we haven't killed.

But this is the tactic the right takes, attributing only the noblest of intentions to itself, while the rest of the world goes, Hmmmm, this couldn't have anything to do with all those untapped oil reserves, could it?

That farmer in Idaho might like to think of himself as a magnanimous soul interested only in protecting the world from barbarism. But I don't hear him clamoring to go into Sudan; in fact, he's probably grousing about the amount of money we're sending for tsunami relief.

This is pure masturbation, the exact kind of thing that would have been written by a fervent nationalist in those other nations that thought themselves so superior. Their power ebbed - in Germany's case, through utter destruction. I can only hope that this sort of thinking doesn't lead the United States to a similar fate.
posted by kgasmart at 7:43 AM on January 19, 2005


This is a field which requires mental discipline and a solid grasp of logic, applied against an exactingly-defined foundation of knowledge: all qualities whose absence from this article constitute its most salient characteristic.

Well, I'd argue that it's almost algorithmic in its failures: it abstractly defines not-p, then works to explain p. I see a parade of generalities, of clichés, strung into a parody of an argument. Perhaps the tone is less inflammatory than some on the right, but that doesn't absolve Gelernter for displaying the historical sensibility of a gnat. And may be worse, since it carries the veneer of credibility.

What's most bizarre, as rdone mentioned, isn't just that Gelernter wants to yoke Americanism to Puritanism, but that he also wants to re-cast Puritanism as... well, I'll quote him: 'the humane Christian vision—the Puritan vision—the vision (ultimately) of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish people—that created this nation.'

Now, dashes are always suspect in arguments like this, because they allow the writer to imply logical progression through nothing more than narrative progression. This is a textbook case, and a microcosm of the 'assertion + assertion + assertion = proof' model of the entire essay. It's a series of elisions, and what gets slipped through is the implication that the Puritans were basically the same as the Jews leaving Israel.

Catch that ending: 'the Jewish people -- that created this nation.' You don't see the dashes as parenthetical (there are three of them, after all) and so you don't bracket out the historical lineage and treat it as an aside. As Spengler points out, that's symptomatic of a desire by Gelernter to see a unified, almost syncretic 'Judeo-Christian' heritage which was not true in the days of the first American settlers, in all their multi-denominational glory, or those of Thomas Jefferson, or Abe Lincoln, or now. (Although some seem to think so.)

Oh, and I'll point out that the quotation from Al Gore comes from a piece where the direct reference to Bush is from David Remnick's pen, not Gore's mouth. If you read the direct quotation without Remnick's editorialising, it comes across very differently. Not that I want to challenge the New Yorker's fact-checkers, but this time, I think Remnick took real liberties.
posted by riviera at 8:01 AM on January 19, 2005


As a historian of American religious and philosophical belief, Gelernter makes for a good computer scientist.

This essay doesn't even type-check.
posted by sonofsamiam at 8:09 AM on January 19, 2005


As much as I disagree with Gelernter personally, the essay does explain some of the possible religious/psychological underpinnings of 51% of Americans.

Most of the distaste for the essay here comes from the rationally minded, as if the test for veracity was logic.

Reason is dead. Truth is determined by majorities (Christian/democratically). This is America.
posted by lacus at 8:24 AM on January 19, 2005


It's a new phenomena that doesn't really compute with the images that Hollywood has been sending us for the past decades.

Thanks Timeless, yes indeed this is a great point and is in fact one of the 'issues'. There are many who have felt increasingly that Hollywood does not speak for them and are coming to understand more acutely that Hollywood is, incredibly, the main channel through which the rest of the world gets it's impression of North America (I'm including Canada in there).

I worked with a young woman of Iranian background who told me she had to explain to her aunt back in Iran that 'no all women here don't dress and act like you see in music videos.' And she says her aunt simply didn't believe there are 'churches' here found in every city and town.

Consider that when wondering why Janet J's stunt caused a little concern.
posted by scheptech at 8:31 AM on January 19, 2005


As a foreigner whose scant knowledge of the foundations of American democracy comes from a couple of long-forgotten undergraduate classes on American politics, this was, um, interesting reading.

Not so much for rigour, or intellectual depth, both of which it lacks in spades; more for Gelernter's own post-facto rationalisations, and the (possible) ideology that underlines them: so, the Declaration of Independence, "treats religion in a cool, Enlightenment sort of way" only because it was "addressed to educated elite opinion, especially abroad; it was designed to win arguments, not to capture the essence of Americanism as Americans themselves understood it." [emphasis mine]

There's a subtext here, if only because he initially sets up Americanism as an antidote to all that awful Anti-Americanism knocking around: if the DoI isn't really anything to do with Americans or Americanism, then could it, in fact, stand in opposition to real Americanism? If it's just point-winning rhetoric, why ought anyone, in America or anywhere else, believe a word of it?

Add to that logistical howlers – such as "Some approved of [Reagan] and some disapproved. Yet, to a remarkable extent, those who hated him are the ones who hate America." [emphasis Gelernter's], the implicit conclusion being, if you hate Reagan, you therefore must hate America – and you have a truly awful essay, and one that seeks to define secular Americanism out of existence.

And that's why it's interesting: no matter how skewed the attempts at logic on display, it's easy to see how this meretricious, cherry-picking bombast gets swallowed by those who wish to swallow it. Yes, it's bullshit, but for a seemingly large part of America, it's their bullshit, and by God, they're going to believe it.
posted by Len at 10:08 AM on January 19, 2005


lacus: "We are destined to rule, albeit democratically, and this is unquestionable."

slightly off topic... methinks some folks who believe this find it easy to omit the "albeit democratically" part, and are taking the "imperial force" shortcut.

/derail
posted by zoogleplex at 1:28 PM on January 19, 2005


I'm surprised no one has noted what is probably one of the kookiest ideas in the essay: the notion that Lincoln was "profoundly religious." Lincoln may well have been one of the least-religious men to hold the Presidency. I suppose Gelernter is getting this idea from some of Lincoln's speeches during the Civil War, when he became more and more fond of invoking "the Almighty." But according to Herndon, Lincoln was in fact hostile to religion and wrote a polemic against religious belief (which he was convinced to burn). He also issued a classic non-denial denial when asked about his apparent lack of faith: "I would never support a man for public office who openly scoffed at religion." [emphasis mine, of course]

He also suggests that a meeting of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams was a meeting of three profoundly religious minds. Well, one out of three ain't bad, I guess, but it is a willful misreading of history to call Jefferson and Franklin Christian or "Judeo-Christian" in any meaningful sense of the word.

Gelernter seems to confuse the use of Biblical rhetoric (which has suffused political speech throughout much of our history) with serious religious belief.
posted by lackutrol at 1:29 PM on January 19, 2005


John Winthrop was a founder of this nation; we are his heirs; and we ought to thank God that we have inherited his humanitarian decency along with his radical, God-fearing Americanism.

Translation: there's a bunch of stuff that I wish my own religio-political viewpoint to be associated with - and here I have presented it all wrapped up in a pretty, pretty bow.
posted by Sparx at 4:57 PM on January 19, 2005


It's about actions, not isms.

Aye.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:42 PM on January 19, 2005


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