American for a Day
November 10, 2008 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Canadian historian Rob MacDougall, on how Americans present movements for social change as the self-evident intentions of the nation's founders:
"[Martin Luther] King went on: 'When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note … a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' And here Sancho [Panza] or Sacvan [Bercovitch] whispers to the guy standing next to him, 'Were they? Really? If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree? … Because it would have saved a lot of trouble if they’d spelled all this out in 1789.'"
(via)
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (39 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Absolutely true--but kind of an old observation. Twenty years ago I took an undergraduate class on American social movements with Arthur Mann, and he began the course by reading from the Declaration. He then told us that what we were going to learn in the course is that successful social movements are the ones who successfully convince most Americans that their movement embodies the ideals in the Declaration.
posted by LarryC at 11:16 AM on November 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'd read this and I must admit my reaction was similar to LarryC's; in England there was a tendency to hark back to some mythical time before the "Norman yoke" to an imagined time of Anglo-Saxon free yeomanry as a justification for what were actually social innovations; similarly in China with the Golden Age of the Sage Kings. Not sure it's a particularly American phenomenon to seek antique justifications for whatever your politics happen to be.
posted by Abiezer at 11:20 AM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here’s a heresy of heresies, buried all the way down in this ridiculously long and breathless essay where I expect few will read it: many of the best reforms in Canadian history (welfare state? multiculturalism? democracy?) snuck over the border from the United States. The Canadian mindset requires less of us. It asks little suspension of disbelief.

I might find this bit less bizarre if he'd tried backing it up with, well, anything.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:27 AM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


I was just talking to someone about this. It's completely ahistorical, but nonetheless very useful to have a kind of rhetorical ploy that enables one to say that something new is really something old. It appeals to our sense of tradition and continuity. Example 1: the Christian doctrine of "Continuing Revelation," by which God is said to "reveal" new doctrines not found in the Bible. Example 2: the U.S. doctrine of the "Living Constitution," by which the same words in the same document come to have very different meanings over time. Thanks for the post.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:38 AM on November 10, 2008


I think we should stop worrying about what the Founding Fathers wanted, them being real flawed people, and begin being concerned with the hopes and dreams of the long-neglected, non-existent, ideal Columbia.

Also, batshit insanity: Could the downing of the shuttle Columbia have been a black magic ritual to abort the awakening of the Goddess Columbia?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:45 AM on November 10, 2008


This reminds me of my 8th grade civics class. Our textbook had the full text of the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution. With footnotes, one of which said "When the Founding Fathers wrote 'all men are equal' they meant to include women as well."

Nope, sorry, they didn't. They didn't even really mean all men, and I think it's to our benefit when we remember just how much *has* changed. (Yelling this at my civics teacher didn't make much of a difference, though.)
posted by nat at 12:02 PM on November 10, 2008


“I don’t really think of Jon Stewart as American,” a student told me last year.”

That there’d be a big part of the problem. He’s quintessentially American. I mean - Mark Twain? Hello?

“He convinced the better part of a nation that dismantling segregation was not so scary, not so radical, but really what they’d all meant to do all along. They just hadn’t gotten around to it, like the laundry I need to sort, or those slaves Jefferson never quite got to freeing.”

Well, this is kind of like asking why, if I believe we should stop using fossil fuels, am I driving a gas-powered car on paved roads.
‘What - I thought you said you believe in a clean environment’ - well, yeah, but nothing happens instantaneously. You have to form a vision, make a plan, and even then it takes time to execute.

Slavery was in the Americas two hundred years before the United States was founded. Jefferson, in fact, wrote that one reason they separated from the U.K. is to get away from the slavery impressed upon them by the British. Franklin as well. Franklin started the first anti-slavery society.

I mean - want to talk hypocracy, any slave that set foot in Great Britan at the time became free. Of course, all the British owned ships just moved slaves from Africa to the Americas. They brought molasses and cotton - presumably free once it hit dirt - to the U.K.

Slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in 1780.
Other colonies (as they became states) soon followed. Hell we didn’t even win the war until 1783.
And once we did, Washington signed into law the prohibition of slavery in the territories (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, etc).

The colonies (remember we weren’t always a big powerful country?) tried, in fact, to get rid of slavery and the king put a stop to that.
And ok, Jefferson didn’t get rid of his, but many founding fathers (John Dickinson, Ceasar Rodney, William Livingston, George Washington, George Wythe, John Randolph) eventually freed theirs.

...of course, some of those freed slaves got captured and re-enslaved, which might offer some insight as to why Jefferson didn’t cut his loose.

But from the Constitutional Convention - it was clear the three-fifths clause was an antislavery provision.
So it was, in fact, written into the foundation of the country. MLK knew that - not to take away from his astute use as a tactic - but he didn’t rewrite any history.

This guy is a history teacher?

We don’t follow the founders like we’re some sort of marionettes pulled by the strings of history. We recognize that what they said in terms of human values and human rights were as timeless as what Socrates had to say.

We’re not delusional believers in some dream or myth.
“Real America” is the lie and the delusion.
Ours are eternal truths. That’s hard for a man to live up to much less a whole country. But we’re trying.

The music he’s missing, the idea he’s not getting is that it’s not a “great and noble promise” that gets broken - it is rather an ideal. And one that we often fail to live up to.

And one that in each generation we gird ourselves - once again - to try. And when we again don’t make it, it’s not a betrayal, it’s a failure.
Because the bar was set so high. Because - “Really?” yeah, really.
The myth is the eternal renewal of ourselves to this task, not the task of realizing those ideals itself.

Being an American, although we do fail, at least we try.
And sometimes even in spite of ourselves we move one inch closer to a more perfect union where all men are created equal.

"Many of the white people who have been instruments in the hands of God for our good, even such as have held us in captivity, are now pleading our cause with earnestness and zeal."
- Richard Allen

130 years after slavery, a black skinned man is President? You’re damned right - ‘Really.’ If we didn’t first dream it, it never would have happened.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:05 PM on November 10, 2008 [7 favorites]


MSTPT, you got the waterworks going again (this seems to be my default state this week). Thanks for a great link. (Going back to read the thread now.)
posted by nax at 12:07 PM on November 10, 2008


I think that's why Obama was especially effective in discussing America as being "perfectable" -- that is, that the founders built into the country the idea of endlessly toiling to create a "more perfect union." In this way, we don;'t have to so much worry about whether the founding father's would have agreed with any specific policy, because we knew they agreed that the Union is imperfect, made my imperfect people, and must evolve toward perfection over time.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:20 PM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Referring back to the "founder's vision" is a normal political tactic, not unique to the USA. Julius Caesar's pitched his attack on the senate of Rome as a restoration of an older, freer model of the Roman Republic. I don't necessarily think this enforces the idea that the USA is a new Rome or declining like Rome, which has been kind of vogue lately.

As for Canada's national narrative, traditionally it was Queen/King and country/Empire - it evolved a bit into "Peace, Order and Good Government", and has floundered a bit since the creation of the Charter and the Canada Act - since our Charter doesn't have "inalienable rights" Canadian rights can always be trumped by judicial decisions and community standards - and parts of our country have never signed on to the constitution. There is no document, or point in history that Canadians can point to and say that was were Canada was formed - The battle on the Plains of Abraham, the War of 1812-1815, Confederation in 1867, The British North America Act, The Battle of Vimy Ridge, Patriation of the Constitution, etc, etc can all be claimed as "founding events" and they are all problematic enough not to have wide acceptance.

All this means is that Canadian identity in the 21st century is a very squishy concept and therefore very hard for a politician to appeal to. I think Trudeau (and the prior leaders who chipped away the British identity, not for some good reason) expected that from his reforms, and modernizations for a new kind of Canadian to emerge, but he ended up with a bunch of little Canadas - we have regional and sometimes ethnic identity - but national identity? Not so much. That said, the Canadian federation is full of compromises, trade-offs, and a bunch of competing interests - it is not simple or undemanding in the least.
posted by Deep Dish at 12:25 PM on November 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


Interesting commentary smedleyman, but I always thought of the three-fifths solution as a realpolitik move to increase representation for the less-populous southern states, not an anti-slavery position.
posted by Mister_A at 1:00 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't see any inconsistency at all. The Founders were people of their times. They didn't seek to assign rights to people that were disenfranchised at the time. They couldn't have predicted how the first, second, or fourth amendments would play out when faced with the technologies that have since arisen.

But in framing their documents, as they did, with reference to ideals rather than specifics, and incorporating the action of argument and reason from Enlightenment thought right into the process of nation-making and governance, they fully expected that people in future times would apply this thought to the unpredictable problems and challenges arising in those later times. They sought to write a document that would endure the ages. As such, they wrote it broadly, with an understanding that it would require interpretation and adjudication, and they specified the processes by which that would happen. They knew the Constitution would undergo so much interpretation that they told us exactly how to change it - they didn't pretend to know what we would want or need two hundred-some years later, or how we would apply the ideals to present problems.

They may not have envisioned a future in which slavery was abolished in the nation they were creating (though they probably could imagine it - antislavery was already a well established cause), but they allowed for it. Of course all American social movements reference the founding documents. They are American social movements and they seek changed American social systems. Without referencing the documents, asking for change in the system governed by them is random and arbitrary. The documents state our ideals; activists wish to argue that their changes will bring us closer to the stated ideals.

I don't think it's a great essay; it's a college-freshman sort of set of observations. It is precisely because of the conflict between actions and ideals that change happens in this country, using a process spelled out in the documents. It's no accident.
posted by Miko at 1:29 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always thought of the three-fifths solution as a realpolitik move to increase representation for the less-populous southern states, not an anti-slavery position.

It was the first time any amount of personhood was acknowledged as embodied in enslaved people. It was a bit of a beachhead.
posted by Miko at 1:30 PM on November 10, 2008


But from the Constitutional Convention - it was clear the three-fifths clause was an antislavery provision.

No, as Mister_A says it was a gift to the southern slaveholders to provide them an unwarranted degree of representation (without which they would have walked, or so they convinced everyone). It did absolutely nothing for the slaves and was in no sense an antislavery provision.

It was the first time any amount of personhood was acknowledged as embodied in enslaved people. It was a bit of a beachhead.

So if a law was passed giving tax breaks to people with dogs, that would be a beachhead for canine rights?

I don't think it's a great essay

It's a blog post, for Christ's sake. Why does everything that gets linked here get analyzed as if it were up for Greatest Thing Ever Written? It's an enjoyable little piece on one man's point of view, it's nicely self-mocking ("I know Americans and the world woke up this morning with one burning question on their minds: 'How, Rob, does this historic election affect you?'"), and I liked it. Thanks, Marisa Stole the Precious Thing!
posted by languagehat at 1:43 PM on November 10, 2008


Mister_A, it was both. The slave states wanted the boost that counting slaves would give them in Congressional representation. The free states wanted them to have none of that. The 3/5 figure was what they arrived at as a compromise, because it was more important at the time to get a working Constitution. Another salient point was to derive an accurate census so that the states would fairly share taxation responsibilities.

Federalist No. 54 discusses the debate in detail.

I think this essay misses the necessity of framing reform as derived from within an extant system. Even as it was, King faced charges of being a communist and a revolutionary. If he hadn't carefully modulated his rhetoric within the expectations of the white audience, he would have had nowhere near the support that he did.

This is evident in part in the debate over whether it was the American civil rights movement, or the African-American civil rights movement. The latter does have some serious academic currency, but I believe strongly that King would have preferred the former name. Keeping in mind that "African-American" is a term popularized by Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. He was not fighting for the civil rights of Negroes only. He carefully allied himself with whites, Hispanics, and the labor movement. He made it clear that solidarity was necessary. I think that he truly believed that if any American is deprived of his individual human rights, then we all are: that none of us is free if any of us is unfree.

To come from within this tradition is not, I think, some kind of fantastic projection of modern values onto dead men, but to harness the strength and resilience of the system in such a way that it further guarantees the longevity of any reform.

Put it another way. If you posit that the Constitution is broken and needs changing, you are effectively denying it special status. You are saying that any time judgement changes, the Constitution should. While this may be true and defensible as a rational argument, I don't think it is politically wise, and I don't think it will make your reform stick the way you might like. (Cf. Prop 8.)
posted by dhartung at 1:46 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


The founders were indeed "people of their times". Which means they had a world view that was constrained to those times. Slavery, during the founders time, was an open question. As a bunch of people note above, there is plenty of documentation to show that many politicians of the age disagreed with slavery.

However, I don't think that makes MacDougall's point any less valid. What was written into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a world view of White, land-owning males as the pinnacle of the social, economic, and political hierarchy. None of the founders were advocating a shift in that world view of class, race, or gender. Don't forget, these were the guys that created the U.S. Senate, a house of lords style body that wasn't subject to the "will of the people" until 1913 (although in 17 states it was earlier).

MacDougall's point was simply that each successive generation reinterprets the Constitution and Declaration according to their current social, economic, and political world view.

It sounds like the article was intended for a more Canadian audience. As others already noted, what he's written is not news to American school children.
posted by herda05 at 1:50 PM on November 10, 2008


“MacDougall's point was simply that each successive generation reinterprets the Constitution and Declaration according to their current social, economic, and political world view.”

Yes, but the document was structured to be reinterpreted - ‘amended’ one might say - by design, while preserving the ideals.
It’s not like each generation radically redesigns the country. We’re all looking the same way. Well, most of us are. It’s the assholes only out for themselves in the “Real America” causing all the problems.

“but I always thought of the three-fifths solution as a realpolitik move to increase representation for the less-populous southern states,”

Well, counting them as full persons would have done that. The north wanted slaves uncounted since they were legally property like mules. The south wanted them counted as whole persons despite their legal status. So it was a compromise, with the opponents of slavery restricting some of the south’s political power.
The three-fifths provision applied only to slaves, not free black men in the north or south - so it was sort of a carrot. Plus each slave that escaped went from 3/5th in the south to full representation in the north.
Southern states got less pro-slavery representatives in congress.
From there the screws continued to turn - Article 1, Section 9 limited congress from prohibiting importation of slaves until 1808 - so it was a 20 year compromise with a deadline after which congress outlawed the slave trade on the first day they could (January 1, 1808)

I’m not arguing they were saints or were all on board with this - but I don’t think there’s any question there was a design in the plan.

I’m no genius like Franklin, Jefferson, etc. - they were some of the finest most educated minds on Earth at that time.
But if I’m looking at the decades after the founding of my country - I’m going to know that I’m laying the ground for a conflict there.

Maybe not a civil war, but there’s going to be strife. And if that’s the case I’m going to want the country to be able to recover after the revolutionary war. So I don’t want to press the issue now when I not only don’t know that the country won’t shatter, but I don’t even know if I’ll win - especially since other countries are still running slaves. I know they’ll have allies.
So 20 years, ok, I can wait as long as I know I’ve loaded the dice beforehand. Work on foreign affairs. Get other countries to stop making it easy to run slaves, burden the south, build up the north (industry, shipping, send nothern food to England, etc.)
Even then the civil war wasn’t a gimme. I think the north’s victory was - given equal levels of will there - inevitable. It’s just a shame the south had so many brilliant strategists (Lee, Morgan, Jackson, Watie - who was a Cherokee, Mosby, etc.)
posted by Smedleyman at 2:55 PM on November 10, 2008


This sort of reminds me of a lot of intellectual work / treatises during produced during the middle ages. Even when a scholar was totally breaking with previous knowledge, he would go to great pains to make it seem as if he was just clarifying or building upon what the "great fathers" (i.e., classical Greek and Roman thinkers) had always meant all along. My area of (former) expertise is music treatises, so an example that i can think of is Boethius's treatises (The Consolation of Philosophy), where he creates a substantially new cosmology / metaphysics of music, but attributes it to classical Greeks. Same thing can be said about the treatises on polyphony in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

Any history of music theory specialists on here? It's been a while since I've done reading on this.
posted by LMGM at 3:35 PM on November 10, 2008


It's funny it reminds me of law school. In any given class where there was a constitutional law issue there were always a group of kids who would just fight tooth and nail to prove that the "right thing" was in fact the constitutional thing. It just never seemed to occur to them that the "wrong thing" could indeed be constitutional, because while I have great respect for the constitution it is hardly a flawless document or the embodiment of morality. Now I don't take the counter position either that the founders were just some old white racist men, I do think they were brilliant and by and large had progressive values that were leaps and bounds ahead of their time, but the idea that our founders were perfect and that our country should always be in whatever image they cast for it is just insane. I mean even the founders admitted some changes were going to have to be made, otherwise they wouldn't have put into place a system to amend the constitution.
posted by whoaali at 3:40 PM on November 10, 2008


Contrary to MacDougall, I'd say that Canadians are highly idealistic dreamers, at least as much so as Americans. The difference, as I see it, is that Canadians (including our politicians) seem to be more willing to publicly admit that a lot of our history has been quite ugly, showing no sign of having being influenced by the ideals we now hold dear. We don't think that our forefathers secretly held values just like ours today, nor do we think that we can make a clean break with the past that would excuse us from responsibility for historical injustice.

Onward from our shameful past! It's a slogan that tempers the most radical idealism with quite a bit of modesty.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, 1968:
Liberalism is the philosophy for our time, because it does not try to conserve every tradition of the past, because it does not apply to new problems the old doctrinaire solutions, because it is prepared to experiment and innovate and because it knows that the past is less important than the future.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:51 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


'Were they? Really? If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree?

I don't know and asking isn't really practical-duh! But the ideas that they set forth lay the groundwork for anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia and make it easier to appeal to patriotism and pride to combat these things and since I consider myself a patriot, I'm glad to use them.
posted by jonmc at 4:13 PM on November 10, 2008


“It just never seemed to occur to them that the "wrong thing" could indeed be constitutional, because while I have great respect for the constitution it is hardly a flawless document or the embodiment of morality.”

Well, it’s by design an ongoing compromise with a slow payoff so some things might be “wrong” but overall...

It’s like the old joke about the old guy and the stupid kid. The kid walks past this old guy’s house who’s saying how stupid kids are today and how bad they are at math and value and he says to his friend “Look, I’ll show you.”

He calls the kid over and shows him a dollar bill and two quarters. He says “Do you want this *one* dollar or these *two* quarters?”
And the kid says “I’ll take the two quarters!” and walks off.

So the guy says “See, kids today are stupid.”
And his buddy sees the kid later and asks him “Son, don’t you know that one dollar is worth more than two quarters?”

And the kid says “Sure. But if I take the dollar he’ll never offer me money again.”
posted by Smedleyman at 4:16 PM on November 10, 2008


Americans present movements for social change as the self-evident intentions of the nation's founders.

That's because social change was the self-evident intent of the founders.

Remember, slavery was seen as dying in 1787 and the Constitution itself specifically prohibited slave importation after 1804. The founders explicitly discussed that America was not ready for all of this, but that it would be. And they designed their document to be amended. That demostrates an intent to provide political vehicles to recognize political change.

Finally, the words themselves lend themselves to a vision of human freedom that was verbally maximalist--they declared it to be self-evident that all men were created equal. How could a revolutionary government not concieve of a future which would involve change? They were asserting a social change themselves--no nobility or king--ideas that had tremendous social impact.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:01 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


the U.S. Senate, a house of lords style body that wasn't subject to the "will of the people" until 1913

Actually, I've always been of the opinion that, while I like voting for my Senators and it's unlikely that people like Russ Feingold would be there without the popular vote, something is lost in the system. The Senators originally represented the interests state governments in the federal balance of power. Whenever you see a movement marked by, say, an association of state attorneys general, that's something that might have a voice in Congress but for the popular vote, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 PM on November 10, 2008


Being a Canadian living in America, Bercovitch said, was like being Sancho Panza in a nation of Don Quixotes. There was a secret everybody knew but him, a music everybody else but him could hear. Remember, Sancho Panza is Quixote’s pragmatic sidekick. Sancho knows that Quixote is delusional and deranged–where Quixote sees giants, Sancho sees only windmills–but he comes to envy his master’s world of enchantment.

This is so true, especially in the last election. I'm very happy that a candidate of great thought and good policies has been elected, but I can't really hear the euphoric music than so many seem to. People talk about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution - and these things are so important to them, and I only understand a straight forward (and rebellious) political document, or what seems to be a very limiting written set of rules. And I don't really understand all the racial significance - I'm more excited at seeing the election of a Keynesian than an African American. (I do have to wonder how many progressives would feel if Condolezza Rice had been the first African American president - I think it would be a much more bittersweet moment. She's a remarkable lady, but like that other remarkable lady, Mrs Thatcher, a woman to be admired and profoundly disagreed with.)

“I don’t really think of Jon Stewart as American,” a student told me last year.”

That there’d be a big part of the problem. He’s quintessentially American. I mean - Mark Twain? Hello?


But he sounds just like Rick Mercer. Of course, Mercer is a Newfie, and some of them want to separate... (don't know about Mercer).

-------------

Smedleyman - that is a very insulting dismissal of someone who has put a great deal of thought into studying the past - and your comment strikes me as very anachronistic and not historically informed. Just because you don't like someone's interpretation of history doesn't mean there isn't evidence to support it.

American Racism(TM) was invented by British people in the Americas. It didn't make sense to British people in Britain - they had their own kind of racism(s), but different - because they didn't have a large enslaved black population. The details and specificity of racism in what was to become the US developed within the context of American slavery - and also fears of what would happen if that system would be upset. Whereas British racism developed in a colonial context - it's still racist, but it has different concerns/fears/constructions of the other. Just as each colony (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Canada, New Zealand, Australia) have constructed their own forms of racism that are context dependant - and it's part of what begins to create new national cultures in these places. (Not all, obviously - but this is the dark side to the slow evolution of British settlers into South Africans or Canadians or Americans).

The British Isles certainly indirectly benefited from slavery and I would be the first to say that the British industrial revolution needed Carribean slavery (much more important than slavery in the 13 colonies at the time) to happen. But in both societies - colonial and British-based - there are also serious debates about the morality of slavery. That famous 18th century court decision (against slavery within Britain itself) was itself proceeded by a couple of others which supported it. The whole British society - which stretched from the English Channel to the Appalachian mountains - was engaged in a debate about slavery. As it was, both the young US and Britain banned the slave trade at about the same time in the early 1800s, but slavery was banned in the majority of the British Empire*, including the very lucrative Carribean colonies (worth so much more to Britain than the 13 colonies of the mainland) in 1833 - a generation before the US. I don't think this was because the British were less racist, but they were less politically tied to slavery and slave-owners were a significant but not as powerful political block.

*There were exceptions - the possessions of the East India Company which were kind of in and kind of outside the Empire, and Sri Lanka and St Helena - I don't know why.)

The relationship between the Revolution and slavery is very complex, and (not being a historian of America) I would never claim to understand all of it. But I have read quite a few newspapers from the period from both Britain and the 13 colonies, and there certainly is a rhetoric of how Americans would not be "slaves" - but most users of this language didn't make the connection that if it was wrong for them to be slaves, than it was wrong for anyone to be slaves. (A few did, and they are to be admired). At the time, American rhetoric against slavery was directly connected to the actual reality of slavery, but in the sense that it was a horrible thing that white people should be in "slavery" - because that would make them like black people. Thus, you get anti-slavery rhetoric from slave owners, and this rhetoric is all the more powerful to people who have seen slavery and are determined that they should be nothing like the slaves they despise.

--------------------

This is off-topic, but you have to take what he says seriously. He isn't writing about the reality of America, but how America is understood by Canadians. And what he says rings very true.
posted by jb at 10:36 AM on November 11, 2008


Basically, Canadians are a lot more cynical about American rhetoric than Americans are. We are immersed in it to a greater degree than just about any other country other than the US, but we are always outside, and are kept outside by the rhetoric itself.

We don't believe that North America was settled by people yearning to be free (the whole "freedom of religion" thing is a crock - the puritains were fanatics fleeing other fanatics and set up their own little fanatic and intolerant kingdoms), but by opportunistic English and Scots and Irish (and Germans, and Dutch, and French, and Spanish...) hoping to get farms/plantations/kill some beavers/pull cod out of the ocean in a bucket. (Note: this is also our heritage, and in a wider sense the heritage of every colonial society on the planet.)

The way we are taught, your Revolution was not about freedom, but about the unwillingness to pay taxes, anti-Catholocism (anger at the British gov't for giving freedom of religion for Catholics in Quebec is one of the 'forgotten' causes of the Revolution) and the desire to take Native American land away from them in the Ohio valley (the other forgotten reason). As an adult and a history student, I have come to realise that it was also about the desire for local legislatures which could not be overruled by Westminster - and this certainly was a principal of freedom and self-rule (limited to white men with the franchise, of course).

But we certainly see your country as no more perfectable, your union no more perfect, your culture no more forward-looking than many others on the planet. That's not to say that it isn't perfectable - just that it isn't more perfectable. I was always so angry at Obama's line "in no other country is my story possible" -- I acknowledge that no other white majority country has elected a non-white politician as the head of government (which is to be admired) -- but his general point (about non-white citizens finding equality and social opportunity) is insulting to everyone else in the enlightened world who have worked to create similarly tolerant societies. (Though personally, I have always found the American idea of a "melting-pot" more problematic in its tolerance of cultural and ethnic (as opposed to skin colour) difference than Canadian (and British and other places) ideas of multi-culturalism. )

And our health care system is way more perfected :)

This all sounds a bit harsh - and I should take the advice of the author of this excellent post and try to really put myself into the place of Americans and to understand how their reconstruction of their history is maybe a bit white-washed, but also inspiring to many, and how Americans take seriously the ideals which they (perhaps reading with rose-coloured glasses) see in the documents of their founding fathers.

But I think you also have to take seriously our perspective - and another dimension of rhetoric which is not addressed in this essay. Where can Canadians (and other citizens of the world) fit in your world view? What does it mean when you say AMERICA is the home of democracy, the home of progress, the only place of social opportunity? This is very exclusionary - it is a view which sets the US against the rest of the world. It is not a rhetoric which embraces a human story of learning to develop societies of tolerance and good government, one in which people from all over the world are participating in and contributing to (and sadly, the counter-revolution is equally world-wide). American rhetoric don't simply say "isn't it wonderful that we have moved so far," which is completely and totally wonderful, but "only in America" is it possible. Now, I realise that Obama was running for election in, you know, America - but you have to think about what that rhetoric means to someone who is not American.
posted by jb at 11:04 AM on November 11, 2008


The British Isles certainly indirectly benefited from slavery

Good comment...but the British Isles benefited directly from slavery. We look too much at raw materials and not enough at the flow of capital, which was a river of gold for the British Empire during the colonial era.

but his general point (about non-white citizens finding equality and social opportunity) is insulting to everyone else in the enlightened world who have worked to create similarly tolerant societies.

I think people misunderstand what the point was. They overgeneralize - he wasn't talking about the possibility of non-majority leadership as a general issue. He wasn't saying that only in this country can non-white citizens can have equality and social opportunity (which Obama is worldly enough to know quite well, and I don't ever think he'd say that).

It's that only in this country, in which there was de jure segregation until 1964 and de facto segregation long afterward, in which there was a legal program creating second-class citizens of people like himself only 44 years ago which has been gradually dismantled using the same system of law, an arc which his lifetime almost perfectly matches, is this story possible. Only someone born at this specific time and place could embody these dramatic changes so completely. It's an American story because it's about American conditions of history.
posted by Miko at 11:14 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually, the stuff about "the way we are taught" the American Revolution isn't just Canadian propaganda, it's simply the darker side of the Revolution which scholars are very aware of, but is not necessarily strong in American public rhetoric - is it taught in American schools?

The issue of schooling comes back to something which was brought up earlier: One of the reasons Canadian popular history is quite dark for our own national story (talking about all of the problems) is that we have a relatively non-politicised history curriculum at the school age. This isn't a claim to be better - it's just that Canadian politicians haven't been organised enought to make school history a "nation-building" project (as it is in very many countries, as well as some - but not all? - places in the United States). Instead, they tend to ignore what is taught, and so the history teachers take over and just do what they did in university only dummed down. So our history classes don't teach us a coherant national story, but just a jumble of Native Canadian culture, discovery, settlement, fighting between English and French, more settlement, some rebellions that didn't succeed but there were good reasons for, then discrimination against Chinese immigrants and others, and then a war, and some depression and another war and somewhere along there we became a fully independant country...

Which is kind of how history works. There is no destiny. There is no plan. There are just a bunch of people doing things, and these things add up to movements, and stuff happens and the world changes and that's history.

We do skip over the huge amount of corruption that is the heart of Confederation. But I think that is because it is at once complicated and boring (involving money and railway scandals, not sex scandals).

-------------------

Good comment...but the British Isles benefited directly from slavery. We look too much at raw materials and not enough at the flow of capital, which was a river of gold for the British Empire during the colonial era.

Good point - I was thinking of capital specifically when I said "indirectly", but there is a very good argument that this was a direct benefit.


I think people misunderstand what the point was....
It's that only in this country, in which there was de jure segregation until 1964 and de facto segregation long afterward, in which there was a legal program creating second-class citizens of people like himself only 44 years ago which has been gradually dismantled using the same system of law, an arc which his lifetime almost perfectly matches, is this story possible. Only someone born at this specific time and place could embody these dramatic changes so completely. It's an American story because it's about American conditions of history.
posted by Miko at 2:14 PM on November 11


I'm sorry, but I don't really understand. That's like saying "Only in America is it possible to become the President of the United States of America" (well, duh). If you get that specific, it ceases to be a meaningful statement.

For it to have any meaning (and thus to be worth saying in the first place), I have to interpret his statement as either generously as 'only in America is it possible to be born of a low-status minority race and become the leader of the country' (and that's still a bit bad because the implication is not that it has only happened in the US - which is true and to be admired - but that it is only possible in the US, because every other first world country is too racist), or more generally as I said above, that 'only in America is it possible for a member of a low-status minority race to become go to (one of the) best universities and be very successful', which is, of course, more insulting. Maybe he meant that the United States was the only place where the child of a single mother who was once on social assistance could go to the Ivy League - which would actually be the most insulting interpretation of his statement. I know a Canadian who was the child of a single mother who has gone to the Ivy League - and their mother wasn't a graduate student, but someone who hadn't finished high school, they didn't live on food stamps briefly (as Obama did) but on welfare for years. Social mobility in the United States is nothing to be boasted about - it was once one of the best in developed world, but has been going downhill since and now is outstripped by many other first world countries. Given a choice, I would be born poor in Canada in a heartbeat before being born poor in the US.

(Note that I said 'minority race', because already countries which have had much more recent segregation overturned and have since been headed by members of the low-status, but majority, race - South Africa being exhibit A.)

I'm upset by this because I have blood relatives whose mothers are white and whose fathers are black and who have done very well, thank you, not living in America. Sure, they can never be president of the US (what with the whole "native-born" clause), but my black aunt is the most financially successful person in her whole white extended family. We have many non-white members of Parliament from many races, though we are a more 'white-bread' country (only about 9% of Canadians are what Stats Can calls 'visible minorities' - that is non-white and non-Native, though nearly 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities). And, of course, the majority of our recent PMs have been from the francophone minority (who had, until recently, a lower status than anglophones, but were never as low status as African Americans).

We have racism in Canada - very serious racism we need to talk about. But this is the kind of rhetoric of "American Exceptionalism" I was talking about - a rhetoric which lays claim to a worldwide movement against racism and for social mobility and which steals it away from the rest of us to claim it solely for one country. If America embraces this movement and believes that it should be part of the vanguard, this is wonderful. Just don't deny your allies.

It's as annoying as claiming the US won WWII.
posted by jb at 11:46 AM on November 11, 2008


Actually, the stuff about "the way we are taught" the American Revolution isn't just Canadian propaganda, it's simply the darker side of the Revolution which scholars are very aware of, but is not necessarily strong in American public rhetoric - is it taught in American schools?

That's true. It's taught in some schools. Schools vary so much. Most basic history textbooks take a progressivist view. But private schools often take a more objectivist view, or critical/challenging approach, as do some of the better individual history teachers. Like everything else in American education, it's uneven. Where this view is more often taught is in college surveys. It's certainly familiar enough to most Americans with a little bit of interest in history.

I'm sorry, but I don't really understand. That's like saying "Only in America is it possible to become the President of the United States of America" (well, duh). If you get that specific, it ceases to be a meaningful statement.

I do still think you don't get it, and since I've been caught up a few times in trying to explain how Americans hear this statement to non-Americans, I'm starting to feel it's futile. He is, to some degree, saying "Only in America is it possible to become the President of the United States of America." He really is - though you should remember that when he said that, he wasn't President, and he was talking about "his story," not the Presidency. And his story really is only possible in America, because it's a story about the unique conditions of late 20th century America and the enormous social change that those fifty years wrought in individual lives. What most Americans are hearing is "Only in America is it possible that someone born into segregation could see, in his lifetime, the nation's legal process used to change conditions so much that segregation ends, discrimination becomes illegal, and racial barriers to achievement fall sufficiently that I can be elected to representative office by the same race of people who were using the nation's legal process to make me drink from separate water fountains forty years ago."
posted by Miko at 12:18 PM on November 11, 2008


Oh, also, I wanted to comment about the American public education system has never been separate from political ends because of the assumptions under which it was founded and the way it's managed, with local control and through elected public office. So that's one reason it takes as a basic goal the education of the citizenry, usually with an embedded assumption of a favorable view of America as not a series of random and economically driven changes, but as a gradual progress toward the realization of ideals. But I have to go.
posted by Miko at 12:22 PM on November 11, 2008


I was always so angry at Obama's line "in no other country is my story possible"

If it really makes you "so angry" when a candidate for office appeals to national or local pride in his campaign rhetoric, you are never, ever, going to be anything other than seethingly furious for the rest of your life.

For it to have any meaning

...you have to interpret it as campaign rhetoric for which you are not the target, not as a serious discourse on the history of racial tolerance throughout the world.

Now, I realise that Obama was running for election in, you know, America - but you have to think about what that rhetoric means to someone who is not American.

What it should mean to someone who is not American is "Obama was trying to win election in the US by appealing to pride in being American and pride in the story of the American civil rights struggle, which is at least better than the recent history of actually winning election by appealing to bloodlust and fear."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:31 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


“Just because you don't like someone's interpretation of history doesn't mean there isn't evidence to support it.”

I didn’t mean to sound dismissive of the whole of the piece. The bit that said Jefferson & Co. should have mentioned something about not liking slavery struck me as very very poorly informed for someone who studies history.
I myself have only informally studied history (as a component of military study) and I knew better.
Such statements exist in multitude. His statement said they did not. He’s wrong. It’s not a matter of interpretation.
I understand it may have been meant slightly in cheek.
But his futher illustration is extrapolated from that point.
So I found it lacking a solid foundation. And provided ample evidence to the contrary.
While my method and rhetoric might have been harsh, I think taking the time to address the points and provide evidence to the contrary does show respect to his argument, rather than simply being dismissive.
It’s not as though I simply said “Whatever”

“He isn't writing about the reality of America, but how America is understood by Canadians.”

That I have no expertise on and will have to wholly cede.
If that’s how we’re viewed, we should really get our act together.
Although electing Obama is a pretty good start I think.

“We don't believe that North America was settled by people yearning to be free (the whole "freedom of religion" thing is a crock - the puritains were fanatics fleeing other fanatics and set up their own little fanatic and intolerant kingdoms”

Well, lotta Jews came here after WWII. We gave some folks refuge. Lot of anti-semitism as well. But I think a lot of people did, in fact, seek and get shelter here. I grant there’s another side of the story, but what are we supposed to do? Emphasize that and wallow in dispair? “Oh we totally suck”

No, we emphasize the positive and try to live up to it.

“The way we are taught, your Revolution was not about freedom...”

Well, it’s on a lot of foundational documents. Again, we’re trying.

“Where can Canadians (and other citizens of the world) fit in your world view? What does it mean when you say AMERICA is the home of democracy, the home of progress, the only place of social opportunity? This is very exclusionary - it is a view which sets the US against the rest of the world.”

Y’know what’s exclusionary? Being forced to answer for rhetoric I don’t spout and getting blamed for forces I myself - and many other Americans - strongly oppose.
Many people - including myself - including right here - do, in fact, say “isn't it wonderful that we have moved so far” and don’t say “only in America.”

Furthermore - why the hell am I responsible for what you don’t understand or what you feel upset by when I don’t have a damned thing to do with it?

The story of Hamlet couldn’t have taken place under other conditions. There’s a drama to Obama’s story that is uniquely American.

Or aren’t we allowed to have our own fucking national identity without having to answer for every atrocity in our history?
Hell, it’s not like we’re mostly French descended or we’re all one color or have a history that goes back thousands of years.

“It's as annoying as claiming the US won WWII.”

Yeah, Britain was only biding her time lulling the Nazis into a false sense of security by taking wave after wave of bombardment. They had it in the bag.
No, you’re right, the Allies won WWII. And Russia had a lot to do with that too.
But if the U.S. didn’t enter that war the world would look very very differently.
I’m speaking objectively here as a student of military history.
Don’t act like the U.S. was not the biggest gorilla in the room. Granted - for good or for ill.
But it’s like saying there were other things going on in Europe than the Roman empire and why do they get all the attention.
Well, yeah, but c’mon. They were the show. Some tribal in-fighting in Denmark at the time didn’t do as much to change the course of world history as one general crossing a river with one legion.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:57 PM on November 11, 2008


I'm sorry, but I don't really understand. That's like saying "Only in America is it possible to become the President of the United States of America" (well, duh). If you get that specific, it ceases to be a meaningful statement.

Just to emphasize and summarize what Miko and ROU_Xenophobe have said so well, it's not a "meaningful statement" in the sense that a philosophy paper is a meaningful statement; it's a piece of campaign rhetoric. It's not meant to appeal to you (though it's not meant to piss you off, either—you are insisting on interpreting it as annoyingly as possible, and then you get annoyed by it), it's meant to appeal to American voters, most of whom (and I'm sorry if this shocks you) are patriotic. To treat a campaign statement as a logical argument is silly.
posted by languagehat at 3:03 PM on November 11, 2008


I would like to commend he thread for not trotting out the "USians" trope. Your restraint, if I may, could only happen in America on Metafilter.
posted by nax at 5:43 PM on November 11, 2008


First off, I wish to apologize to any and all Americans who feel that my "yous" (meant to be hypothetical persons) was meant to apply to all Americans. I've been trying to talk about a certain kind of "American rhetoric" which I don't believe that all Americans use, but which is in use in the United States. (So the "you" and "your" was meant to apply to the users of that rhetoric). I realize that my own rhetoric was very sweeping and strongly implied that all Americans believe this - and that was wrong, so I'm sorry. I was really responding to a certain strain of rhetoric which came out even in the speeches of someone I otherwise deeply admire (Obama).

Also, I fully understand that Obama was running for the Presidency of the United States. For one, the house is a lot more impressive than 24 Sussex Drive (Can PMs house). And I understand that every election will involve a great deal of "our beautiful nation" and "our American 'yes we can' spirit", and that stuff - and it all washed right off my back because it's just like how every country is convinced its mountains are the pointiest and its praries are not.

But it was specifically this phrase "only in America" that irked me, because I don't believe that it was simply campaign rhetoric but a sincere belief of many, many Americans. There are many Americans who would be shocked, for instance, to find out that American social mobility (the ever vaunted American "opportunity") is lower than some European countries. And his whole "only in America" story was about essentially about social mobility, whether interpreted as racial social mobility/acceptance or socio-economic or both. And I care a great deal about social mobility - some people care about clubbing baby seals, but for me, it's barriers to social mobility that boil my kettle. So to see a very profoundly intelligent and well-informed man apparently promoting what I see as a dangerous myth about the current nature of American society - as well as implicitly insulting other societies which have worked damn hard to try to improve social mobility and which have done so without the same economic or resource base - that does really bother me.

And also because I don't believe that America is an exceptional country. It is a unique country - as is every country on the planet. But to claim that it is "exceptional" goes a step too far - America is a country which shares a great deal with many other countries, including tense race relations and a changing race situation. Again, it's a unique situation. But not an exceptional one.

Obama wasn't talking about a unique American story - or else he wouldn't say ONLY in America. He used the ONLY purposely - it's an implicit comparison. Any other reading just becomes an attempt to explain this away. Now, he was running for election in America, and engaging in a certain kind of rhetoric. I am saying that I find this type of American Exceptionalist rhetoric bad. It's bad for America because it discourages looking at what is happening outside of America and picking up good ideas being developed elsewhere, and it can make Americans complacent about what they have acheived. (And yes, annoying for the rest of the world which has been doing a lot of stuff rarely noticed in the US. And very bad when the most extreme proponents of American Exceptionalism - the neocons - use this as an excuse to go around pushing their own ideas of how things should be done, because clearly they know what is right.)

Obama's story, in its wider sense, is not uniquely American. His own father experienced the same remarkable changes in society in Kenya, which passed from white minority rule to black around the time of Obama's birth; his father worked in a position for the government which would not have been possible a generation before. In 2006, Bolivia elected its first fully indiginous head of state since the Spanish conquest. All over the world, members of low-status groups are gaining status - and this is wonderful.

-----------------------------------

"We don't believe that North America was settled by people yearning to be free (the whole "freedom of religion"... [me]

Well, lotta Jews came here after WWII. We gave some folks refuge. Lot of anti-semitism as well. But I think a lot of people did, in fact, seek and get shelter here. I grant there’s another side of the story, but what are we supposed to do? Emphasize that and wallow in dispair? “Oh we totally suck” [Smedleyman]


Hey, I'm a historian of England. "We suck" is a mandatory chapter in every book. Also something about "green and pleasant land".

No, to be serious, this isn't about dissing the US, it's about looking at History with the warts and all, which means we understand how things happened better. So the early settlement of Massachusetts wasn't about religious freedom but about creating a colony for a particular kind of Calvinist, which explains why they don't have religious freedom in the 17th century (they do get it ...eventually, but annoyingly kept the blue laws); the early settlement of Pennsylvania was about religious freedom, which is where there were so many Quakers, but also Mennonites and other religious groups, and early religious diversity.

But the bulk of settlers to North America were economic settlers, and it should be taught that way or else its a distortion of the history. History should be no more distorted in public education for a political or any other reason -- any more than science should be. It's a social science as well as an art, and there is a "truth" that we are ever groping towards - that's not to say that our current model won't be upset, but we're just always trying to make our models and understanding better.

The separation of Church and State thing - now, that is pretty unique. And has done so much more for religious tolerance than the Puritans ever did (not that difficult, actually, considering how intolerant they were). Though the weird thing is that while Canada has no de jure separation of Church and State, we have much more de facto separation than the US. I don't even think I could tell you what religion most of our party leaders are (I mean, I couldn't tell you whether Prot, Cath, Jewish, Muslim, etc, let alone denominations/flavours thereof).

-----------------------

I would like to commend he thread for not trotting out the "USians" trope. Your restraint, if I may, could only happen in America on Metafilter.
posted by nax at 8:43 PM on November 11


Dang! I almost forgot....
posted by jb at 7:04 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Britain was only biding her time lulling the Nazis into a false sense of security by taking wave after wave of bombardment. They had it in the bag.
No, you’re right, the Allies won WWII. And Russia had a lot to do with that too.
But if the U.S. didn’t enter that war the world would look very very differently.


Yep, it would have (I'm teaching WW2 this week). But the Brits (and their Commonwealth) did stand alone against Hitler between 1940 and the end of 1941, taking those waves of bombardments and held the Germans off. They were offered peace in 1940, and had damn good reasons to take it, because Hitler would have left the good Germanic English alone. And I don't know if the US would have entered the war had the UK made peace. But they didn't, because Churchill was bloody-minded and stubborn and really didn't like Mr Hitler, and instead they held off the Germans long enough for FDR to convince the US to join. And after 1941, as you say, the Russians bled a hell of a lot of actual blood, and it was they who turned the tide on the Eastern front and won back every painful inch of Eastern Europe. And (just to be nationalist) the third largest navy in the world at the end of the war was the Canadian navy. And the Americans contributed greatly in both Europe and in the Pacific (where the Brits had been attacked, but couldn't put up as much defense). All should be recognized - it was an Allied effort.
posted by jb at 7:17 PM on November 11, 2008


There are many Americans who would be shocked, for instance, to find out that American social mobility (the ever vaunted American "opportunity") is lower than some European countries. And his whole "only in America" story was about essentially about social mobility,...

No, it's not about social mobility. It's about threads in specifically American history. It takes much less explaining to understand that, and that's what he's talking about. Not social mobility; the achievement of equal rights under the law from systemic oppression under the law in a single generation, the interaction of historical events and populations in American history. Those who continue to react to that one phrase, "In no other country on earth is my story even possible," should remember that the phrase was delivered as part of a major speech on racial relations in America that Obama was delivering in response to the Jeremiah Wright scandal - a speech that helped define his campaign, crafted to allow him to claim an unarguably American pedigree while pointing out that that legitimacy was hard-won against a national history that often sought to take it away.

Since no matter how often I rephrase it, it still gets contested, I think it's best to leave the issue aside. Non-Americans seem to hear it as an implied rebuke of other nations, or a lack of awareness that other nations have struggled with civil rights. Americans hear it as an American life history. A celebratory, admiring nod to the successes of the American Civil Rights movement and how those successes are evidence of a healthy capacity for change in this republic. I think if you asked people on the street for their interpretations, they'd offer something like that. That's what it means to most people - not that other nations don't have civil rights and don't have successful members of minorities, but that the particular confluence of conditions and life events that have happened to Barack Obama could only have happened to someone in this country living at this historical time.

When you put the phrase back into context, it's abundantly clear. The man is talking, in specifics, about his own biography and the workings of major events in America's history in his life and the lives of his family. It's a tautology - his story could not have taken shape anywhere else on earth because his story takes place in America. Which means something specific. IT's important. Had he really been what his opponents suggested, some kind of mysterious outsider whose Americanness was in question, he wouldn't have gotten as far as this. It was important that he demonstrate that, despite elements of his identity that appeared exotic to many, that the exoticism and 'improbability' could itself be seen as proof of his Americanness.

A fuller excerpt:
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.
posted by Miko at 9:26 PM on November 11, 2008


To treat a campaign statement as a logical argument is silly.

That campaign statements AREN'T logical arguments is the silly part.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:05 PM on November 11, 2008


Apologies if this has already been pointed out, but the first draft of the Declaration did denounce slavery. A couple of the southern states voted that right out.
posted by missrachael at 10:43 AM on November 13, 2008


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