American For A Day

Bart: “Wow. I feel so full of…what’s the opposite of shame?”
Marge: “Pride?”
Bart: “No, not that far from shame.”
Homer: [quavering] “Less shame?”
Bart: [happy] “Yeah…”

Wow. Just wow. Congratulations, America. I feel so full of “less shame,” I can’t tell you. The votes have been counted, the people have spoken, and Malia and Sasha are getting a new puppy. Well done.

But 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?”

I’m glad you asked, Americans and the world. The answer is: My job just got a lot easier. (Warning: long gushy post with lots of caffeinated generalizations after the jump.)

You see, I teach American history to Canadian students. I try not to have either a pro- or an anti-U.S. agenda in the classroom. I have pretty much exactly the “just left of wishy-washy” politics you’d expect of a Canadian history professor, but I do love America and I expect that bleeds through. I’m powerfully invested in the mythology of America–understanding it and dissecting it without necessarily endorsing it.

It’s hard for me to talk about this yet without gushing. But Barack Obama’s election seems to me a victory of optimism over cynicism, thought over fear. (It need not have been thus, but fear and cynicism is the campaign John McCain or his handlers chose to run.)

Obama’s election also offers evidence that the United States is not the amalgam of Sauron’s Mordor and Boss Hogg’s Hazzard County some of my students imagine it to be. It may seem odd that young Canadians, who consume American media as freely as air, would see the United States in this limited way. But remember: this year’s college freshmen were ten years old when Rove and Cheney took the White House. That “frog boiling in water” sensation we’ve been feeling for eight long years is life as usual for them. Many of them have grown up with a very selective definition of “America”: they don’t like Sarah Palin’s “real America,” but they tacitly accept her definition of it. Some imagine anyone south of the border who expresses any doubt about, say, preemptive wars, the trampling of civil rights, and free market fundamentalism to be, I don’t know, a stray Canadian or something. When I’ve tried to tie something as mainstream as The Daily Show, which my students uniformly adore, into a longer tradition of American satire and dissent, I sometimes get puzzled looks. “I don’t really think of Jon Stewart as American,” a student told me last year. Obama’s election ought to make it easier for me to depict the United States as vast and complicated and multifaceted, as a bundle of contradictions that confounds all generalizations–and perhaps even as a well-meaning nation, struggling to be better than it is.

When I first moved to the United States and arrived at Harvard–about as far from the “real America” as you can get, I know–I fell (from a distance) under the intellectual spell of Sacvan Bercovitch, great Canadian scholar of the American mind. Bercovitch has written about his own arrival as a young grad student from Canada to the United States, and what he said resonated powerfully with my own experience. “When I first came to the United States, I knew virtually nothing about America,” Bercovitch wrote. “I absorbed Canada’s provincial attitudes towards ‘The States’ … a mixture of hostility and amnesia … a provinciality deepened by the pressures of geographical proximity and economic dependence.” Yeah. That sounds familiar. Bercovitch goes on:

I learned certain hard facts, of course, mainly pejorative, and I knew the landmarks from Wall Street to Hollywood, but the symbology that connected them–the American dream which elsewhere (I later discovered) was an open secret, a mystery accredited to the world–remained hidden from me, like the spirit in the letter of the uninitiate’s text.

And that sounds really familiar. 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.

“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” said Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a prosaic beginning to the most beloved speech of the twentieth century, reducing American history’s greatest crime and moral dilemma to a matter of bookkeeping: “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” 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 or Sacvan 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? And what about women? And the Sioux and Apache, and Chinese railroad laborers, and Jews from eastern Europe, and Mexican migrant laborers, and detainees at Guantanamo, and gay couples in California that want to get married, if we asked the founding fathers, they’d agree that they want all these inalienable rights to apply to them too, right? Because it would have saved a lot of trouble if they’d spelled all this out in 1789.”

The black belt rhetorical jiu jitsu of the “I Have A Dream” speech is that King pulls it off. 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. You can fault King for making it sound too easy, for not holding anyone’s feet to the fire, but that was a tactic, and (for a time) it worked.

And this is an old and hallowed American trick. On July 4th, 1852, Frederick Douglass blistered the ears of his white audience with prophesy–and the nineteenth century knew that prophesy is not fortune telling, but judgment:

Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery … mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy … a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

Strong stuff for a Fourth of July picnic! But by the end of the very same speech, Douglass reveals that, “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” the Constitution is in fact “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” He embraces and celebrates the Constitution as a bulwark against slavery. Without it, Douglass concludes, “the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman.” (Zing.) Abolishing slavery, Douglass asserts, is simply a matter of living up to the ideals Americans have already always embraced. (Again: Really? In 1852?)

At Seneca Falls in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton cribbed Jefferson’s words for her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, the intimation being that “of course” the patriarchs of 1776 must have intended equal rights for women. In Omaha in 1892, the magnificent crank Ignatius Donnelly insisted that Populism was nothing more than strict adherence to the Constitution, restoring the Republic to the “plain people” with whom it had supposedly began. And so on and so on down through history, with every kind of American reformer looking backward to move forward, couching their goals as nothing more radical than America’s alleged founding ideals.

Barack Obama’s big speeches live firmly within this tradition. He’s all about “change,” but it’s change that reaffirms the traditional virtues of the nation. “In no other country on earth is my story possible,” he says, unwittingly paraphrasing that Simpsons episode where Lisa loses a patriotic essay contest to the Vietnamese boy who asks, “Where else but in America, or possibly Canada, could our family find such opportunity?” Obama talks about fulfilling “the American promise,” about living up to “the American creed.” “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution,” Obama said, almost quoting Douglass, in “A More Perfect Union,” his masterful speech on race in Philadelphia last March:

Yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part–through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk–to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

I try to explain this maneuver to my students, to show them how it returns again and again in American rhetoric. And then they are free to make up their minds about it. It is logical and entirely defensible to decide, as I think Bercovitch does, that the whole thing is a kind of put on. That those “glorious liberty documents” were compromised from the start and irredeemably stained by the history that followed. That continued obeisance to two-hundred-year old parchments is just a way of blunting dissent, and protecting some theoretical idea of virtue from any contaminating contact with reality.

But I like my students to at least try to hear the music. To imagine themselves Americans for a day. To contemplate the possibility that words like “all men are created equal” might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.

It almost doesn’t matter what Jefferson “really meant” by “all men.” No, that’s not it. It matters. It matters each and every time great and noble promises are broken. But here’s an idea Greil Marcus put in my head: the promises made in the Declaration and the Constitution are so great that their betrayal is an inevitable part of the promise. And that’s what makes them work. Marcus (who wrote a surprisingly pessimistic piece on Obama just before the election–Phil Nugent dismantled it thoroughly) calls that betrayal “the engine of American history.” The “more perfect union” is a limit approaching infinity. As each generation discovers–inevitably!–that the promises made to them were false, they battle to make them a little more true.

Canadians are not against life or liberty or happiness, in moderation. But we don’t hear the music, by and large. We see windmills where Americans see giants and damsels in distress. And because we do, we don’t have that engine driving us onward, those whirring pistons of the gap between the real and ideal. As a result, we can perhaps be more flexible and pragmatic than Americans: if something is worth doing, we ought to do it because it helps people today, not because of some marching orders we got from Sir John A. Macdonald in 1867. We can stay out of some trouble that Americans seem constitutionally (heh) incapable of avoiding: the world doesn’t always need saving. But, and this is a real but, we can also be passive and maddeningly smug. 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.

Anyway, I guess I must be a lost cause. Revoke my Canadian citizenship. Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.


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

    I don’t have the temperance for your job; students would complain too often about getting punched in the mouth for me to ever get tenure.

  2. Well said!

    And also the first time I’ve ever seen George Lucas compared to Thomas Jefferson. Accurately.

    Rob MacDougall in 2012! … oh, right, Canadian. Nevermind.

  3. My favorite blog so far. It might be the ‘hope dust’ still floating thickly in the air, but that was an inspiring take on an inspiring story. I quite enjoy the Don Quixote analogy. I wish it had seemed as clear when you had us read Bercovitch a few years ago. However….as one of your students, I’m still trying to sort out if I should feel offended by the ‘Sauron’s Mordor and Boss Hogg’s Hazzard County’ comment…are we that bad?! Kudos Sir.

  4. wonderful post, Rob. Imagine Lee Greenwood swelling in the background as I feel proud of my country. Oh wait, you can’t hear it. Well, anyway, beautifully written. thanks.

  5. What a wonderful essay. Between this and Obamania, I may actually find myself proud to be an American this week.

  6. Thanks, all.

    Dave: I don’t mean to pick on anyone in particular (certainly not you), just responding to a certain kind of stereotyping that is out there–less often in my classes, actually, then in Canada more generally.

  7. “… less often in my classes, actually, then in Canada more generally.”

    I always knew you Canadians were a bunch of filthy racists.

  8. Oy. Canadian anti-Americanism is a topic for another day: I feel disloyal enough already.

  9. You know Rob, I know these still show up on my f-list on lj, but damn, this is the one that made me add the feed to my google reader. I don’t really know what that says, but it feels like a compliment, right?

  10. Great essay, Rob!

    Another Whitman reference:

    “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”

  11. Wonderful essay, Robbo. This post, in combination with the events of this week in America have convinced me to sublimate my Canadian smugness. At least for a little while.

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  13. Nick: Ouch! I did know that once, but after years of D&D I’d forgotten there were other things than dragons for knights to joust at. Thanks for the correction.

  14. This is really a wonderful post, but I couldn’t help read this

    “In no other country on earth is my story possible,” he says, unwittingly paraphrasing that Simpsons episode where Lisa loses a patriotic essay contest to the Vietnamese boy who asks, “Where else but in America, or possibly Canada, could our family find such opportunity?

    without thinking simply of the word “flag.”

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  16. Yeah. There’s a very definite crusading element to the American character, which comes in part, I think, from the New England Puritans who believed God had commissioned them to create a new Israel. But also to a very great degree going back to the fact that our Founding Fathers left us a legacy of foundational documents that set ideals we still haven’t managed to fully live up to, as you said.

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  18. I found your blog post to be extremely enlightening. I had never previously considered how our “unrealistic ideals which approach infinity” may drive us to work towards that goal with each generation. Well worth the time to read.

  19. I (who grew up in a small southern town, the quote real unquote America) visited Harvard for the first time over the summer and was amazed to find that across from the Kennedy School for Govt. lies an IHOP– a frickin’ International House of frickin’ Pancakes. They’re so elitist there!

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  21. This is beautiful and enlightening – a look at ourselves from someone else’s eyes that makes some things make just a little more sense.

    I love the notion that our ideals, held so high that they can never be achieved, can also serve to give flexibility and continually breathe life into a document written by men who were surely flawed, in a time that is surely past. And that whatever our wrongs and however we manage to twist them, they also hold the power to untwist themselves in the right hands. The future is built in!

    I guess this week, I hear the music, too.

  22. Interesting perspective on what I call our national “obligations.” As Americans, we have a burden to not only live up to the dream of Freedom created by our Founders, but we have the obligation to pass these same freedoms intact to the next generations.

    So – even though (or maybe *because*) I am a conservative voter, I take no particular relief that we elected a minority as our president. In fact, I think it surprised me how much I don’t care. It doesn’t matter – or shouldn’t matter according to our highest national calling – because I am so much more interested in how he will lead, than I am in the color of his skin. How will he protect, or possibly destroy, the freedoms that we aspire to, that are our birthright, and that we are obliged to pass to our children?

    I hope then, that we can show you two truths: 1) America truly is the complex and wonderful place you describe, and 2) conservatives are not the knuckle-dragging troglodytes that we are portrayed in the national and global press. We desire the same Freedom that our forefathers did, but we know just how fragile it is.

  23. I have always wondered how our neighbors thought of us. I live in Upstate New York and am 24 years old. Dubya came into office when i was a shophmore in highschool and that election I tried and failed to register to vote. As much as I loathe him as a president, I have to admit he was the one who really made me firmly believe that my vote counted..a bit i ronic I know. But, seeing him do what he did in his first run for election outraged me so much it solidified my want and need to vote. I voted for john kerry. {an act of futility i know{ But when i cast that ballot i was empowered. That is what our constitution means to me. the power of people trying to lead their own voices to a future of happiness and hope. your essay was beautiful. I know we are flawed. I know we can be weak-minded and sometimes fueled by fear. but the best part of us is in our ability to disagree, to argue, to think of each other morons, but still do the one thing that need be done. VOTE.

  24. Wonderful, wonderful article. I just want Rob to know that I am an American, and I hear that music. I’ve seen those hopes jaded on a daily basis since moving back to this country, but this election has reignited that fire in me. I have high hopes for the States again.

    And I want to add that had the election gone the other way, I was planning a move up North.

  25. The difference between you and me is that I have always been proud of America. I voted for John McCain, but I am proud that voters chose to elect Barack Obama, because that is what our democratic government is designed to do.
    For those in the comment fields who have said things like I “loathed” President Bush, I am sorry. As much as I disagreed with President Clinton, he was my president. As much as I’ll certainly disagree with President Obama, he will still be my President.
    If you can let one man/woman who is in the office of the President define America for you, then you need more HOPE than Barack Obama will ever bring.

  26. Very nice essay, Rob. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your “Sancho Panza” analogy is brilliant.

    I’m an American and I’ve always been proud of my country. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see its faults, or that I’m always thrilled with every decision made by every president.

    But I agree with Jeremy that “who is President” does not define, and has never defined, the USA.

    The USA is NOT a different country today than it was before the election; it’s the same country with the exact same citizens. If you’re proud of it today, and you weren’t proud of it prior to the election – could it be that you were wrong about the USA, that you’ve had an eye-opening, rather than that the whole of the USA has changed overnight?

    Doesn’t matter, I guess. Whatever the reason, whatever helps you hear the music, stay tuned in.

  27. “black belt rhetorical jiu jitsu”
    “an old and hallowed American trick”

    Is it a “put-on” for a lawyer to defend a paying client?
    Of course it is, but it’s also the moral and philosophical center of our culture.
    You’re describing the difference between theater and grand theater, but you’re also describing theater as bunk. Historian as Fordist. That’s what offends me.

  28. Pride, less shame, ch-ch-change?

    So here we are 10 days after the election and already we have Obama supporting ‘limited’ torture, domestic spying and the continuation of Gitmo detention policies.

    We can look forward to a President elect that took a $300K bribe from Tony Rezko and really should be on his way to jail. Tell me what is the difference between the crimes of Sen. Stevens of Alaska and Obama? Or for that matter the ‘gifts’ taken by Sen. Dodd from Countrywide Mortgage?

    The President from Rezko Develpment, the VP from MBNA, the Chief of Staff from Citicorp, and the Transistion Chair from the UAW and the Chief Economic Advisor from Goldman-Sacs…….

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  32. Rob:

    Quite simply one of the most insightful things I’ve read re: the history of my country. Masterful distillation. The truth, it seems, IS always found in paradox.

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