Bart: “Wow. I feel so full of…what’s the opposite of shame?”
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.