… But then again, he loves everybody

Chaplain Mike of Internet Monk offers a meditation on divine grace, beginning with this passage from Deuteronomy 7:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you — for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

That struck me as an interesting companion passage to one highlighted by Randy Woodley in a discussion of “American Exceptionalism” at the Emergent Village. Randy offers a vivid paraphrase of Amos 9:7:

“Are you Israelites more important to me than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord. “I brought Israel out of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Crete and led the Arameans out of Kir.”

Taken together, those verses recall one of the few Christian T-shirts I actually like. It says:

Jesus Loves You! (Then again, he loves everybody)

American Christians like to say that God loves America and that God loves Christians. They’re right about that.

The problem arises when they think that this makes them different from everyone else.

(That T-shirt, by the way, comes from Lark News. They’re back with their latest volley of The-Onion-ish news from American evangelicalism. See, for example, “Church members struggle to memorize mission statement,” “Church email change leads to awkward results,” and especially this one, about a pastor opting not to follow Rick Warren’s “Daniel Plan” for weight loss.)

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  • FangsFirst

    The problem arises when they think that this makes them different from everyone else.

    Yes.

    (for further instructions on how to read this post, consider the popular interpretations of directions for performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations)

  • Daughter

    I never understood the whole American exceptionalism bit. Most people (not everyone, mind you) love their own families more than any other family, but it takes an incredible asshole to think your family is the greatest on earth. So why is there this necessity to feel that way about your country?

  • FangsFirst

    So why is there this necessity to feel that way about your country?

    I think it’s basically the belief that, in order to love one’s country (or family, or school, or sports team, or band, or…) one must prove that it is worth that love, and then, more importantly, the belief that the only way to do so is to prove that others are not worth that love, or at least not the same amount/degree. But a lot more unconscious than that.

    Or being taught to have pride, and seeing anything that does not jibe with said pride as alien and aggressive, an attack on that pride, or something in conflict with it.

    On some level, maybe, “If all countries are pretty good, why should I have any pride in mine? But I know I’m supposed to have pride in mine, so that must mean they aren’t all pretty good…”

  • Daughter

    That doesn’t really answer my question. Most people recognize their families’ faults and love them anyway. Most people don’t feel a need to prove their family is the greatest thing on the planet, nor do they get enraged that other people doen’t agree. How come some people can work that logic with their families, but not their country?

  • FangsFirst

    There’s less clear division when talking about families. You and he and she and me and they all deal with other families regularly.

    Once upon a time, we of course had family feuds. Still, there are “My family is better than yours,” as exhibited through socioeconomic, racial, religious approaches–which isn’t much different from a lot of the way that the inter-country arguing is actually played out.

    But overall, one deals with other families on a regular basis unless one is in absolute isolation. Without actual visits, other countries are abstracts, and anything abstract is easier to turn into a caricature.

    In a sense, there’s also the commenting people will make on the abstract parenting they read reports about, or see television shows on and such: “My parents would never do that,” and “That would never happen in MY house,” and so on. When you make the “families” in question only those where direct experience is not a factor, I think this crops right back up.

    And plenty of people never leave this country–or that country…or that country…I mean, me, I’ve known a few UK folks who are, well, a wee bit blindingly nationalistic, too.

  • Anonymous

     Because my family rarely sets me to the task of invading another family and killing all of them. Whereas the nation is pretty much founded on that principle. The fact that America is having trouble growing out of that phase is a sign of our immaturity, not our exceptionalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

     

    Because my family rarely sets me to the task of invading another family
    and killing all of them. Whereas the nation is pretty much founded on
    that principle. The fact that America is having trouble growing out of
    that phase is a sign of our immaturity, not our exceptionalism.

    Oh come one, the US has only done that… um… how many different Native American nations did there use to be?

  • Anonymous

     Notice I said “rarely”… we’re a big ex-catholic family, we could invade somebody if we wanted… ;)

  • Lori

     
    The fact that America is having trouble growing out of that phase is a sign of our immaturity, not our exceptionalism.  

     

    I think we have to be very careful when using concepts like maturity/immaturity when talking about countries. Imperialism is not something that a country matures out of. There are very young countries that keep to their own business and very old countries that are happy to go adventuring as much as they can, for as long as they can. 

    I think speaking in terms of maturity in foreign policy and international relations distorts both historical and present day reality and warps our view of the future. History is not a book that we just haven’t gotten to the end of yet. We’re making it up as we go along and there is no fixed destination.

  • Anonymous

    That is a very good point Lori. I do think the concept of maturity can be applied to international relations  in an aspirational sense, in that “mature” is the label we apply to decisions that are arrived at with wisdom and forethought, and we should be aspiring for our nations to act in such a fashion. But you’re right, its important to seperate the metaphor from the reality.

  • Anonymous

     Because my family rarely sets me to the task of invading another family and killing all of them. Whereas the nation is pretty much founded on that principle. The fact that America is having trouble growing out of that phase is a sign of our immaturity, not our exceptionalism.

  • Tricksterson

    A family is something concrete, something that you have contact with on a regular basis so no matter how much you might love them it’s damn difficult not to notice their imperfections. 

     A nation is an abstract concept and therefore a lot easier to build up in terms of absolutes.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    My assumption is that exceptionalism is necessary to maintain America’s ubercapitalism. The US is arguably among the most right wing capitalist societies in the developed world (if not the most), and the downsides are plain to see. But if you’re unwilling to consider changing your society to be slightly less individualistic–perhaps because you hope that one day you, too, will be the rich who can benefit from injustice against others–then you need to believe that no one else enjoys the good things about America. You need to believe that, on balance, you’re better off so the shitty health system, education system, and labour rights are things you should just put up with.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I’m reminded of when my sister was a kid and she had to do a report on Canada. In the course of her research, she was *shocked* because this was *the first time* she’d ever heard that countries other than the US had *democracies* and *representative governments* and *legal protections for free speech* and *due process of law*.

    Which would have been bad enough on its own, I mean, my sister was pretty young, and she wasn’t academically inclined and she wasn’t really engaged with subjects like history or geography or politics.

    But back then, my sister got a lot of help on her schoolwork from our parents, on account of her ADHD and general distaste for academia. And it was apparently the first time *our mother* had heard these things either. She’d somehow gone her whole life assuming that Canada was some kind of hereditary monarchy.

  • FangsFirst

     I often find myself hearing/reading other countries mentioning free speech, etc and thinking, “So why do we crow about this again…? Are we only comparing ourselves to China, or something?”

  • Dan Audy

     The horrifying thing to me is that a great deal of the US seems to accept the attitude “As long as we are better than them (the worst in whatever) it is ok for us to keep demeaning our country” on all sorts of issues like border security, prison abuse, censorship, and torture.  It is as if they aren’t aware of absolute values only those relative to others.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    To be fair, that seems to be more a characteristic of people who will never concede a point than USians specifically. I’ve faced the “if something worse exists no criticism is valid” argument in every possible situation.

  • Ima Pseudonym

    Didn’t you get the memo?  “Good” and “Evil” aren’t dependent on anything anyone actually *does,* they’re just teams you pick.  Team Goodguy is free to torture and imprison people indefinitely without trial, censor competing thought, ruin lives and start senseless wars for the sake of business interests if they want, since nothing they do can ever change the fact that they’re Team Goodguy.  Likewise, Team Badguy can feed orphans and the homeless, provide care for the sick and elderly, avoid throwing lives down a bottomless rathole by trying to avoid unnecessary and senseless military adventures, and try to maintain some standard of social and economic justice, and it doesn’t make any difference because they’re always going to be Team Badguy, and nothing can ever change that, either.  In fact, in all likelihood, they’re just trying to hide the fact that they’re Team Badguy by doing all those nice things, in order to fool the undecided masses who haven’t picked their team yet. 

    At least that’s what the Fantasy-Based Community has told me over and over again.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Extract from “American Journeys” by Don Watson*.

    Ignorance was the worst thing about the United States, [a Texan] said. At school they were never taught about other countries, just everything that is great about America. You only learn some of the bad stuff if and when you go to college. He was surprised that Australians learned American history at school. The one good thing about the United States was freedom.

    ‘There are other places that are free’, I said.

    ‘Oh well’, he said, ‘we never learned anything about them’.

    *An Australian writer who travelled through all the mainland US states talking to locals, on trains where ever possible. Really interesting stuff.

  • FangsFirst

     

    At school they were never taught about other countries, just everything
    that is great about America. You only learn some of the bad stuff if and
    when you go to college. He was surprised that Australians learned
    American history at school.

    Of course, I imagine this varies depending on where you are in the US…though I went from the rather well-rounded and seemingly healthy education system in central Missouri (possibly only healthy in the large city I grew up in/around), where I would cling desperately to the knowledge that Missouri never seceded (yes, they stayed a slave state…I know…you take what you can get as a kid…) to the confusing and limited one of a smaller town in southern North Carolina (one high school for the entire county! Woohoo!), where my football coach-cum-World History teacher neglected to teach us tons about other countries and notoriously skipped the Industrial Revolution because he “doesn’t like it.”¹

    I was annoyed by this, as I’d thought I’d FINALLY learn something other than surface-level stuff about who was king of where. And maybe finally get some nice facts to pin the continued existence of Spain on. I kept getting the impression that Spain had collapsed and disappeared at some point, for some reason.

    In all cases, I still didn’t learn an awful lot about other countries. Which sucked, because I wanted to. But I couldn’t, in those days, stand reading something like a history book on my own, so I was kinda SOL.

    Seriously annoying, though, as my interests have refined into other areas, and that’s become “knowledge I wish I had,” rather than “strong current interest.” I’m always interested to get rounder pictures. I enjoy the things that are unconsciously reeled out by the friends I have from the UK (I never seem to have any in other countries, darnit…).

    Shame, really. Australia was always my “favourite country”–even if it was due to my affection for peculiar wildlife. Never learned a damn thing about it in school. Other than, well, you know…PRISONERS!

    ¹Only teacher who really, REALLY, REALLY didn’t like me, until an English English (not a typo) professor in college who was the first to not accept my lackadaisical, “I will read half or less of your assigned reading, write an essay the night before and pass with flying colours,” approach. But ol’ Coach Lovette disliked me because I challenged his command of the classroom, as he would be very sarcastic and say really, really dumb things, occasionally at the expense of other students. Eventually I turned the class on him a few times. He was not happy. As a result: possibly the only teacher to whom I apologized.

  • P J Evans

    I had a world history teacher who had been to China and Korea, so we actually learned about other countries: someone who has been out of the US at least once is possibly more aware that the US isn’t the whole world.

  • FangsFirst

    Agreed. I did better a bit in college, but the rest of it was disillusioning me so much (nothing to do that like education classes and a communications professor/deparment head who says it “doesn’t matter” if the POTUS can speak well…) that I never got to pursue it.

    But the rather in-depth history of early Japan class I was enrolled in was indeed led by someone who had been to Japan. And I had Japanese Japanese teachers, which was also nice. But the difference in interest is and was palpable: someone who is interested enough in other countries to actually visit them brings that passion in. If someone hasn’t, it’s cold, dry recitation of facts about it at best.

    Oh yeah–I took AP European History, too. Spent most of that class on the teacher’s personal pet projects, which were unrelated–but, then, she once said, “Whatever,” to a kid after she referred to “The Belgium Congo,” and he said “I think it’s ‘Belgian.'” Because he was the kid no one liked and she wanted to be cool with the cool kids. Don’t think she’d been to many other countries either, but if she had, it was less the, “I’m so interested in X culture that I’ve been to the country!” and more the “stereotypical self-centered American tourist who wants to tell everyone else how the country said tourist has never been to works.”

    Didn’t learn much in there, either. Pretty sure I got my just-barely-acceptable AP score (3) by logic/existing rudimentary knowledge.

  • Lori

     
    An Australian writer who travelled through all the mainland US states talking to locals, on trains where ever possible.  

     

    It seems worth noting that if you’re conducting a high percentage of your research on trains you’re not exactly talking to the average American. 

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    What portion of Americans are the train users?

    (Over here, the train is about as random a cross-section of society as you’ll find…)

  • FangsFirst

     

    What portion of Americans are the train users?

    As a percentage, pretty darn small. It’s, I wouldn’t say luxury of course, but in my experience it’s usually taken as something in the vein of non-pragmatic travel, where the trip itself is part of the point, sort of like roadtrips. Expense-wise, of course, it’s also cheaper than driving or flying, so that’s sometimes the motivation.

    It’s primarily for freight over here though.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    What about through cities?

    I take the train to work every day…

  • FangsFirst

    Yeah, there’s a fair number in the largest of cities (who naturally use it as you do) but most places don’t even have them. They keep trying to build them where I live, and it’s just. not. happening. It’s been recommended repeatedly, by people involved in such things (on the sociological/economic front, not the TracksNTrainsRUs CEO or something), but it just won’t get through.

    But, yes, some cities do have “el”-trains and subways, but (someone can correct me here, if I’m wrong) I do believe it’s only a few of the really, REALLY big ones that have those (Chicago, NYC, San Francisco has the cablecars, which are not too far off, functionally…probably some others I don’t know).

    Not, in general, a common method of transportation, though. Obviously, even the above would skew you toward urban Americans only (and I don’t mean that as the code word, so much as literally “major city-dwelling”)

  • Daughter

    Again, I think we need Sgt. Pepper to clarify. By “trains,” I don’t think she was referring to commuter trains and subways, but rather to Amtrak being the means the writer used to travel cross-country.

  • P J Evans

     Yeah, Amtrak is pricy enough that most people don’t use it. Local (commuter) trains are more of a normal cross-section, and when you get to the trolleys and subway trains, which in Los Angeles are run by the same system and at the same prices as buses, it’s a pretty straightforward Everybody Uses It. (The only people I’ve heard complaining are the ones who seem to think that people who Aren’t Like Them shouldn’t be using the system, especially at the same time. Scary crazy people at 6:30 am, apparently, from the last complaint, but I’ve heard about Too Many Brown People also.)

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Expense-wise, of course, it’s also cheaper than driving or flying, so that’s sometimes the motivation.

    Really? Where? the times we’ve considered taking the train anywhere, it was several hundred dollars per person and took 8 hours for a trip that by car takes 3 hours and costs about $70 for a carload of people.  It only ever seemed to make sense for long-distance commuters, who would have to figure in wear on their cars.

  • Lori

     
    Really? Where? the times we’ve considered taking the train anywhere, it was several hundred dollars per person and took 8 hours for a trip that by car takes 3 hours and costs about $70 for a carload of people.  It only ever seemed to make sense for long-distance commuters, who would have to figure in wear on their cars. 

     

    The train can be very cost-effective for medium distance trips when you are traveling alone or when the other option is to fly. When I came to Indiana from DC I took the train because it cost less than half as much as flying and allowed me to bring 5 or 6 times as much luggage. As a bonus the train “station”* is less than half as far from my parents’ house as the nearest airport. 

    The financial advantage goes away if the trip is long enough that you need a bed, because sleepers are way more expensive. I had no problem doing an overnight in a regular seat, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go another night without being able to lie down and without access to a shower. For longer trips Amtrak really only makes sense if you consider the train to be part of the trip and not simply transportation to your destination. 

    My folks have taken the train a couple times from here to Seattle to visit my brother and they loved it. They weren’t in a hurry though and they enjoy the train ride itself. It’s basically an all-inclusive hotel with an ever-changing view. Also, when they go out there they stay for a month or more at a time so they have a ton of luggage and that’s where Amtrak really has it all over flying, especially now that you get 1 carry on and every checked bag costs $50 or more. 

    *There isn’t actually a station at all. It’s literally just a train stop—like a largish bus shelter. That’s weird, but not as bad as I first feared when I booked my ticket and found out there was no station. I had a vision of being put out beside the track in the middle of nowhere, but it’s not quite that bad. 

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Someday I’m going to go to Perth (other side of the country), and I think I’ll definitely take the train. It’s basically the same cost as the plane ticket, and much nicer…

  • FangsFirst

     

    Really? Where? the times we’ve considered taking the train anywhere, it
    was several hundred dollars per person and took 8 hours for a trip that
    by car takes 3 hours and costs about $70 for a carload of people.

    Hm, yeah, I guess the (extremely small number of) people I’ve known who ever bothered did so for medium trips like Lori’s describing (eg, Connecticut to NC), but that was partly because that was my, um, rather peculiar ex-girlfriend, who did not learn to drive. To the best of my knowledge, still hasn’t. Don’t really keep up with her since she found a joke about rape hilarious enough to post publicly on facebook (and months later found out I’d actively stopped talking to her and got angry at me when she found out why…)

  • Daughter

    I think Sgt. Pepper’s comment is a bit ambiguous. Did the writer talk only to locals on trains, or merely travel on them? It’s very possible the writer traveled on trains, talking to people there, but also got off at various cities and towns and talked to people in those places as well. Sgt. Pepper, will you clarify?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I will.

    More Don Watson*:

    I like the intimacy of trains, the close connections with other passengers and the opportunities they afford for voyeurism: the angle on the people and their backyards and porches, their clothes lines, pets and vegetable patches, their dogs and barbecues…On a train, pretty well anywhere in America, you can hear two or three conversations at a time and get them down on paper and people think you are writing postcards.

    …I came back [in October 2005] intending to ride on every Amtrak route I could. For the Americans I told, I might as well have been off to see the country on a mule. The railway has faded from their consciousness. Amtrak is the shadow that remains, a nether world of obsolescence inhabited only by the poor, who have no choice, or by purposeless eccentrics with nothing better to do than ride the dinosaur to extinction.

     
    So yeah, Amtrak, listening to people’s conversations and chatting to whoever sat next to him. He got off a lot and ate at diners doing the same. The areas not covered by Amtrak he drove, listened to talkback radio and ate at diners.

    *I could have just gotten straight to the point but Don Watson’s prose is worth sharing :)

  • Lori

     
    …I came back [in October 2005] intending to ride on every Amtrak route I could. For the Americans I told, I might as well have been off to see the country on a mule. The railway has faded from their consciousness. Amtrak is the shadow that remains, a nether world of obsolescence inhabited only by the poor, who have no choice, or by purposeless eccentrics with nothing better to do than ride the dinosaur to extinction.  

     

    This is lovely prose, but I have some concerns about his observations because IME  even in 2005 they doesn’t really reflect reality. The train system in this country has unfortunately been allowed to whither in favor of cars and planes, but its not like the passengers are some transplanted pool of riders from one of our less well-maintained city bus systems. 

    My most recent train trip was taken because I was poor and trying to be practical, especially because of the luggage issue, but I doubt the same was true of most of my fellow passengers. My parents aren’t “purposeless eccentrics”. They’re retirees who like the train and they tend to meet other people like them when they’re on it. On the east coast the folks on Amtrak are neither poor nor eccentric, they’re mostly people commuting along the DC-Boston-NYC corridor and making a perfectly sensible decision that the train is the best way to do that. 

  • Lori

     
    An Australian writer who travelled through all the mainland US states talking to locals, on trains where ever possible.  

     

    It seems worth noting that if you’re conducting a high percentage of your research on trains you’re not exactly talking to the average American. 

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    He was surprised that Australians learned American history at school.

    Hah! I learned NO history at school! (Dumb education system. *grumbles*)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Really? Huh. Victoria? Surely you at least did the Eureka stockade?

    We did heaps. Compulsory in primary school (European discovery of Australia, bushrangers, explorers, ANZACS, ancient Egypt) and the first two years of high school (more explorers and ANZACS, colonial Australia, plenty of ancient history, WWII and some historiography). Plus history was touched on quite a bit in religion, science and social studies.

    I also took 4 years of elective history (Years 9-12). Included the Industrial Revolution, more ancient history and historiography, causes of WWI (effectively pan-Europe late 19th century), major WWI battles, 20th century Russia, Cold War, African colonialism, the Holocaust, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Seriously lacking in Asian history–India and China were options in the same stream as Russia, and we got Russia. In general, awesome and one of my favourite subjects.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Really? Huh. Victoria? Surely you at least did the Eureka stockade?

    Please refer to the enclosed. Our history lessons were abysmal – and were usually taken over by classes on “let’s teach these kids all about that brand new interwebs contraption”.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    …we didn’t have the internet when I was at school…/feeling old

    Lower Gen X–the internet existed but only rich tech-lovers had access

    Interesting to read your perspective on your webpage there. It’s not abysmal education across the board. I changed schools a bunch of times and all but one were pretty decent in terms of curriculum content. Sometimes my teachers were obviously thrilled to have an engaged student, so I might have got a better education than my classmates :) But all were very far removed from snooty private schools.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    I think the most fascinating thing about this post is the quote from Amos.  It implies that God directly helped the Philistines and the Arameans in the same manner that He helped the Israelites.  It implies that Yahweh is not just the God of the Israelites.

  • cyllan

    That doesn’t really answer my question. Most people recognize their
    families’ faults and love them anyway. Most people don’t feel a need to
    prove their family is the greatest thing on the planet, nor do they get
    enraged that other people doen’t agree. How come some people can work
    that logic with their families, but not their country?

    In part, I think it’s because of our history of immigration.  Speaking with a relative who immigrated to the U.S., I realized that one of the reasons he was so passionate about “America is the Best Country Ever” is because it validated his choice to come here.  If that particular rung snapped, then his life choices became shakier.

    I don’t think that’s the only reason; the uber-capitalist state certainly contributes, but it was an interesting insight.

  • WingedBeast

    About American Exceptionalism.  I was just a child through the tail end of the cold war, but I remember the common thinking regarding other countries being tied up with Russia and its puppet governments.  England, France, Italy, were, to us, less countries and more far away places, unlikely vacation spots unless you’re quite ealthy.
     
     Therefore, any reference to the idea that any other nation might do better than America was to be taken as a statement in support of the enemy.  It makes a very good excuse for America, as a nation, to not worry about things such as average health, education, and the actual stuff of freedom which is class mobility.

    In some ways, though I do love my home nation, it is like unto a psychopath in many ways, not thinking of consequences, not taking responsibility for its actions, quick to anger and quick to forget.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Individual Americans can be quite pleasant people. But as a country, the United States of America is astonishingly insular and provincial in its notions. The very idea that there can be a different way than the American one is almost taken as rank heresy among some people in that country.

  • P J Evans

     I think it may have something to do with only having two neighbors; everyone else is on the other side of a lot of water (except Cuba, and the politicians still haven’t figured out that a fifty-year-old embargo means that the embargo hasn’t worked at all).

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Re some of the other suggested explanations:

    We have no land neighbours. We are a nation of immigrants (97.5% of the population having 220 years, max, ancestry here). Most of us think that we’re a pretty cool country but we don’t have that idea of exceptionalism the way America does. So I don’t think either of those explanations work.

  • Lori

     
    We are a nation of immigrants (97.5% of the population having 220 years, max, ancestry here).   

    Your immigrant story as a nation is quite different though and I think might lend itself to a different view of things. “We were sent here as convicts and made a good situation of it” puts the weight in a different place “we chose to come here for a better life”. There are many commonalities to the immigrant experience in various places, but for the purposes of this discussion I don’t think the reality is the issue nearly as much as the story is, if that makes sense. 

    If I thought I had the theory about American exceptionalism I’d move it right to the top of the list of books to write in hopes of getting on The Daily Show. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to be chatting with Jon Stewart any time soon (or ever actually). 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Thing is, though, that most of us aren’t descendended from convicts. 29% of Australians were born overseas; another big chunk are children or grandchildren of migrants. The wave of people sent here as convicts (or to guard convicts) is very small in comparison to the people who migrated to escape the potato famine, poverty and revolution in 19th century Europe, WWII and its aftermath, the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, the Chinese cultural revolution, apartheid, the Slavic wars, and most recently conflict in the middle east and Africa.

    But yeah, if we figure it all out we should get together and write a best-seller for nerds. Or dream big get tenure in some sociology department ;)

  • Lori

     
    Thing is, though, that most of us aren’t descendended from convicts. 

        

    I expressed myself badly. I know that most Australians aren’t actually the decedents of convicts, but that’s the origin story about Australia as a country. I think that sort of thing tends to have a sort of subconscious influence on the way people frame their experience of a place. In that regard, “this is a place people were sent to and then made something good of it” is quite different from “they came here for a better life”. 

    The reality is that in both cases the people involved had to build lives for themselves, but the stories aren’t the same. In one story the life is explicitly tied to the effort of the people and in the other it’s tied to the place. In both cases the story fails to include the experience of a lot of people, but because its the origin story it still gets told and has weight. Story is a force and origin stories are powerful, whether they’re true or not. 

    And as soon as I have anything more coherent than that I’ll hook you in as a coauthor and we’ll be Daily Show-bound. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Ah, I see.

    Our weird thing is the tendency to talk about the birth of the nation as being in the battlefields of WWI, a decade or so after Federation. The largest part of the national mythology stems from the ANZACS, rather than anything in the colonial days. The main things looming large from the 19th century are Ned Kelly and the Eureka stockage, but they pale in comparison to the immense status of the WWI digger.

  • Tricksterson

    You’re ignoring the large minority of those with kangaroo, wallaby and koala blood.  After all women were scarce out on the frontier.

  • Lori

     
    Individual Americans can be quite pleasant people. But as a country, the United States of America is astonishingly insular and provincial in its notions. The very idea that there can be a different way than the American one is almost taken as rank heresy among some people in that country.  

     

    This is not nearly as much an exclusive American trait as some people seem to want to believe. I went to grad school with foreign students who, even after several years still had amazingly ignorant notions about the US and who very much took it for granted that the way things were in their home country was obviously the way they should be everywhere and there couldn’t possibly be any legitimate reason for them to be different. The worst of the lot I personally knew were an Australian and a German. At no point did this cause me to even consider that all Australians or all Germans were that way.

    Some people are like that. There is a great deal in American culture that supports them and that’s a serious problem, but it happens everywhere. In general it’s both more noticeable and more problematic when a given country is on top of the international power heap and much less so when a country has less power.

  • Anonymous

    It always annoyed me that not only did we just get American history, we got a very limited scope of American history.  It started with the Age of Exploration in 1400 and went up to World War II.  Even in my two AP history classes, we never studied the Cold War because NONE of my teachers ever got around to it.  Finally I took a world history class in college, and it was the first time I learned what had happened in the US between 1945 and the late 1990s (when I was self-aware enough to start paying attention to current events).  I was amazed that all of these things we had learned about in grade school had led to situations that actually affected my life.  At the same time, I was frustrated that I had to wait until I was 20 years old to find this out.

    I wonder if this is part of the reason a lot of kids don’t like history.  It really doesn’t feel relevant if every teacher just stops 50 years ago and says, “The end!”  You’re like, “Ok, that was a lot of information, but what does that have to do with me?”

  • FangsFirst

     

    Even in my two AP history classes, we never studied the Cold War because NONE of my teachers ever got around to it.

    YES.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels cheated by this!

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels cheated by this!

  • Daughter

    Getting no further than WWII usually happened to me, too, but that was because we usually ran out of time–the end of the year arrived before we could finish the textbook.

    There is, I will say, an advantage to growing up in a predominantly black community: in elementary school, we had “black history” once a week — a half hour the teachers set aside to read about people or events in black history. And in the upper grades, teachers couldn’t avoid the hard questions about slavery and what not, because kids asked about them.

  • Anonymous

    Oh yes, we usually ran out of time too.  I know my teachers weren’t deliberately leaving out that section of history. But it happened every single year!  I just felt like someone somewhere needed to plan things better.

  • Anonymous

    Oh yes, we usually ran out of time too.  I know my teachers weren’t deliberately leaving out that section of history. But it happened every single year!  I just felt like someone somewhere needed to plan things better.

  • Lori

     
    Getting no further than WWII usually happened to me, too, but that was because we usually ran out of time–the end of the year arrived before we could finish the textbook.  

    Running out of time was always the excuse, but it wasn’t really the problem. We could have skipped the first couple chapters of the book one or two years instead of always starting with the age of exploration or the (mostly fake) story of the Pilgrims and then never getting past V-J day. 

  • Lori

     
    Getting no further than WWII usually happened to me, too, but that was because we usually ran out of time–the end of the year arrived before we could finish the textbook.  

    Running out of time was always the excuse, but it wasn’t really the problem. We could have skipped the first couple chapters of the book one or two years instead of always starting with the age of exploration or the (mostly fake) story of the Pilgrims and then never getting past V-J day. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Our senior high school modern history syllabus had a contemporary history component. Our class studied the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was 16 when Rabin was assassinated. A bunch of teenagers sitting around at lunchtime discussing the implications with concern is a sign that something is going right in your education.

  • P J Evans

    History is wasted on the young. Not enough perspective to see why it’s important.
    Trust me, living through the Cold War wasn’t fun. Duck and cover drills every year (frequently more than once). Civil-defense siren tests every year (at least once). Politicians and even teachers who are sure that we’re all dooomed and are willing to say so to children. People who want bomb shelters in their yards, and say they’ll shoot anyone who isn’t family and tries to get in, if it comes to that.

  • Kiba

     Duck and cover drills

    To this day I can’t figure out how my desk was supposed to save me from a nuclear blast.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Duck-and-Cover isn’t as forthrightly ludicrous as it sounds (Still pretty dumb though). There’s a certain radius at which the major *immediate* danger from a nuclear blast is similar in kind to the danger from an earthquake: the building shaking and things falling on you. Ducking and covering is a reasonable response to that kind of risk.

    Of course, there is also a radius where getting hit on the head by falling debris would be a far kinder death than radiation sickness, but (a) civil defense liked to play down the dangers of radiation exposure, and (2) “better to die quickly” is not really the sort of decision you want people in authority to make on your behalf.

  • Kiba

    I understood the part about possibly saving me from stuff falling on my head but  I was more concerned about the whole radiation thing and I couldn’t see how my desk was supposed to save me from that. I guess that’s what all the layers of lead paint on the walls were for.

  • Lori

     
    To this day I can’t figure out how my desk was supposed to save me from a nuclear blast.  

    I took a couple of grad school classes on nuclear issues. There were two things that I found especially fascinating. The first was looking at the list of every single country that ever had, or seriously contemplated a nuclear weapons program. There are some countries on that thing you probably wouldn’t expect. The other was looking at the sociology of Civil Defense films and other propaganda. By the time I was in elementary school they had stopped showing them (although we did do duck & cover drills), so there were quite a few that I had never seen. 

    It turns out that it’s not just that the thing your desk was really supposed to save you from was panic. The other films weren’t about nuclear war either. Half of them were about discomfort with the changing role of women and some of them had a nice dollop of poor-shaming, occasionally with the lovely racist coating that was so common at the time. Once you’ve watched those films with modern eyes that whole business with Homeland Security and the plastic and duct tape looks somewhat different.

  • P J Evans

    The film that still stays in my memory was one of the anti-Communist propaganda pieces. I think the Republicans are still using that one – as a training film.

  • Lori

    The one I’ll never forget is about how a house that’s clean and doesn’t have peeling paint or a messy yard is more likely to survive a nuclear blast. That is true,sort of, in certain circumstances within a very small zone of the blast radius. However, the film was really about making women feel like crap for wanting to continue to have jobs rather than staying home cleaning all the time and about shaming people too poor or too disinterested to “properly” maintain the outside of their home to 50s suburban standard.

  • P J Evans

    If it was like the ones we had, about all it would protect was your back. Your head was going to be on the chair, right where stuff could fall on it. They did close the curtains, though, and those were vinyl-coated cloth, at that time, which probably would have slowed down the glass by, oh, not much.

  • Kiba

    At least you had curtains. All we had were crappy window shades (the ones on the roller). 

  • P J Evans

    History is wasted on the young. Not enough perspective to see why it’s important.
    Trust me, living through the Cold War wasn’t fun. Duck and cover drills every year (frequently more than once). Civil-defense siren tests every year (at least once). Politicians and even teachers who are sure that we’re all dooomed and are willing to say so to children. People who want bomb shelters in their yards, and say they’ll shoot anyone who isn’t family and tries to get in, if it comes to that.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    Even in my two AP history classes, we never studied the Cold War because NONE of my teachers ever got around to it.

    Hell, we only got up to post-World War I in one of my classes–and that was because the class STARTED with World War I and was supposed to continue through the 1950s. We never even got to World War II.

    And I’m including college classes in this, by the way. I had a double major–history and poly sci. I took every history course available.  Was there ever one on World War II or the Cold War or Vietnam? Of course not! If I hadn’t bothered to read a ton of books about World War II and a lot of biographies of people who lived through the Cold War and McCarthyism, I never would have learned anything about either era.

    And that, I think, is scary.

  • Lori

     
    Hell, we only got up to post-World War I in one of my classes–and that was because the class STARTED with World War I and was supposed to continue through the 1950s. We never even got to World War II.  

    In the US? Was WWI your prof’s area of study? I ask because IME WWI is the generally skipped right over in US history and huge amounts of time are spent on WWII. In most of my classes if you got the flu at the wrong time you could easily end up with the impression that other than the Great Depression nothing at all happened in the US between the Civil War and WWII. Indian Wars? Spanish-American War? World War I? Never happened or weren’t important enough to bother with. 

    ETA: I occurs to me that my choice of illness is ironic, but I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t done a lot of outside reading. The Great Influenza got maybe two paragraphes in my high school history texts and I don’t think it was even mentioned before that.

  • Daughter

    I definitely remember in both 8th grade and 12th grade American history learning about the Chinese exclusion act, the gilded era, the Rough Riders, the League of Nations, and so on, and this was in an urban public school system.

    Unfortunately, the teachers who taught those two classes were among the most racist and sexist I had, so these topics were accompanied by heavy doses of racism and misogyny. My sister and I once talked about them as adults, wondering how on earth they weren’t driven out of the schools on a rail. We challenged their authority in the classroom, but no students, to my knowledge, thought we could do anything about getting rid of them.

    (For some reason, although there was more diversity in other subjects, every teacher I had for social studies or history was a white man. Not all were bad, however, and a couple–my 9th grade civics teacher and 11th grade European history teacher–were wonderful human beings and teachers).

     

  • Lori

     
    I definitely remember in both 8th grade and 12th grade American history learning about the Chinese exclusion act, the gilded era, the Rough Riders, the League of Nations, and so on, and this was in an urban public school system. 

     

    We covered all that, but the whole thing took maybe 2 weeks total. By contrast my 8th grade American history class spent 6 weeks on the Civil War. Other classes took less time, but I don’t think it was ever less than a couple weeks and we also routinely took 2-4 weeks on WWII. Even at that the war in the Pacific tended to get short shrift compared to the European theater. 

    The problem was we also tended to take multiple weeks on the stuff at the beginning of the book every. single. year. By the time I hit 7th or 8th grade I felt like I never wanted to even hear the world “pilgrim” again and figured that if no one had anything new to say about Vasco Da Gama I didn’t need to hear any more about him either. I did want to know how we ended up in Viet Nam though. I actively wanted an explanation for the war that I had caught glimpses of on TV and been sort of traumatized by as a kid* and I was POed that no one would give me one. In retrospect I realize why teachers didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole, but at the time I felt seriously ripped off. 

    *My parents didn’t let me watch, but they weren’t always fast enough shooing me out of the room. I have a (mild) fear of the sound of helicopters. It took me years to realize that it’s almost certainly because my parents didn’t realize I was watching from the stairs when the news showed the fall of Saigon. That is not the sort of thing that a kid is really equipped to process. 

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    Yes, this was in the U.S. and it was in high school. The teacher was pissed that we kept spending eons on explorers and the mostly fictional tales about Pilgrims and Puritans and ignoring more recent history, so he managed to convince Admin to have a class in twentieth-century history. It was a good class, and was the first and only time that I heard about the Red Scare in the 1920s. It was also the only time that we ever discussed the influenza pandemic and how it affected post-war society, Hoovervilles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt or the alphabet soup programs.

    World War II…we never got to it.  And it wasn’t the teacher’s fault. He budgeted about a month and a half for WWII. But then the administration started interfering. Oh, you have to have them read THIS article. You can’t ignore THAT and its impact on the Church. And so on. Every time we got to a point where we could have started World War II, the administration came up with some reason why we couldn’t just yet.

    The teacher was so fed up with the interference that he swore he would never teach this class again–which was probably what the administration had in mind. Though why they wouldn’t want kids to learn about WWII, McCarthyism or Korea is anyone’s guess. That never made any sense to me.

    Oh, and I live in an area where Indian wars were fought. So things like King Philip’s War, Tecumseh’s Rebellion, the Trail of Tears, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Sand Creek Massacre and the French and Indian War got a lot of attention. The Spanish-American War–most of my teachers focused on how it gave birth to yellow journalism and how you couldn’t trust the press, ever.

  • Lori

     
    The teacher was pissed that we kept spending eons on explorers and the mostly fictional tales about Pilgrims and Puritans and ignoring more recent history, so he managed to convince Admin to have a class in twentieth-century history. It was a good class, and was the first and only time that I heard about the Red Scare in the 1920s. It was also the only time that we ever discussed the influenza pandemic and how it affected post-war society, Hoovervilles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt or the alphabet soup programs.  

     

    I would have loved to cover those things in more detail in an actual class, so in that respect it sounds terrific. (There were a few important things about WWI that I didn’t get until grad school and it certainly would have been nice to have picked them up sooner.)  It’s obviously less terrific that the Admin. butted in so much that you never got to what should have been the 2nd half of the class. It is odd that they seemed to determined to prevent that from happening. 

  • Albanaeon

    We got to Reagan in our HS American History, so it was a bit better.  Except of course that it was presented as the wonderful event that everyone was so happy about.  Considering that my earliest exposure to politics was my mother explaining that she REALLY didn’t like our president at the time and that was why she was going to vote for the other guy, I knew this wasn’t right.

  • Albanaeon

    We got to Reagan in our HS American History, so it was a bit better.  Except of course that it was presented as the wonderful event that everyone was so happy about.  Considering that my earliest exposure to politics was my mother explaining that she REALLY didn’t like our president at the time and that was why she was going to vote for the other guy, I knew this wasn’t right.

  • Daughter

    I just read the article Fred linked–great points!

  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    Some people are simply convinced that good=better and that to love a person or thing is by definition to believe that they’re better.  There are any number of reasons for why this is.  It may be that a strict upbringing leaves one unable to imagine any greater duty to his native culture except to assume its own correctness out of hand and right to dictate its norms to others as indisputible.  It might be a result of social privilege.   White middle-class Christians in the US are constantly encouraged by all forms of media to think of ourselves as the walking embodiment of America.  So that as long as there is no doubt that America is the Greatest Country on Earth there can be no doubt that we ourselves are the greatest mortal creatures who have ever walked the earth. 

    There are reasons why some people feel personally insulted when some ‘elitist’ tries to subject our culture to basic scrutiny, or even goes so far as to dare suggest that some other country is doing this thing or that thing better than we are.  It may seem hyperbolic to scream about how these people are pissing on the graves of the founding Fathers and dead soldiers.  But it’s not our fault that we can’t just openly say that we ourselves are as grand and important as founding fathers and dead soldiers. 

  • MaryKaye

    My impression as a student was that US history stopped sometime between the Civil War and WWII and was really, really boring.  I didn’t become interested until adulthood.  Given my druthers I’d have studied only ancient European and Asian history.

    In retrospect I think that teachers were afraid to get involved with topics that might relate too acutely to current politics.  This was in Alaska, a hyper-political (and very politically strange) sort of place.  I did have one class, debate, that did current events (and did them pretty well) but that teacher was notably fearless.  She taught me that I had both US Senators and state Senators and they were not the same people, bless her heart; one of the most useful D grades I ever got on a project, because I never forgot it.

    In much the same way, my younger siblings’ biology courses simply skated right past the origin of species.  Didn’t deny it, but taught nothing about it.  As an evolutionary biologist I feel that this eviscerates large areas of biology (“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”–Dobzhansky) and I bet history teachers felt just the same about our miserable history.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Not related to the rest of the conversation, but while I had the book cracked open I came across this section, which resonates with me*.

    On the United States of America my senses swung like a door with no latch…Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion. Rage is common. But then, one rages about one’s siblings from time to time, and one’s own country; it is not rational, in the main. Yet there had been a time when anti-Americanism took on the gleam of reason. As earnest student radicals in the late 1960s, we saw the thread that joined the vicious white mobs of the South to the very foundations of the republic—because we learned that such founders of American democracy as Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. We learned what we took to be the real truth about the Indian Wars, the Mexican Wars and the Monroe Doctrine, and it persuaded us that Vietnam was part of a pattern which, when you looked at it hard, revealed IMPERIALISM.
    But just as we were thinking that it was in the ‘nature’ of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appeared. The Freedom Marchers had been Americans. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelman was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. The most articulate critics of America—the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal—were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. That paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.

     
    *Don Watson’s memoirs are called Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. So we’re related J

  • Anonymous

    .. But then just a few passages later in Deuteronomy 13, God tells you to kill everyone who doesn’t believe in him, be they neighbors, your children, or entire cities. And this is why we don’t quote Deuteronomy! Bloodthirstiest book in the entire Bible, it is.

  • Tricksterson

    Joshua mightbe worse.  Basically it can be summed up as.  “We met these people.  God said they were bad.  So we killed them all.  All the men, all the women all the children.  Also their cows, goats, sheep, pigs, cats and dogs.  Lather, rinse, repeat.”

  • Intersection Victorian

    I graduated recently from the Victorian school system. The schools I went to taught us some things about Australian history, ‘though nothing after WWII. WWI and the convict period were covered in quite a bit of detail, and we also learned some stuff about WWII, the gold rush, and aboriginal society before European settlement and in the convict period (there was also brief mention of the Stolen Generation, but generally what we were taught in school probably gave the impression that Aboriginal history ended in the convict period). I suppose some of that was stuff the schools chose to cover.

    As far as foreign history, I think all we learned about outside of English classes was stuff from the 19th century or earlier, and mostly about Europe.

    In English class, we learned about the times our texts were written and set, and that covered quite a bit of history that wasn’t covered otherwise, including the only post WWII history we learned. I guess what was covered there would depend on what texts were used.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Canadian history classes in British Columbia stop roughly with the Second World War, at least when I took the classes back in high school. If you wanted to learn modern history you needed to take grade 12 history which was 20th century world history.

    Over the course of grades 8 to 11 (four years worth!) we spent a LOT of time on Canadian history from the early days of British and French landing on the shores of the North American continent – the North West Mounted Police – the voyageurs, les filles du roi, the Plains of Abraham, the BNA Act, etc etc.

    Along the way we got a healthy dose of what you might call American caution-ism. We were taught about the American concept of Manifest Destiny – the right claimed by the USA to rule all of North America – and it was most definitely slanted in the direction of “The US would have loved to swallow up Canada”. If you think a teenager who learns that does get left with the impression the USA might still want to do it, well, you’d be right – especially in an era when the Prime Minister (Brian Mulroney) gets made the butt of dirty jokes about providing sexual services for the US President, especially after the enactment of the FTA.

    I think part of Canada’s different national identity comes from being taught about two countries, not just one (which you kind of have to do since the US and Canada are both British creations of a sort), and recognition of the French fact (that is, the presence of Quebec) in Canada’s history as well.

    Given the distorted and hagiographic versions of history I’ve seen people relate here, it may be that one part of American exceptionalism is the pop-culture understanding of World War II (GOOD GUYS BEAT BAD GUYS) coupled with the romanticization of people like Davy Crockett (or the antebellum south, or what-have-you) that mix together to create a, hmm, shall we say, rather unnecessarily ‘clean’ view of the USA as seen from inside the country.

  • Tricksterson

    Here’s a question regarding your last paragraph, namely don’t all countries present a sanitized and/oor glorified version of their history?  I don’t really think the US is exceptional in that regard.

  • Lori

    Yes. Anyone who thinks that the version of their country’s history that they were taught in public school is the whole unvarnished truth has some unpleasant surprises coming if they look any deeper. That applies to every country I’ve ever looked at or heard of and is definitely not just a US thing. The way US history tends to be taught can be an exaggerated version of that, but I think that’s a consequence of exceptionalism more than a cause. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Granted. But the Canadian history we were taught included things like the way traders took advantage of Indians by trading them alcohol that would make them sick in exchange for furs, as just one example of the early stages of a long and sad history of Canadian governments being less than helpful to Aboriginal peoples.

  • Lori

    We learned that sort of thing in our history classes too. My Michigan state history class covered quite a bit on the less savory aspects of how the trappers, the priests and the settlers all treated the native tribes horribly and we certainly learned that the federal government made did horrible things. I have no doubt that there are places and times were kids weren’t thought about that, but the bad history of the US government and the tribes is not universally dodged in the US.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Here’s a question regarding your last paragraph, namely don’t all countries present a sanitized and/oor glorified version of their history? I don’t really think the US is exceptional in that regard.

    From…I’m not sure exactly when, maybe the early 90s?…there was an increased tendency for Australian history classes, and the national conversation more generally, to acknowledge the various nasty sides of our history–especially treatment of Indigenous people, which has a very large and very nasty side. This created a lot of consternation among conservatives, including the Liberal Prime Minister, who complained about “black armband history”.

    This is the era when I was studying high school, so my history education was pretty frank. But older generations I speak to seemed to have the traditional “ANZAC war heroes and explorers let’s not focus too much on the rest” narrative.

  • Tricksterson

    Well  we did try to take Canada both during the Revolurion and the War of 1812 and yeah we wanted at least a chunk of Canada up til and for a while after the days of “54’40 or Fight”.  Nowadays it’s more that we think either that you are functionally part of us as in “USA Lite” or that you represent the threat of creeping socialism, that Obama and his Atheistic Socialist Muslim Masters (Yeah, I know, don’t ask) want to turn us into you, which, as I’ve said elsewhere, while I don’t particularly want it doesn’t exactly fill me with shivering dread either.


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