The Repulsive American

Not long after the needle dropped on the new Wilco record, Schmilco, I heard the pejorative lyric “Always afraid of those normal American kids.” It’s a good song, for those of us alt-rock, alt-country, noise-rock fans (which I think has now become “Dad-rock”), but I immediately reacted negatively: do we have to have another cultural critique? Jeff Tweedy is a little older than I am, a GenXer in his 40s (he’s 49), so I know he’s heard how bad America is his whole life. When it comes to American culture, I have never seen or heard anything but criticism. What cultural or popular fad, meme, or trend has there ever been, in my lifetime, that praises normal American kids? Still, it’s a great song, very appropriate, reflecting my own experiences, yada yada yada…

When I was 21, I visited my uncle, who lives in Munich, a large city in Bavaria which has its own nefarious near history. In fact, at the time, he lived in a large house, even by American standards, on the Starnberger See, very close to the Schloss Neuschwanstein, Crazy King Luey’s swan song, before he kinda sorta drowned/was drowned before he could drain all the money from all the pockets in Bavaria to build it, and which inspired Walt Disney. Before both my feet had crossed the threshold to his home, my uncle declared, in his very best broken English, “George Bush is evil.” Those were his first words to me; I’d never met him before. Here is my nephew, the son of my beloved sister. I shall greet him, I the son of two Nazis, by deeming his head of state evil. 

This is the milquetoast George H. W. Bush, by the way.

Eventually, I shrugged it off, the offense redeemed by some grilled weisswurst and enormous pretzels. Oh, and beer.

It is my great fortune to work in Canada three days a week, but Canadian cuisine is not quite enough to redeem the same offenses, which are given on a weekly basis, especially now that Trump is threatening to take over the nuclear codes, surely damning the world to a nuclear winter. But even twelve years ago, long before Trump was a national political figure, the greeting was tinged with America is evil.

A student of mine this fall, even, a gentleman from Punjab, an immigrant to Canada, one of those fellows who really is smarter than the professor (and by a long shot), but who is kind enough not to shame me, said, when I first introduced myself to him, without any context nor any provocation, “America can’t be number one. No way, not with seventeen percent literacy. American can’t be number one.” Perhaps he said seventy-six percent; I don’t remember. I shrugged, being a guest in a very nice country Nevertheless, this unprovoked outburst against America was telling, and it did fertilize a few thoughts.

Why did he instantly refer to America’s literacy rate? That was interesting. His rhetorical move, there, was reminiscent of that notorious clip from The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels lists off all the things that demonstrably takes America down a few pegs. How long ago was that? Five years ago? Who was expressing pride in America five years ago? When was the last time you heard anyone of any intellectual or cultural capacity uttering the jingoistic “We’re number one!”? Donald Trump’s campaign slogan assumes the exact opposite! Jeff Daniels’ speech, of course, is an American Left wet dream, filled with metrics. America can’t possibly be number one. I mean, you’ve got to watch out for those normal American kids.

I was visiting other family over there, in Germany, which put me in the working and middle class neighborhoods throughout the region of Baden-Wurttemberg, you know, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Baden-Baden. Traveling back and forth to see grandparents (divorced), uncles, and cousins put me on the mass transit system many afternoons, where I could witness the behavior of normal German kids, just released from their literacy-building centers. Lookit, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you: German culture has never actually forsworn pagan culture. After seeing that unceasing cacophony day after day, I honestly don’t know how Western Civilization is going to survive, guided by those normal German kids.

Why literacy? Why did he glom onto that metric? How is literacy associated with greatness? When was America ever first in literacy? Was America ever great?

It must be discomfiting for the many non-Americans who must answer to this great nation, the United States of America, observing that it is truly ruled by stupid and superstitious people. And I know, for example, that my Punjab student, like so many who were given just a tiny advantage in birth, who took care of that advantage so that he might by careful living and hard work emigrate from a crowded, impoverished, violent hellhole to a great nation of peace and freedom like Canada, must be infuriated to see Americans laze about, scratching their full bellies, living like kings, and squealing about the unfairness of a little state redistribution, the hypocrites. There’s no way America can be number one, no way, not ruled by people like that. My God, they might even elect Donald Trump!

Is America great? It can’t be, can it? Not now, not run by those whose names appear on the first page of the Boston area phone book. It should be run by those whose names appear atop the Dean’s List at Harvard and MIT; then America would be great. In that day and at that time (may it hasten unto us!), policy would align with carefully investigated and researched university and foundation policy papers, and America could truly take its place in the pantheon of all the other run-of-the-mill social democracies, without error and with social justice. That would be greatness, greatness which can be measured according to so many delightful metrics.

As for me, I far prefer pursuing happiness, over against just about anything else. To me, true national greatness is a nation whose domestic policy is less policy, more distrust of government implementation, whose justice is worked out as locally as possible. I suppose the vestiges of that ideal are being cleaned up and swept away, regardless of whichever evil we choose this November. I think it is true now, as it was true then: “Always afraid of those normal American kids.”

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The Ribbon of War

On Memorializing Warfare’s Fallen Warriors

Many people have died in fulfillment of the oath they took according to the Constitution of the United States, which remained unchanged from 1789 to 1950, when it underwent a slight revision, but has remained materially the same for 227 years: namely to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the orders of the President of the United States. Thus many would rather die than swear falsely this oath.

Glancing through the history of the United States, World War II serves as the emblem of that loyalty, wherein hundreds of thousands perished defending the Constitution from what was perceived to be an existential threat on two fronts: from Asia and from Europe. I equivocate because I sit in the luxury of being removed two generations from that perceived threat; moreover, the question is before us today, given the intricacies of international relations: can there even be such an existential threat?

Well, was there ever such an existential threat to the Constitution of the United States? Let’s say yes there was, and World War II is it. I hearken to the opening dialogue of the wonderful HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which is a dramatization of interviews conducted first by historian Stephen Ambrose, drawing from a few of his books, and supplemented by interviews conducted by the producers of the TV series.

“Get your uniforms,” someone shouts in a marketplace.

“Why?”

“America is in a war with Japan.”

And so it began. I am struck by this introduction: America’s population was largely surprised by the onset of war. Studying the decade leading up to Pearl Harbor, it seems obvious to me that the United States was basically inviting itself into a historic conflagration just by sheer policy moves made by a cynical government overseen by the architect of the New Deal and the packer of the Supreme Court, FDR, who, despite his pernicious ways, remained popular enough that he was in his third term as president, inviting, as I say, foreign attack. How could those who were living in that time be surprised?

Well, some were, and some weren’t. Roosevelt wasn’t that popular, and his critics were quick to point out, especially as the Pacific theater quickly turned hopeless, that this was Roosevelt’s War, that he needed it to hide his nefarious, anti-American, pro-Socialism, domestic policies, among which critics was ensconced the hero George S. Patton, named by Carlo d’Este as A Genius For War, to whom we will return momentarily.

In the meantime, our national identity given by WWII pours from the bloody victories earned at Iwo Jima, and, in particular, in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, which was won by the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, bloodied but unbowed. In oft-depicted scenes, we find our heroes throwing back the fierce German Wehrmacht without proper food, clothes, shoes, ammunition, weapons, or even winter coats, withstanding one of the coldest Decembers on record without the luxury of a mere campfire.

When we celebrate these heroes, for surely they were, we see them fighting against all hope, victorious by sheer American grit and fortitude, as Ambrose puts it, pitting the ideals of American freedom against the tyranny of fascism, and we won.

But why were our heroes essentially naked? Couldn’t we have won more easily with our vast resources producing fully, protected by two gigantic oceans? Why did they have to suffer, and why for so long?

Let me introduce to you one Major General John C. H. Lee, the commander of the supply army for the European Theater, disdainfully called “Jesus Christ Himself,” a man notorious for seeking the pleasures of conquest and aggrandizing all things earthly unto himself. In September of 1944, when he should have been supplying the combat armies with winter materiel, he was instead shipping tons of prefabricated housing for his officers and men, whose job it was to acquire for themselves, kicking up a share through the officers to their commander.

In other words, there was an entire army of thieves, scoundrels, and crooks given solely to creating a black market, siphoning off anything of value for their own enrichment, and at the expense of 1) the American laborer and 2) their comrades-at-arms holding the line. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers were happy denizens of a rear-echelon empire of thievery.

Why were the 101st and the 82nd divisions rushed to Bastogne in the first place? Another army of American soldiers was in panicked retreat, wild-eyed with fear, throwing down their arms and ammunition in a bid to escape the horrors of warfare as quickly as possible. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers was in retreat.

Patton’s rescue of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne (which has never been acknowledged as necessary by those battered bastards) is another tale of heroism. The genius for war saw that his superiors were far too complacent with the progress of war, and that their bungling of the battlefield, for political reasons, was percolating toward a sudden reversal of fortune; indeed, fortune had allowed the Allies to progress in spite of many terrible decisions, not the least of which was removing Patton from command.

The German Army never believed for one second that Eisenhower had removed Patton, the greatest general of the entire war, for the misdemeanor of slapping a soldier, considering the entire media storm to have been manufactured as a deceptive ploy. In fact, the political sensitivities of the Allies had prevailed against Patton, and the Allied advance stalled, festered, and nearly broke under the German counteroffensive.

Nevertheless, Patton, singular among the entire European command, had foreseen the counteroffensive, almost to the day and place; not only that, but he had prepared his army for it, from the top brass all the way to the common foot soldier. This “pivot,” as it is called, disengaging from the enemy on one front, marching without ceasing for forty-eight hours, and re-engaging the enemy on another front, is a marvel of warfare.

It was a few men, then, under the duress of a fanatical enemy and also in defiance of their own bureaucracy, who won the war. I’m sure there are many veterans of that war, and many fallen comrades, who fought ably and heroically, sandwiched between General J. C. H. Lee and the Battered Bastards of Bastogne who welcomed George S. Patton’s 3rd Army to the party, but without the few, the many would have foundered and failed.


Let’s say we are surprised by the perception of an existential threat in the near future. Looking around at our culture, which seems dangerously preoccupied with its genitalia and the free stuff from the government to stimulate the same, it might be difficult to believe that we would even stop gazing at our crotches long enough to raise an army for the battle. Ah, it is not the many who prevail, but the few, who carry the many, and the many thank them for preserving them in spite of thievery and onanism and cowardice.

You’ve met my friend Rafe in previous posts. He’s a real person, and he really is my friend, whom I consider to be a thoughtful eccentric, of no particular philosophy or commonly held worldview. He’s the youngest of four brothers, and he’s my age, so he won’t be one of the few of those thoughtful warriors, but a decade or two ago he would have been. He has three sons of his own, chips off the old block (with normal names), but with the same ideals, and, I think, a willingness to spearhead an assault to preserve the ideals of freedom for us who might not be so willing, and, if willing, less able.

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Ever vigilant, Rafe calls them in. #turkeyhunting

I mentioned to Adam Gurri recently that Rafe has no air-conditioning in his home, and he heats his home with a wood-burning stove. And look: while Western New York might seem rural to many of you, it’s not rural. His house is situated in the country between Rochester and Buffalo, and he has five neighbors within a literal stone’s throw of his front door. Every year he has an argument with his one neighbor about whether he can track a wounded deer onto his fields, which his neighbor refuses to grant, illegally harvesting, then, the deer which Rafe shot. I digress. But it’s so un-neighborly…And in God’s America!

Anyway, I mentioned to Adam Gurri that Rafe has no AC and heats his home with a wood-burning stove, and we both thought it was hilarious that anyone would want to live like that, what with affordable thermostat-controlled environments and all.

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Rafe heats his home with a wood-burning stove because he likes it, not because he’s some backwater oaf. The house, nevertheless, is unevenly heated, but such actuality creates a pattern of living in which his family thrives. And he’s not entirely brutish: he recently bought an air-conditioner, one of those interior wall-mounted doohickeys, under which we sat all day this past Sunday while Western New York roasted in temperatures rising to almost 90° (the agony!). Later on, we went outside and did some firearm target practice.

We will look to such people, in the case of a surprise existential crisis, people who are intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, morally stable, and violent. People like Rafe are like me in that they are both pessimistic about the ability of society to preserve itself and aware of the caprice of the ribbon of war. They are more than me in that they will prefer to die in spite of its caprice, hoping.

Of Course The U.S. Can Do Better

But do we want to? And why would we want to? Why should efficiency and progress be a goal of a federal government?

It was sweet of Sam Hammond to respond to my gigantic troll piece the way he did: normally, trolling Sam is like poking a hornet’s nest after chaining yourself to the tree; I expected to be obliterated (I would have deserved it), but he showed the kind of restraint that makes Sweet Talk Conversation the Azores of the internet.

As I mentioned, I spend half my working life in Canada, and I also travel infrequently overseas and to Central America to do leadership training among charitable organizations, so I hear and experience quite a bit of the States as an outsider looking in, fielding all sorts of questions, responding to myths and misconceptions, and also taking no small amount of grief for our many sins. As an example, on Tuesday, a Canadian gentleman I work with was astonished that Obama should not be the most popular person in America because he gave poor people free health care. It was all I could do to maintain decorum enough to explain that, no, that’s not quite the issue. In short, I’ve had to explain America to non-Americans and even non-Anglophones (a special challenge by itself) an awful lot.

There’s a similar thing going on with Sam, who has a tenacious grip on facts and concepts, along with the many relationships and moving parts, and I hope I can remain one of his students–at least until the time comes when his intellect flies to a place where mine can no longer fathom. Nevertheless, he glossed over one part of the Spirit of ’76, treating a feature of our founding as more of a design quirk. He said, “The US federal government was not designed to be good at stuff.”

I will quibble here, with all due respect to Sam, whom I must have irritated to the point of distraction. I think it is better to say that the US federal government was, in fact, designed to not be good at stuff.

Abraham Lincoln, of mixed fame, reminded the world of this feature of our founding at Gettysburg, when he intoned, “Four score and seven years ago…” which refers to the year 1776. Nowadays we take it for granted that the American Declaration of Independence is the loading of the gun that fired the shot heard ’round the world. But that perspective was not de facto until after Lincoln was enshrined in the American Virtues Hall of Fame. Until that moment at Gettysburg, the American Civil War was being fought over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, i.e., whether states had the right to determine this or that, with “this or that” including something as heinous as slavery–and not just human slavery, but the slavery of a race of men.

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In other words, pro-Constitutionalists who took the side of states’ rights were arguing in favor of tyranny. They were using the Constitution to exercise tyranny.

In the land of freedom? Shall tyranny be encoded in the Constitution of the land which declared independence from a tyrant?

The American spirit, from that day in Gettysburg forward, has always reached beyond the actual founding of the country according to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–beyond that to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. What Lincoln did was revolutionary, highlighting the actual intent of the crafters of the Constitution, namely that it shall be so messy that no tyrant shall seize free people.

An efficient and progressive federal government is too tempting a prize for an ambitious person, and, on balance, I think that Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin would look at the drooling, unwieldy behemoth that is presently the United States Government, and they would rejoice. What tyrant would seize control of this?

It is not without great irony that Abraham Lincoln would hear shouted as he was perishing, “Sic semper tyrannis!” He had just made it virtually impossible for a tyrant to arise. See subsequent American history, current events included.

The limits of our dreams

I want to speak about America’s founding myth and the resulting difficulty in establishing a large faction of Burkean conservatism within American politics.

One of the stories that people tell each other most often are their own origin myths. They are told to children (frequently as “history lessons”), but also adults tell and retell them to each other to reinforce the myth and signal the teller’s membership within the tribe. 

These myths aren’t inherently bad. I think they play an important part in allowing human nations to vastly exceed Dunbar’s number in a peaceful and cooperative manner. But it must be recognized that the origin myth can become a limiting factor under certain circumstances. If an origin myth says that Tribe A is defined by its participation in X, then it’s very difficult for members of Tribe A to switch to institution Y without also rejecting their identity as A’s.

Let’s get specific – the American origin myth is the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies in pursuit of religious freedom, followed by the American Revolution. Americans have built massive shrines and obelisks for the men involved, monuments to ancestor worship, and gaze upon its founding documents as holy objects. There are also satirical versions, but that’s how the legends of Hercules probably started too.

The point is, America is about freedom, and kicking the ass of tyrants if necessary to make it happen. (and similarities between that sentence and recent foreign policy is entirely non-coincidental)

And this is why it’s so damned hard to form a faction within American politics that takes genuine conservatism (the sort of conservatism that Edmund Burke or Robert Peel might recognize) seriously. America is defined by its Revolution, and its Revolution was a very un-conservative thing to do. For an American to really accept conservative principles, and apply them consistently, he must admit that the American Revolution was a very bad idea in the outset, benefited greatly from luck in its outcomes not being terrible, and at best was probably “harmless” to the long run of history.

Let’s break down that previous sentence a bit.

The American Revolution was a bad idea: Revolutions usually don’t go well. The French Revolution led to the terror, the Russian Revolution led to Lenism and later Stalinism, and the German revolution (as I think of Hitler’s rise to power) led to Nazism. All three of these revolutions led to much bloodshed and loss within their nations, and in some cases it spilled outward quite messily. Also, the English Civil War and rule of Oliver Cromwell we no picnic either. Frankly, the list of revolutions that lead to genuine improvement for the people in revolt is fairly short. The Founders took a terrible gamble with America’s future by initiating a break from an imperfect but not terrible regime.

The American Revolution was lucky: This is tied to the previous one, but it was luck that America’s greatest General was also an incredibly enlightened and effective President. Let’s remember that Washington was offered the chance to be King, and also could have kept running for President after his second term. In both cases he turned away from power. How many men in history would have done that? If Washington had made himself King, or held onto the Presidency for as long as possible (setting a more FDR-like precedent), America would have been worse off than it was.

The American Revolution was probably pointless: Just look at Canada, Australia, and even Bermuda. Seriously, it’s hard to say how Americans today (at least in the thirteen original colonies) would be materially worse off as a member of the Commonwealth. The only argument that the Revolution was beneficial is if you believe that the Westward expansion under America’s “manifest destiny” was both good for history and wouldn’t have been largely the same under British rule. 

Are you an American? Are you bristling at the above description? I bet Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh (two leading opinion-makers in American “conservatism”) would answer “Yes” to both questions. 

At the heart of American “conservatism” is a very un-conservative thing, and this origin myth both attracts the radical-minded and repels the conservative-minded. Which is why America doesn’t really have a Conservative Party in the same manner than Canada and England have their Tories. America just has post-Christian secular radicals and Christian radicals. Yay.