Getting my head around America



This was happening while we were in the US. Yet we were unaware of it. The media buried it.

Jon Stewart enjoys great sport in confronting conservative and right wing Americans with the consequences of America’s revolutionary tradition. The Tea Party used violent and illegal methods to make a political point. Yet they would deny the Occupy Wall Street movement legitimacy on the basis of a few misdemeanours.

It takes a special kind of chopped logic to attempt to argue that position. As can be seen in this clip that logic revolves around an a priority view of what is “good” for America. The Right are thus exposed as shills for corporate capitalism.
Schama’s America’s future, a history

Review: The American Future: A History by Simon Schama
Last Updated: 8:07PM BST 13/10/2008
Simon Schama doesn’t just write history, says Raymond Seitz, he wants to star in it

There’s nothing like a television camera to make a historian go all giddy and coy, but in this case we have Schama Unbound. His latest book is intended to accompany his new BBC series about America on the eve of its presidential election. What is an American and what makes the country tick? Like any good historian – and Simon Schama is very good – he looks backward in order to see forward. But that damn camera turns this project into performance history with Schama the Star – a couple of jokes, a little soft shoe and then a whammy insight.

In fact, Schama is an entire cast unto himself. Sometimes he is the wry Observer asking questions because he already knows the answers. Sometimes he is the outraged Moralist lecturing a presumably rapt audience on how iniquitous Americans can be. Sometimes he is Uncle Remus sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch whittling (doubtless a perfect replica of the Winged Victory of Samothrace) and spinning yarns. And sometimes he is a fine historian plucking little-known players from American archives and depicting how they represent the essential American character.

The first part of the book centres on Montgomery Meigs, the Quartermaster General of the Grand Army of the Republic, whose logistical genius during the Civil War enabled Grant to hammer Lee all the way to Appomattox. Like all graduates of the American military academy at West Point in those 19th-century days, Meigs was an engineer. Among his many civil achievements, he built the great dome of the Capitol in Washington, which Schama sees as a self-portrait of Meigs’s skull (sic). In righteous vengeance, Meigs laid out Arlington Memorial Cemetery in the grounds of General Lee’s mansion overlooking the Potomac.

Using Meigs as a touchstone, the author wanders into a perceptive discussion of the founding of ?West Point and how it represented the familiar dichotomy in American thought between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton; the former believing a standing army was a standing threat to the republic and the latter seeing a standing army as a requisite ingredient of national power. Jefferson basically won the argument until 1945, Schama says, from which point Hamilton has taken over this ‘vast, permanent corporate institution’. And by the way, while we’re on the subject, Teddy Roosevelt was a Social Darwinian thug.

There were Meigses North and South during the Civil War, and there has been a Meigs in the military in each succeeding generation. Schama’s conversation with the most recent General Montgomery Meigs, whose thoughtful misgivings about the war in Iraq made little headway in Washington, pulls the long chapter together, but then the author goes and spoils it all with an egregious literary self-indulgence – a full-page, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy pretending to be the thoughts of the General’s father the night before his death as a tank commander at Rohbach in December, 1944.

Schama next addresses the intensity of religious fervour in contemporary America and the peculiarity of its extreme religious pluralism. He tells the story of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and how Williams established the principle of freedom of conscience (embodied in the colony’s charter, which was signed by Charles II of all people). The deist Thomas Jefferson gets equally high marks for Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom, which became law in that state four years before the birth of the US Constitution. Schama rightly points out that ‘American institutions are designed to protect citizens from religious coercion rather than enable it.’ But then, of course, we have the hypocrisy of slavery and the reactionary violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Schama disapproves of both.

And finally there is a lengthy treatment of American ‘paranoia’ about immigration and its domestic racism: anti-Indian (the Indian Removal Act of 1830); anti-Catholic (the Know-Nothing Party of the 1840s); anti-Hispanic (the annexation of ?Texas in 1845 and the conquest of California in 1848); anti-Chinese (the Exclusion Act of 1882). And because of its immigration quota system in the middle of the 20th century, America was also, it seems, partly responsible for the Holocaust. ‘And you thought 2008 was bad,’ comments the author.

Despite the title, the book says little about America’s future. As a nation of rapacious, Bible-bashing, militaristic, bloodthirsty, racist hypocrites, it perhaps shouldn’t have one (although there are some nice people there, too). Schama can’t resist snide comments about individuals he doesn’t like. On George Bush: ‘Honey, they shrunk the pres.’ On Vice President Cheney: ‘Just because it was Dick Cheney saying this didn’t automatically make it untrue.’ On Mitt Romney: ‘…his sleeves rolled up ready for – what precisely? Opening his own limo door?’

One glides through this book because Schama undeniably writes with colour and verve, but he also leaves the impression that he wishes to be the Pavarotti of historians, when in fact he seems more like the Barry Manilow (‘You don’t love me half as much as I do’). There is some excellent history here, but it struggles to escape from the stylistic vanity.


It’s a vision thing
Jay Parini is entranced by a brilliant, hopscotching volume of essays about the US past and present
Jay Parini
The Guardian, Sat 1 Nov 2008 00.01 GMT
Simon Schama is many things: widely ranging historian, art critic, public intellectual, television don. For some, he’s a bit too flashy, with a prose style glittering (at times) with fake jewels. On the other hand, a wide audience finds in him a rare form of intellectual entertainment, at once provocative and informative. As usual, in his latest multimedia production he swerves from past to present with staggering dexterity. The television series is already under way, so how does it do as a book?
Few writers can summon an era so well, or so briskly, with a telling anecdote or well-phrased aside. His unwieldy subject here is the US itself, where he has spent a good deal of his adult life, and which he understands deeply. Yet this book remains elusive. In many ways, it’s a sequence of riffs on American history accompanied by heady intimations of where things are going, and where they might go.
He opens with jaw-dropping audacity, saying he knows exactly when American democracy came back from the dead: on January 3 2008, during the Iowa caucus. He was there, he tells us: almost a spoof on the eyewitness account. We know what he means: that the rise of Barack Obama has had something to do with a resurgence of grassroots democracy. But he might as well have chosen any number of other anticipatory moments, such as the unlikely emergence of Howard Dean in 2004.
Schama likes a good story. History, for him, is narrative, although he insists that we should “retire the word ‘narrative’ – from graduate student courses; political analysts; image doctors; from anyone who doesn’t actually narrate”. Despite this remark, Schama narrates with gusto. And his narratives are not just one damn thing after another (to quote Arnold Toynbee); instead, he makes elaborate links, finding the plots in history, its hidden and necessary connections.
An enthusiast for Obama, Schama turns his hero into a narrative historian, something like himself: “When Obama spoke of wanting to replace the partisan division of ‘Red States’ and ‘Blue States’ with a recovered United States, it was impossible not to remember Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural, after the bitter election of 1800 that (after 39 ballots of the House of Representatives) finally brought him to power.” This is, perhaps, the proper role of the historian: to bring past and present together, using the one to illuminate the other.
Surprises abound in Schama’s work. I recall a passage in Landscape and Memory (1995), perhaps his finest book, where he summons a vision of the pristine “brilliant meadow floor” of Yosemite. It seemed a kind of Eden to the European eyes that first encountered it, God’s dream of paradise; yet it was the product of systematic fire-clearances by the Ahwahneechee Indians who lived there long ago. What you think you see is often not what you get.
This larger truth applies nicely to American history. For instance, Schama opens one section with a quotation from Dick Cheney: “America has never been a warrior culture.” Like hell we haven’t. Schama makes his point by following one American family, the Meigs, who appear always to have had someone on the field of battle. We hear about one Montgomery Meigs, who had worked with young Robert E Lee in the summer of 1837 on the Mississippi, surveying the river. When Lee eventually took up arms against the union, Meigs took it personally. His descendent, General Monty Meigs, appeared at the White House in 2006 to brief Dick Cheney, George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld about the dire situation on the ground in Iraq. This is history by example, channelling large abstractions into particular illustrations.
Schama revels in ironies, as in his shrewd meditations on immigration, where he points out that the US, while a nation of immigrants, has always taken a dim view of those currently aspiring to citizenship. There has been a persistent fear of losing one’s identity in the melting pot. Schama, the son of Jewish refugees, has a gut understanding of what it means to feel displaced, and how difficult assimilation can be.
In a section called “American Fervour”, he contemplates the curious passion that has underscored the American experience for generations, taking many forms – religious or political. There is always that search for the Promised Land, a place where all will be well. “The American future is all vision,” Schama writes, “numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation”. As ever, he revels in the contrast between this visionary gleam and the dark past that weighs it down.
This ragged, brilliant, hopscotching volume of vaguely connected essays is largely about America’s myth of its own exceptionalism, the belief that somehow the American will must triumph in the world. The appeal as well as the ruthlessness of this vision comes through in these pages. I was left feeling rather chilled by Schama’s take on the US and its prospects. This may be the end of an empire as we knew it, and one can only wonder what it will mean for someone like Obama to preside over its dismantling – or its transformation.
• Jay Parini’s forthcoming book is Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America (Doubleday)

Paul Krugman

And this reaction tells you something important — namely, that the extremists threatening American values are what F.D.R. called “economic royalists,” not the people camping in Zuccotti Park.

Consider first how Republican politicians have portrayed the modest-sized if growing demonstrations, which have involved some confrontations with the police — confrontations that seem to have involved a lot of police overreaction — but nothing one could call a riot. And there has in fact been nothing so far to match the behavior of Tea Party crowds in the summer of 2009.

Nonetheless, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, has denounced “mobs” and “the pitting of Americans against Americans.” The G.O.P. presidential candidates have weighed in, with Mitt Romney accusing the protesters of waging “class warfare,” while Herman Cain calls them “anti-American.” My favorite, however, is Senator Rand Paul, who for some reason worries that the protesters will start seizing iPads, because they believe rich people don’t deserve to have them.

Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor and a financial-industry titan in his own right, was a bit more moderate, but still accused the protesters of trying to “take the jobs away from people working in this city,” a statement that bears no resemblance to the movement’s actual goals.

And if you were listening to talking heads on CNBC, you learned that the protesters “let their freak flags fly,” and are “aligned with Lenin.”

The way to understand all of this is to realize that it’s part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is.

Last year, you may recall, a number of financial-industry barons went wild over very mild criticism from President Obama. They denounced Mr. Obama as being almost a socialist for endorsing the so-called Volcker rule, which would simply prohibit banks backed by federal guarantees from engaging in risky speculation. And as for their reaction to proposals to close a loophole that lets some of them pay remarkably low taxes — well, Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone Group, compared it to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

And then there’s the campaign of character assassination against Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer now running for the Senate in Massachusetts. Not long ago a YouTube video of Ms. Warren making an eloquent, down-to-earth case for taxes on the rich went viral. Nothing about what she said was radical — it was no more than a modern riff on Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous dictum that “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

But listening to the reliable defenders of the wealthy, you’d think that Ms. Warren was the second coming of Leon Trotsky. George Will declared that she has a “collectivist agenda,” that she believes that “individualism is a chimera.” And Rush Limbaugh called her “a parasite who hates her host. Willing to destroy the host while she sucks the life out of it.”

What’s going on here? The answer, surely, is that Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They’re not John Galt; they’re not even Steve Jobs. They’re people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they’re still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.

This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny. Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage. In fact, the more reasonable and moderate a critic sounds, the more urgently he or she must be demonized, hence the frantic sliming of Elizabeth Warren.

So who’s really being un-American here? Not the protesters, who are simply trying to get their voices heard. No, the real extremists here are America’s oligarchs, who want to suppress any criticism of the sources of their wealth.


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