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Thursday, 8 September 2011
The problem with American-Exceptionalism
The preaching of “American-Exceptionalism” has become a stumbling block for many historians. It is a narrow-minded and archaic way of looking at our nation’s past and does nothing to expand our knowledge of history. By simply believing that we were, are, and always will be the best is not only conceited, it is completely illogical and ignorant. I believe in exceptional people while simultaneously rejecting the notion of an exceptional nation. We can be proud of our heritage and still be honest about ourselves. America is a great country for sure, but it is not THE greatest country. For any country to make that claim is absurd. Therefore “American-Exceptionalism” is a myth. It is a lazy practice that is propagated by the rehashing of biased history. The only way to get away from it is to get away from ourselves. Enter the foreign press. Sometimes the best way to get an honest answer is to get a second, unbiased opinion. After spending a few hours on foreign press websites I have found five common beliefs about America’s view of history that are shared across the globe.
- America has created a revised version of its own story. This adaptation is taught to its youth and contaminates their fundamental understanding of history for the rest of their lives.
- The nation’s founding documents are revered more like divine scriptures than legal documents. This is the primary cause of never-ending controversy and misinterpretation.
- The vision of an underdog rising against tyrants has indelibly been etched in the nation's consciousness. Americans believe that their fight for independence trumps all others.
- Misguided and inappropriate hero-worship abounds in America. There is no distinction between the real contributions of a George Washington and the fantasy ones of a John Wayne.
- America persists in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States.
I don’t think anyone can argue with those points. One article in particular put America’s historical vanity in perspective for me. It was written by a German journalist named Thomas Klau for the Financial Times, Deutschland, Germany. Appropriately titled 'Cult of the Founding Fathers' is Obscuring America's Worldview, this piece outlines why our exaggerated and self-centered interpretation of American history has affected our perspective, not only of ourselves, but also the rest of the world. Klau writes:
…And while it is a pillar of American democracy, that healing strength that is founded in the cult of the founding fathers has a rather peculiar consequence: The intentions of these political actors of two centuries ago are the ultimate touchstone for conditions in the United States today; and to this day it is this backward-perspective that to a great extent influences America’s perceptions of the rest of the world. Americans are hardly conscious of this, and since they never discuss it, the phenomenon is hardly registered in Europe. But anyone who listens to the way Americans discuss themselves is surprised at America's implicit self-comparison, less with real foreign countries than to another, mythical, abroad. And it's this imaginary abroad which is manifestly ruled by an unrestrained monarch where no constitutional court dominates state and government, and where people are not equal and less free than the citizens of the much-blessed United States.
In America, the collective image of foreign countries is a mythical one, preserved as if in formaldehyde, handed down from the time of the founding fathers with the Kingdom of England circa 1776 unconsciously serving as the main point of reference. This allows the United States to persist in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States. One only has to recall the repressive American culture of prohibition and punishment. It is in this way that the tradition-arrested Americans protect themselves against the pressure to compare their own achievements and social structures against real foreign examples. Thus the myth and collective emotion stabilize society. But this happens at the expense of critical thinking and lessons learned. It is a double-edged phenomenon that has worked its way into every aspect of American public life.
I am curious as to how the proponents of “American-Exceptionalism” would respond to this. Some would no doubt scoff at this German’s interpretation of us and disregard it as yet another silly foreigner’s unwelcomed opinion. Others who are less astute will offer the same old argument that America is simply the best because God blessed us above all others. I look at this as a challenge for American historians to work harder at examining our past in the present. Maybe then we can claim to truly understand who we are and where we come from. Maintaining a superiority complex that was started by our ancestors does nothing to evolve the study of American history.
Ben Franklin, ambassador, inventor, sex therapist?
Although we aren’t exactly sure of Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on sex (see 9/2 post), we do know for a fact what Benjamin Franklin thought about it. We know this as Franklin, a man who confessed to having carnal knowledge of “women of low character,” was kind enough to leave behind a graphically-salacious letter that was penned in 1745. This kinky and revealing correspondence, once considered to be obscene and intentionally left out of published collections, was written to an unknown individual who was rumored to have been Cadwallader Colden, the Lt.Governor for the Province of New York.
The theme of the letter deals with Franklin’s remedies for a young man’s sexual urges. After recommending marriage as an obvious and less-exciting alternative, Franklin offers up eight dirty-minded benefits of having an older mistress. It appears that Mr. Franklin, an adulterous playboy himself, was able to apply his whimsical no-nonsense perspective towards the “cougar-community.”
June 25, 1745
My dear Friend,
I know of no Medicine fit to diminish the violent natural Inclinations you mention; and if I did, I think I should not communicate it to you. Marriage is the proper Remedy. It is the most natural State of Man, and therefore the State in which you are most likely to find solid Happiness. Your Reasons against entring into it at present, appear to me not well-founded. The circumstantial Advantages you have in View by postponing it, are not only uncertain, but they are small in comparison with that of the Thing itself, the being married and settled. It is the Man and Woman united that make the compleat human Being. Separate, she wants his Force of Body and Strength of Reason; he, her Softness, Sensibility and acute Discernment. Together they are more likely to succeed in the World. A single Man has not nearly the Value he would have in that State of Union. He is an incomplete Animal. He resembles the odd Half of a Pair of Scissars. If you get a prudent healthy Wife, your Industry in your Profession, with her good Economy, will be a Fortune sufficient.
But if you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones. You call this a Paradox, and demand my Reasons. They are these:
1. Because as they have more Knowledge of the World and their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreable.
2. Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a 1000 Services small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.
3. Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc’d may be attended with much Inconvenience.
4. Because thro’ more Experience, they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclin’d to excuse an old Woman who would kindly take care of a young Man, form his Manners by her good Counsels, and prevent his ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.
5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.
6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her for Life unhappy.
7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflections; none of which can attend the making an old Woman happy.
8. They are so grateful!!
Thus much for my Paradox. But still I advise you to marry directly; being sincerely
Your affectionate Friend,
View this letter at The Rosenbach Museum & Library, Leather Archives & Museum.
Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Upcoming film events
On Saturday, September 24th, “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” documentary will be featured as part of the University of Mary Washington’s Annual Family Weekend. A special screening will take place in the beautiful state-of-the-art Jepson Alumni Executive Center at 3 pm. Cast members John Cummings and Megan Hicks will be on hand to offer their insights and commentary. Flyers with DVD ordering information will be on hand. Tours of the Fredericksburg Battlefield and Brompton will also be available through the school. For more details and/or directions, visit http://www.umw.edu/familyweekend/.
Cast member Megan Hicks will be appearing at the National Storytelling Festival on Fri-Sun, October 7-9 in Jonesborough TN. This event is the biggest storytelling festival in the United States. Copies of “The Angel” on DVD will be available for purchase at the Festival Marketplace near Megan’s other merchandise. The National Storytelling Festival is produced by the International Storytelling Center which is dedicated to inspiring and empowering people everywhere to capture and tell their stories, listen to the stories of others, and use storytelling to produce positive change. For more information on this event, visit http://www.storytellingcenter.net/. For more on Megan, visit www.meganhicks.com.
Right Stripe Media LLC is currently exploring the possibility of holding a December 2011 screening of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” in Fredericksburg, VA to commemorate the anniversary of the battle. Details will be made available if/as they are secured. Producer Michael Aubrecht will be selling copies of the DVD at several 2012 speaking engagements including the May meeting of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable and the annual Civil War Weekend at the Carnegie Library and Music Hall in Pittsburgh, PA. Additional dates will be listed as they are secured.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 8:25 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2011 8:27 AM EDT
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Tuesday, 6 September 2011
An inspiration for us all
You may recall a few months back I posted about my friend Attila Domos, author, composer, musician, and athlete. Attila was one of the inspirations behind my new wheelchair tour company and his autobiographical book Because You Shouldn't be Afraid to Chase Your Dreams is now available. Attila was profiled on WTAE Channel 4 News in Pittsburgh and has now set his sights on the final frontier. WATCH VIDEO
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:08 PM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2011 7:41 AM EDT
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Walking "The Dueling Path"
This weekend the family and I went on a wonderful nature walk at Alum Spring Park. For most folks this 34-acre property tucked back behind the Greenbrier apartment complex is merely a recreational site featuring picnic tables, playgrounds, hibachi grills, and hiking trails. For those who have more of a historical interest, it is also the site of both natural and colonial-era landmarks.
This includes a geological sandstone formation estimated to be 100 million years old, the locations of an old gristmill and icehouse from the 1800’s, remnants of a 30ft. dam and rail bed for the old Virginia Central Railroad, property that once housed Hessian POWs, and a postcard-pretty stop along the waterline known as “Fat Annie’s Swimming Hole.” (George Washington had surveyed the property for his brother-in-law, Fielding Lewis, who operated a mill there.)
Alum Springs also features a unique site of deadly confrontations. Christened “The Dueling Path,” this narrow cliff-side alleyway between the Alum Spring rock and the mill pond, bore witness to two tragic encounters. According to Robert A. Hodge’s book titled “Alum Spring Park: A History”:
In or about March of 1790 the members of the Masonic Lodge No. 4 of Fredericksburg gave a large and brilliant ball. Among those in attendance were members William Glassell and Robert Ritchie. William Glassell, a native of Scotland, was a successful merchant and respected citizen who had married a sister of Anthony Buck, the latter a highly esteemed auctioneer of the town. Glassell had escorted to the ball a young, attractive and respected orphan girl who was living in his home.
Mr. Ritchie was originally from Essex County down the river from Fredericksburg, but doing business in the town. He was not married. During the course of the evening at the Masonic Ball, and somewhat under the influence of wine, Ritchie offered a distinct insult to Glassell’s young guest, then refused to make a suitable apology when called upon to do so. Glassell sent a formal challenge which Ritchie accepted, choosing pistols as the weapons and Alum Spring as the place. Ritchie, knowing Glassell was an excellent marksman, was concerned enough over the event to make his will which was dated 27 March 1790 and if probated left all his legacy to his sister, Elenora.
Glassell had second thoughts and, through friends, attempted to get Ritchie to reconsider. Ritchie refused and the duel took place on the pathway along the Alum Spring Rock in front of the clear mill pond. At first shot, Ritchie fell to the ground, mortally wounded. Glassell hurried to his side and asked forgiveness, which was refused. After Ritchie’s death, a murder warrant was issued. Glassell was taken before a magistrate, but was acquitted.
This was also the site of a tragic family dispute that ended in bloodshed:
Cousins William Thornton and Francis Fitzhugh Conway were each attracted to a young niece of James Madison. Miss Nellie Madison was a Christmas guest at Chatham in this year of 1803. William and Francis arrived at the Chatham festivities on horseback and their horses were stabled. Francis had adorned his horse with a brand new handsome bridle and during the evening made veiled references to Miss Nellie as to the “surprise” he would reveal later that evening.
Unfortunately, when departure time came and Francis was primed to “show off”, the groom had switched bridles on the horses and it was William’s horse which made the greater impression on Miss Nellie. Angrily, Francis accused William of having bribed the groom. The denial simply aggravated the argument and the end result was a challenge to a pistol duel to take place at the Alum Spring site.
They met on the narrow pathway between the Alum Spring rock and the mill pond. At the word “fire” both shots sounded almost simultaneously and each bullet passed through the region of the bladder in each combatant. Thornton was able to ride back to Fredericksburg where his stepfather, Dr. Robert Wellford, apprehended that the wound would be fatal and William’s death occurred the same hour that Francis died.
The Virginia Herald of February 17, 1804, carried a notice that a brace of brass-barreled pistols was found near the Alum Spring and could be claimed from William or John Rutter.
John Hennessy has posted some interesting tidbits on Alum Springs, over on the Remembering: Musings on Fredericksburg and Manassas.
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