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American exceptionalism, or the idea that the United States is somehow both different and better from all other nations, has a long history. From the decision to put novus ordo seclorum (a new order for the ages) on the back of the Great Seal of the United States to President Barack Obama’s claim during his 2008 inaugural that “we are ready to lead once more,” many Americans have believed that their country is something different from anything that has come before or that has arisen since. A leader. A new order.
In some unexpected ways, it is Mitt and Gwen who have the most in common. For both of them are not only children of immigrants, but children of parents who were themselves children of immigrants.
Most sisters do not wear the once ubiquitous garb any more; many bishops yearn to see the gender-weighted tradition reinstated; nostalgic lay people reminisce about the habit along with such Catholic signposts as fish on Friday or parish bingo. It is time to drop the overdone fascination with the antiquated clothing of an earlier era—the long black veils, starched bonnets, and sweeping serge skirts—that supposedly measured the holiness of cloistered women, or at least made nuns easy to identify.
It was lovely, this old plantation house, perched, as it was, atop a hillside. Striking in its grandeur. Alluring in its light. I could almost believe, staring up at the glowing, Palladian window panes, that the year was 1806, that Cherokees still possessed the lands of northern Georgia, that the wealthy Cherokee family who once dwelled in this home would appear at a doorway in waistcoats and bustles.
The fear of alien attacks, the need to violently exclude Others seen as dangerous or polluting has formed a critical component of the United States’ national identity from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s through Joseph McCarthy’s war on domestic Communists to the present. To fear and dehumanize alien Others, to ruthlessly hunt them down, is truly American.
Cameras remained contraband at the camps located within the military district called the Western Defense Command. But Wyoming was outside that zone, and by the spring of 1943, cameras were permitted. The WRA recognized that allowing internees to take pictures was a way of helping them reclaim some sense of a normal life and some of their dignity.
To address the human element of production, Ford introduced his Five Dollar Day, Ford Profit-Sharing Plan. When the plan was unveiled in 1914, the world was stunned. Qualified Ford workers would receive five dollars a day, more than double the average wage in the auto industry at that time. When compared to lower prevailing wages in other industries such as steel, meatpacking, or coal mining, the Ford proposal was even more astounding. Simultaneously, FMC reduced the workday from nine hours to eight.
But there is another historically significant dimension to the decision that has received less media attention: ceding to states greater authority to regulate immigration would have represented a significant devolution in federal power.
For this month’s Free Book Friday, we’re giving away a copy of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, which features very rare color photographs of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.
Well-Read Lives evolved from my interest in women’s history and biography that my father did not live to witness. He would surely have had his doubts about the gender angle. But I like to think that my admiration for his literary interests informed my choice of subject, if not my approach to it.
One reason for the U.S. failure in the Middle East seems obvious. The Bush administration embraced empire long after empire’s expiration date had passed. The American project faced potent opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan that could be contained only by making deals with shrewd collaborators with their own interests to serve. The international hostility to the Iraq invasion was intense, and even in the United States the Iraq adventure fell into disfavor.
Mayberry, Lake Wobegon, Hadleyburg, Dogville—these are extreme representations of the small town and they are in direct conflict with one another. Taken together, they reveal the contradictions of the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Between about 1660 and 1760, French colonists and their Native allies enslaved thousands of Indians, keeping them in the towns and villages of New France or shipping them to the French Caribbean. Over time, a vast network of slave raiders, traders, and owners emerged, ensnaring both colonists and Indians in the violence that generated slaves and kept them under French control.
During the post-WWII period in the United States, a new generation of pollutants proved especially mobile and persistent. Overriding a widespread segregation of neighborhoods by class as well as race, these pollutants proved capable of pervading entire suburban metropolises. Americans, especially around our largest cities, were forced to confront just how shared the burden of pollution had become.