Friday, November 20, 2009

What's Quintessentially American?

A recurring theme of this blog, in my own mind anyway, holds that Theodore Roosevelt was a quintessential New Yorker, who by virtue of his many attainments, as well as his many character flaws, represented a spirit, both capacious and repressive, that continues to shape, not only New York City, but many aspects of the American character.

Today, in a New York Times review of still another volume about TR, the really pernicious side of his personality is brought to the fore. The reviewer quotes the author James Bradley writing in his new book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, to the effect that TR stood, in many ways, for the late 19th century's worst impulses. He says: "One after another, White Christian males in America's finest universities 'discovered' that the Aryan race was God's highest creation, that the Negro was designed for servitude, and that the Indian was doomed for extinction."

This ideology, which no one trumpeted more loudly or acted on more triumphantly than TR, lingers today in our continuing haste to make the world safe for democracy and in our insistence that the American way of life must become the model for the rest of the world. There are many, to be sure who acknowledge the often tragic results of these beliefs, including quite a few military commanders in Iraq, whom as I understand it, rediscovered, after the utter failure of the initial occupation, the value of good old fashioned listening and learning to share power with the ordinary people whose country we had invaded.

Some are also beginning to heed the great journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherry WuDunn, who are urging us to exit Afghanistan as soon as possible and to spend our nation's wealth not on impossible and misguided missions in the Middle East, but on domestic healthcare for everyone, or just as nobly, on basic medical care and schools for those millions around the world who desperately need them. I am tired of deferring to the so-called experts who are said to understand the situation so much better than we. Haven't we reached the point as a nation that our mission around the world must be refocused on spreading good health and education. Military, get out of the way, make way for the New Foreign Policy. Let us accomplish some undisputed goods, and set aside these uncertain and usually ill-fated efforts that bring nothing but suffering and alienation to our opponents, while shattering our returning soldiers, leaving them fit only to be killers.

All of this is the legacy of the thinking of people like Theodore Roosevelt. Like a terrible illness, it is very hard to recover from. But we must declare this a new day where guns take a back seat to books and women's rights always trump tanks.


  1. Not just foreign policy. In our own land the bottom is too deep. No child should be hungry, no family homeless or without health care. Enough.

  2. Agreed, without question. But it is the reflex action of going to war to solve our problems that makes us lose sight of what's really important, including addressing the really pressing issues at home.