American Exceptionalism

"Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1904" (1974), oil on canvas by Allyn Cox.  Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, and during his two terms in office he worked vigorously to regulate big business, encourage conservation programs, and expand America's role in foreign affairs. The mural shows Roosevelt giving one of his characteristically enthusiastic speeches. Directly below him, journalist H.L. Mencken takes notes.

“Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1904” (1974), oil on canvas by Allyn Cox. Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, and during his two terms in office he worked vigorously to regulate big business, encourage conservation programs, and expand America’s role in foreign affairs. The mural shows Roosevelt giving one of his characteristically enthusiastic speeches. Directly below him, journalist H.L. Mencken takes notes.

“What a state!”

So did my friend and colleague, an eminent education professor at the University of New Mexico, express her indignation over dinner at a Chinese restaurant. She was reacting to the infamous SB 1070 (“Papers, Please”) law that was approved by the Arizona Legislature and signed into law by the Arizona Governor. She was so outraged by the law, that whenever she traveled to Arizona (“strictly for business”) for her consulting work in Indian reservations, she loaded up with food, water, supplies and gas so as not to leave a penny of her hard-earned money behind. If her work required an overnight stay, she would drive to the border and room in New Mexico. She felt about my home state the way I feel about the city of Scottsdale—the last, most miserable, low-down honky-tonk shack next to the Gates of Hell.

Implied in her outburst was a recrimination: How can you live there?

Lamely I pointed out that the recently elected Governor of New Mexico was no day at the beach either (she readily agreed). I searched my memory for a vaguely remembered quote from H.L. Mencken’s “On Being an American.” This essay had put to rest all my remaining illusions about Americans being exceptional, and all my self-serving notions of American Exceptionalism. I did not find it until I returned to Arizona.

“Why am I still here?” Mencken asked himself in 1922, meaning “in the U.S.,” after luminaries like Henry James, Ezra Pound and Greenwich Village emigrés had departed—and called others to depart—to “fairer lands.”

"H.L. Mencken" painting by Oliver Richard Reid.

“H.L. Mencken” painting by Oliver Richard Reid.

Among his reasons:

“Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep shows.”

(Prejudices: Third Series in Mencken, The Library of America, 2010)

It takes a trickster to reveal that what was true of the national scene in the 1920s is still true almost a century later. And that our Buffoon Legislatures, Clown Governors even more clownish Best-Sheriffs-in America, are not a particular idiosyncrasy, but rather a central element of the engaging charm of North American culture.

“Here in the very citadel of democracy,” Mencken ends saying, “we found and cherish a clown dynasty!

OG

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