Cheap Seats 2016
American History As Viewed From The Cheap Seats - 09/21
By Rich Trzupek
Fans of this here column-thingy will be pleased to know, and haters of it will be distressed to find out, that I have been working on a new book. This time it’s not going to be about the envirowhackiness I deal with on a day to day basis. This time it’s going to be about American history. No idea if I can find a publisher interested (but if happen to be an interested publisher, please give me a shout). At the very least I’ll self-publish.
I flatter myself to believe that my take on American history is unique and I hope that my way of telling it will be enjoyable. The following is an excerpt from the Preface, which will give you an idea what the project is all about. Hope you enjoy:
On March 4, 1933 the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressed a nation shaken to its core by an economic collapse unprecedented in its short history. He faced the essence of the matter head-on, within two minutes of beginning his first inaugural address, in words that would resonate throughout history: “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Though history has generally been kind to FDR, he had fierce opponents then and he has equally fierce detractors today. Yet, whatever one may think of him, there is little arguing that Roosevelt was as adept at taking the pulse of his fellow citizens as any Chief Executive we have known. The choice of words like “fear”, “terror”, “paralyzes” and “retreat” and flinging them so brashly into the faces of his audience was a master stroke, for those words touched the essence of the American psyche: that instinctive, glorious and almost pathological need to overcome adversity. Roosevelt challenged a nation with those words, words that might been taken as an insult had they be directed at an enemy great or small, or even at the occupant of an adjacent bar stool. Directed to the American people, they were a challenge. A call to action more effective than any patriotic recruiting poster ever devised. For Americans of all stripes love to be, and many quite frankly live to be, the underdog.
Now I make no pretense of being a historian, though I will flatter myself that I am more versed in history than the average person. It is not my intention to write another history of the United States of American, but rather to examine that history through a particular lens: the lens of American self-perception.
It is, of course, as foolish to assert there is or has been one universal self-perception common to all Americans as it is to assert that any large body of people, no matter how superficially homogenous in terms of race, creed, color, sex, occupation, political affiliation, or any other seemingly defining characteristic one may choose, march in lockstep.
Yet, just as there are sometimes broad if not universal truths to be found in stereotypes, so does a wide-angle view of the tapestry of history reveal themes and causes that can also be broadly applied. So let us not, for purposes of this exercise, become bogged down by closely examining each individual thread of that tapestry. Just as it is famously said that no battle plan survives first contact, it is equally true that no wide-ranging historical hypothesis can survive examination by microscope. Perhaps that is what makes the begetting of such hypotheses so enjoyable an exercise, if maddening at the same time.
My hypothesis may be put thus: That the essence of the American character, and therefore one of the strongest motivating forces behind the decisions and lack of decision that have shaped our history as a nation, includes the desire to overcome, to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, to protect the downtrodden (or those we perceive as downtrodden) when all hope seems lost, to be, in other words, the victorious, noble, selfless underdog.
For the first one hundred and seventy years of our existence, that is indeed how we perceived ourselves. We were the plucky, irreverent, come-from-behind, you-never-expected-that-didja?, underdog extraordinaire. Then, just over seventy years ago, that all changed. America grew up, for better or worse, transforming almost overnight from the plucky, sassy adolescent we had been on the world stage into a worried, grey-haired adult, full of self-doubt and remorse. To some extent the pride, drive and ideals of the adolescent remains part of the American character, just as even the eldest of senior citizens possessed of all their faculties can still channel the youth of seventy years ago living eternally inside them, but for many of us, it’s a part we’re uncomfortable with at best and downright ashamed of at worst. Many, but nowhere near all of us, now shrink from words that used to make Americans swell with pride, words like “patriot”, “glory” and “victory”.