NPR's Throughline had a great recent episode about what's essentially the branding of the American Empire. Host Rund Abdelfatah speaks with Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University, who the changing ways that America has identified itself over the years.
I always found it kind of strange to say "America" (even though I do it), as it also refers to two entire continents. And I've similarly found it interesting when I hear Europeans refer to the country as "the States." But Immerwahr took things a step further, and traced the history of self-reference through American presidential speeches. Prior to 1898 — the time of our rarely-mentioned war with Spain, which saw American expansionism grow beyond the continental borders and into the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba and so on — it was rare to hear a President refer to the country as "America." It could be the Republic, or the Union, or the United States, sometimes even Columbia or Freedonia (like "land of the free people," yes that was apparently a real thing at one time).
Immerwahr smartly connects this to curiosity to the country's intrinsic relationship (and subsequent, neverending identity crises) with imperialism. We were founded on conquered land, and though we aspired to be a union of independent nation-states with open borders and shared currency, that never actually happened. The "free" people of the United States distinguished themselves from the black slaves who tilled their fields, and the various Native American nations with whom they sometimes shared the land. Read the rest
Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowship-winning philosopher Elizabeth Anderson recently spoke with Joe Humphreys at the Irish Times about America's toxic obsession with by-your-bootstraps individualism, and specifically how it relates to poverty.
There are plenty of impactful quotes throughout the interview, but the parts that stuck out the most to me—as an agnostic born into an Irish Catholic family, whose mother worked for the church for a long time—were her observations about America's puritanical roots, and, later, the impacts of World War II. Anderson essentially proposes the idea that early America Puritans like the Pilgrims were determined to distance themselves from the institutional power of the Catholic church—which, for all its faults, has at least had a longstanding commitment to helping and empathizing with those suffering from poverty. In addition to Manifest Destiny, these Puritans believed that hard work was the only promise of salvation, which eventually evolved into the whole "rugged individualism" idea that consumes so many American conservatives and Evangelicals. While Anderson acknowledges that this ethic is rooted in a very pro-worker mindset, it's clearly been secularized over time into a highly partisan hatred of the poor, with a nod towards its religious roots:
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There is a profound suspicion of anyone who is poor, and a consequent raising to the highest priority imposing incredibly humiliating, harsh conditions on access to welfare benefits on the assumption you’re some kind of grifter, or you’re trying to cheat the system. There is no appreciation for the existence of structural poverty, poverty that is not the fault of your own but because the economy maybe is in recession or, in a notorious Irish case, the potato crop fails.
In this Washington Post video, Karen Attiah shows that America has a long history of doing terrible things to families of migrants, Native Americans, slaves, Japanese Americans, and others.
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