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O Beautiful for . . . Pilgrim Feet?

September 9, 2020
O Beautiful for . . . Pilgrim Feet?
Illustration showing pilgrims stepping off a rowboat onto shore while landing at Plymouth Rock in Massachussetts, 1620. Engraving by J. Andrews, after a painting by P.F. Rothermel. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

America is in need of some explaining, especially at the moment.

That the country is a mess is the one thing the country agrees on. And even about this we differ. Half the nation seems to be saying, “We don’t know what’s wrong with America, but we can fix it,” while the other half says, “There’s nothing wrong with America, and we can fix that.”

Polar icecaps may be melting (or not!) but America’s polarization is frozen solid. And if the climate itself is a contentious issue then we cannot so much as agree on what the weather’s like outside.

Everything is much more wrong than it ever was, and we are much more right about it. We’re all mad at each other and incensed that others are furious with us. It’s a sort of permanent anti-Christmas, an obligatory holiday exchange where we’re bound to receive umbrage and compelled to give offense.

Everybody’s got a beef. Except the vegans, they’ve got a Beyond Meat. To tally our national complaints would be to empty a bathtub with a spoon. And after this long and sodden labor we’d find some new tangle of combover hairs in the political drain or ring of scum on the social porcelain that we hadn’t thought to complain about before. It is confusion.

And, lest this most general of statements escape bitter contention, the previous sentence was—trigger warning (or is “trigger warning” an implicit denial of Second Amendment rights?)—a quotation from the Bible, Leviticus 18:23, forbidding sex with animals.

Further topics for Twitter storms: Is Leviticus 18:23 blatant anthropocentrism or a swipe left on Tinder? Does Leviticus also forbid sex with plant protein based–beef substitutes even when they are free from GMOs, soy, and gluten? Is posting the gluten content in communion wafers a threat to religious freedoms?

We have worked ourselves into a state of angry perplexity.

Not that this is anything new. America was discovered with angry perplexity. In 1524 a perplexed Giovanni da Verrazzano—an Italian explorer serving the king of France by mapping what would become British colonies —mistook the shallow waters west of North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the Pacific Ocean. Subsequent navigators, finding the dunes of Cape Hatteras rather than the riches of the Orient, were angry.

And America was founded in angry perplexity, starting with the first attempt to colonize the nation, on those Outer Banks, at the “lost colony” of Roanoke.

The people who already lived on Roanoke Island, the Croatoan and the Dasamongueponke, were perplexed when 115 English arrived uninvited in 1587. Angry, too. Within a few days the Dasamongueponke had killed one of the English, George Howe. Within a few more days the English had killed several of the Croatoan who’d had nothing to do with Howe’s death.

Thus a precedent was set for the way different kinds of Americans would treat each other for the next four hundred–some years and what would happen to innocent bystanders when the treatment was being handed out. (Advice to American bystanders: don’t stand by, stand back.)

Any number of horrifying examples can be cited, from the first colonial legislation legally recognizing slavery in 1641 (in enlightened, nominally pro-emancipation Massachusetts) to the “battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890 (several hundred Lakota casualties, mostly women, children, and old men) to the choke-hold killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014. (He died after being apprehended by police for selling loose cigarettes in violation of New York’s strict legislation to limit the harmful effects of tobacco.)

I quote the late Christopher Hitchens, “History is a tragedy and not a morality tale.”

But the precedent the Roanoke colonists thought they were setting was more like the gentrification of Brooklyn. Not that innocent bystanders haven’t been harmed in Bushwick—priced out of their humble abodes so that craft kombucha brewers, aspiring mobile app developers, Anusara yoga practitioners, and indie musicians who drive part-time for Uber could move in.

Traveling to Roanoke in 1587 were eighty-nine men, seventeen women, and nine children (including, we must assume, at least a couple of adolescents muttering, “This sucks”). They were Londoners—tradesmen, artisans, and their families. The venture was a sixteenth-century version of a real estate investment trust. The REIT had a charter from Queen Elizabeth that formed a corporation headed by Sir Walter Raleigh (comfortably back in England).

The colonists hoped to become genteel, to attain the status of landed gentry. Although the gentleman managing the scheme, the governor of the Roanoke Colony, John White, was a member of the gentry by virtue of being a celebrated watercolor artist.

As far as scholars can tell, the colonists had estate management skills and agricultural expertise about equal to indie musicians in Brooklyn. Or not even, given the musicians’ cannabis grow rooms. And while Roanoke Colony did become a “gated community” after George Howe was killed, there were no provisions for organized security or defense.

Besides not getting along with their new neighbors, in whose backyards they were camping, the colonists had angry perplexities of their own. The expedition was so poorly provisioned that within a month of their arrival the colonists petitioned Governor White to return to England for more supplies.

He didn’t get back until three years later. Some things came up. A 1588 relief mission was distracted by a side hustle in privateering and a fight with French pirates near Morocco, which to a modern sailor with GPS would be very much in the wrong direction from North Carolina. Then there was the Spanish Armada. Seafaring watercolor artists were needed on the home front.

When the governor of the Roanoke Colony finally landed back on Roanoke Island his colony was gone. All that was left was an abandoned palisade with the word “Croatoan” carved on a post.

White took this to mean that the colonists had moved to the nearby island called Croatoan or, perhaps, had made some Airbnb arrangements with the Croatoans, who were friendly to the English. Or they had been friendly until they were mistaken for Dasamongueponkes and killed. Maybe Croatoans were friendly again.

White meant to go find out. But some other things came up. One of his ships wanted to go home. The other broke an anchor cable and was blown so far off course, with White aboard, that it came ashore in the Azores.

As long as his Roanoke colonists were not proven to be dead, Sir Walter Raleigh could maintain his corporate claim on what was loosely called “Virginia” (everything on the continent north of Spanish Florida). This may cast doubt on the complete sincerity of Raleigh’s claim to have been trying to find them on his 1595 voyage to the New World while he was also searching for El Dorado.

No other major effort to locate the Roanoke colonists was made until after the Jamestown Colony was established in 1607, and by then there was no trace.

No one knows what happened to the residents of the Lost Colony. I think that, full of angry perplexity, they stomped off in a huff.

Which set another precedent for America. People do not emigrate because things are going well at home.

This was true for ancient migrants from Asia 20,000 years ago. Or 30,000 years ago or 40,000 years ago— there is fractious conflict about that too. Geologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists turn out to be as polarized as the rest of us. (Fortunately their lengthy scientific terms pretty much keep their angry perplexities from being aired on Twitter.)

Nonetheless, there was some time when some people headed over the Bering Strait land bridge waving farewell. “See you later, you frozen Siberians with your itchy woolly mammoth long underwear and mastodon meat on your breath. We’re off to the beautiful Pacific Northwest—waterfront property, split-level longhouses, decorative totem pole lawn ornaments, and salmon frying on the barbecue grill!”

Then—midst weekend sightseeing jaunts to watch the glaciers retreat and hunting trips to bag soon-to-be- extinct trophy megafauna—they proceeded to have their own Roanoke Colony moments. Never mind that there wasn’t anybody else already living in the New World to quarrel with.

In November 2015 National Geographic published an article by Glenn Hodges, “First Americans,” detailing “new finds, theories, and genetic discoveries” about the populating of the Western Hemisphere. (Given the current animosity surplus, I’m sure somebody’s mad at National Geographic too, because of cultural appropriation, or because you have to be a member of the National Geographic Society to get the magazine so this is probably a secret society maybe funded by George Soros, or because an old, dead, white male had accumulated thirty years of back issues in the attic and these fell through the kitchen ceiling on the heads of the “Flip or Flop” TV crew, or something.)

Anyway, the article said:

If you look at the skeletal remains of Paleo-Americans, more than half of the men have injuries caused by violence, and four out of ten have skull fractures. The wounds don’t appear to have been the result of hunting mishaps, and they don’t bear telltale signs of warfare, like blows suffered fleeing an attacker. Instead it appears that these men fought among themselves— often and violently. The women don’t have these kinds of injuries, but they’re much smaller than the men, with signs of malnourishment and domestic abuse.

Nor did the post-Roanoke Europeans find America to be a day at the beach. (Although George Howe was in fact having a day at the beach, gathering crabs, when the Dasamongueponke shot him full of arrows.)

Unlike the 1587 Lost Colony’s ex-residents, the 1607 Jamestown colonists weren’t seeking status, just money. Their flight from impoverishment in England amounted to a lethal version of a 1930s Warner Brothers animated cartoon gag. Depravation chased the colonists around the barn of poverty and they ran so hard and heedlessly that they collided with depravation’s backside. Of the five hundred some colonists who arrived in Jamestown between 1607 and 1610, 440 of them died, mostly from starvation.

The initial settlers landed too late in the year to plant crops and didn’t know much about planting anyway. Their only piece of good fortune was not being immediately evicted by the local landlords, the Powhatan Confederacy.

This was an organization of about thirty Algonquian- speaking tribes that had formed a military alliance against Siouan-speaking tribes to their north and west under the leadership of Wahunsenacawh, father of Pocahontas.

The Powhatan were well aware of the three rules of real estate. None of them lived on the location, location, location of Jamestown. The peninsula on the James River at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay was mosquito infested, too swampy for farming or hunting, and, wetland though it may have been, suffering a drought that left the colonists nothing to drink but brackish river water.

Having mentioned Pocahontas, we might pause to consider what we can learn about the founding of America from one of the few prefoundational Americans that we know something about.

Except we don’t know anything about her, starting with her real name, which was Matoaka unless it was Amonute. She either saved the life of John Smith, one of the Jamestown expedition’s original leaders, or she didn’t. She may have been participating in an adoption ritual where her father pretended to club Smith on the head. She may not have been there at all. Smith didn’t mention her in his first account of being captured by Wahunsenacawh. Smith’s stories about Pocahontas are inconsistent. He seems to be making them up as he goes along.

We’re told in early histories of Jamestown that as a child Pocahontas sometimes visited the colony and was acquainted with John Smith. (John Smith? John White? The early history of America reads like the guest register at a shady motel.)

In 1613, after the English and the Powhatan had had a falling-out, Pocahontas was, in turn, captured (more like kidnapped) by the colonists. Perhaps she had Stockholm syndrome. Or a sadder story. She converted to Christianity, took yet another name, “Rebecca,” married colonist John Rolfe, and had a son, Thomas.

Rolfe took her and Thomas to England where she was a minor celebrity, something short of a Wallis Simpson but considered more presentable to a king. And she was presented to King James. She lived near London for most of a year. In the one portrait of her rendered from life she looks a bit dour. (Probably the weather.) Then, after getting onboard a ship back to Virginia with her husband and son, she became ill and died at Gravesend, aged twenty or twenty-one.

Thomas survived, wed the daughter of a wealthy Virginia landowner, and had a daughter who married a Colonel Robert Bolling. A number of prominent Virginia families—including that of Woodrow Wilson’s wife Edith (nee Bolling)—claim descent from Pocahontas. So we learn that American racism is, at least, topped by descended-from-a-princess snobbery. Pocahontas was the Meghan Markle of her day. Other than that we learn nothing. We might as well have watched the very stupid 1995 Disney movie.

The Jamestown colonists did not arrive with the equipment, supplies, or inclination to found a self-sustaining colony. The Jamestown business model was to export valuable commodities. But they couldn’t find any. They shipped a load of clapboard to England.

The London investors who had funded Jamestown were not best pleased. They sent a stiff note along with their 1608 (inadequate) resupply of the colony. According to the historian James Horn, preeminent expert on Jamestown, the investors insisted that the colonists send them enough goods to pay for the cost of the resupply voyage plus a lump of gold, proof that the South Sea had been discovered, and somebody from the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

And a partridge in a pear tree.

Jamestown would go down in history—and down was the direction it was headed—for many American firsts. The kind of firsts you wish America hadn’t had.

The poorest among the Jamestown colonists were the first to condemn themselves to indentured servitude to pay for their trip to America. Their terms of bond- age ranged from three to seven years, but it was mostly death rather than time served that released them from their debt.

To add evil to iniquity, the first abducted Africans known to have been transported to British America were sold as slaves in Jamestown in 1619.

The same year brought America’s first politicking and America’s first elected assembly, Jamestown’s Virginia House of Burgesses. The legislative body was founded “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” with “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” Although to hell with the happy guiding of the Powhatan and every other un-English-born, un-male, un-free, un-Jamestown colony resident on the continent north of Spanish Florida. They weren’t part of the electorate.

Also that same year Jamestown experienced America’s first strike. The colony included a number of artisans who hadn’t been born in England. They seem to have been the only artisans the colony possessed. They included a soap maker, a timber crafter, and a glass blower. They went on strike for the right to vote. And it may have been America’s first (and last?) quick and amiable settlement between organized labor and management. Dirty Englishmen sitting under sagging roof beams drinking out of cupped hands immediately granted artisans the franchise.

The House of Burgesses legislated as wisely as American legislatures continue to do, that is, making laws that invited—nay, demanded—evasion. The first item passed by the House of Burgesses was an imposition of price controls on export produce.

The only produce being exported was tobacco, and the colonists were barely able to grow any of that. I’m sure they embraced the 1619 price controls with the same enthusiasm that, during the Gerald Ford administration, we all wore WIN buttons and fervently obeyed the injunctions of the “Whip Inflation Now” campaign.

The Jamestown colonists were the first Europeans to invade the inland of our nation, sending raiding parties up the James River to steal Powhatan crops and occupy Powhatan land. In 1622 the Powhatan Confederacy made the first successful large-scale, tactically coordinated attack on Europeans, killing 347 of them.

The colonists were pushed back into the original Jamestown fortifications. The Powhatan hoped the colony, if it remained at all, would be reduced to a small trading post. The Powhatan thought the colonists had been taught a lesson. The colonists—not a first—hadn’t.

Warfare, sometimes acute, sometimes chronic, continued against ever more numerous and better-armed Jamestown forces. Meanwhile the colonists were deploying our country’s first weapons of mass destruction. Although, to be fair, they didn’t know that their germs and viruses even existed.

All the tales of American Indian fighter heroics (whether your hero is Crazy Horse or Davy Crockett) turn to ashes in the mouths of the tellers when facts are considered. The New World was conquered by coughs, sneezes, and craps in the woods.

The historian David Stannard, in his thoroughly disheartening book about the death and destruction of the Western Hemisphere’s aboriginal inhabitants, American Holocaust, estimates that the Powhatan Confederacy numbered about 14,000 people when Jamestown was founded. But the germs had arrived before the germy. The region’s population had already been reduced by diseases spreading from the first European contacts in the late fourteenth century, perhaps drastically reduced. By the end of the seventeenth century only about six hundred Powhatan were left, a mortality rate of more than 95 percent.

Germs were the A-bomb. The Indians were militarily skilled and fighting on their own turf. Without germs the British colonists would have met the same fate that the American colonists dealt the British a hundred years later.

And the U.S.A. would be a different country. (Although, given the demographic pressures in Europe, still plagued by illegal immigrants. But they’d be you and me.)

In 1677 a treaty established what amounted to America’s first Indian reservation. This was land “reserved” for surviving members of the Powhatan Confederacy.

The Treaty of 1677 was honored the way treaty rights on Indian reservations continue to be—making fraud instead of fighting the way to get Powhatan land.

Jamestown also had America’s first armed colonial uprising, Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676. Nathaniel Bacon was a rich spoiled young scoundrel from England whose father had kicked him out of the house and sent him packing to America (albeit with £1800 in walking around money). Nathaniel bought two plantations on the James River and got his rebellion named for himself by being elected leader after giving the other rebels a lot of brandy.

What they were rebelling against was the Jamestown colony governor William Berkeley who was either too friendly with (dangerous!) Native Americans or not friendly enough with them to get other Jamestown colonists in on the fur trade (lucrative!) with Native Americans. The issue is—as issues could get to be even before the Internet—confused.

One thing can be said in favor of the rebellion: it was inclusive. Indentured servants and slaves joined with plantation owners in rebelling. It’s heartening to see Americans working together toward a common goal. Although that can also be said of the 1622 Powhatan attack.

Bacon had his rebels point their muskets at Governor Berkeley who (he may have been drinking brandy himself) bared his chest and told them to go ahead and shoot. So Bacon had his rebels point their muskets at the elected Burgesses who—every bit as courageous as today’s House and Senate members—promptly gave in. Although what they gave in to is not exactly clear. Any- way it wasn’t enough because Bacon’s rebels set fire to the House of Burgesses and the entire settlement burned.

Nathaniel Bacon died of diarrhea. Governor Berkeley returned to power in 1677. In yet another first, predating the Salem witch trial mass executions by fifteen years, he hanged twenty-three of the men who had rebelled against . . . the deep state, or whatever.

The Jamestown House of Burgesses was rebuilt but burned again, accidently. By 1699 Virginians had had enough of mosquito-infested, swampy, fractious, flammable Jamestown and moved their capital to Williamsburg. Or, as it is now known, “Colonial” Williamsburg.

Jamestown’s last first would be to usher in the “living history” tourist trap at Williamsburg. This was America’s initial foray into making its history cute—Disneyfication while Walt was still doodling mice.

Colonial Williamsburg was created in the 1920s by the kind of cross section of America that makes the rest of us Americans rather cross. Founders included the local Episcopal minister, the Daughters of the Confederacy, the Chamber of Commerce, and a group that went by (and still does) the marvelous name Colonial Dames. And the enterprise was paid for by John D. Rockefeller (whose own history of financial dealing was less than adorable).

A visit to Colonial Williamsburg is at least as informative as a meet and greet with Pocahontas at Disney World. “Pocahontas will pose for photos with you and you can get her autograph. She appears daily at various times. Get the Animal Kingdom guide for exact times during your visit.”

If John D. had read more American history (his higher education was a ten-week business course at Folsom’s Commercial College in Cleveland), he wouldn’t have picked this part of it for “living.”

Or maybe—he was a man of foresight—he would have. Right now America seems determined to relive its early history in every detail of angry perplexity—from Verrazzano-like trade war confusion about the riches of the Orient, to calling Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas, to an endlessly woke Bacon-type rebellion against everything and nothing, to blog threats to hang antifas from alt-right wannabe Governor Berkeleys on 4chan.

Thus, in explaining America, the “Ain’t it awful” explanation is always available, if we want it.

Ravaged by climate change. Torn by internecine strife. Gross inequality in the distribution of wealth. Widespread poverty. Drug use. Oppression of women and minorities.

And that was in 1491. Next year things got much worse.

Can’t we choose some other moment in the American chronology to live our living history life in? Surely there was a time when America was in flower, at peace with itself and the world, growing in prosperity and hope, with shared values, respected institutions, and confident love of country. You know, the “Great” that’s the “Again” in the “Make America . . .” thing.

Maybe that moment would be about 1910 when “America the Beautiful” became a popular patriotic song. It’s a stirring tune. Many are of the opinion that it should be our national anthem. It’s much easier to sing than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Even Roseanne Barr couldn’t butcher it in front of 50,000 irked baseball fans in San Diego at the 1990 Padres–Cincinnati Reds game. (Padres owner Tom Werner was the producer of the Roseanne sitcom—in case you’ve been wondering WTF? for thirty years.) Some find “The Star-Spangled Banner” too bellicose. Others think it contains a coded message advocating open borders (“Jose can you see . . .”) Anyway, nobody ever takes a knee on “And crown thy good with brotherhood.”

But “America the Beautiful” is not so anodyne or naïf as it seems. Its lyricist certainly wasn’t. Katharine Lee Bates (1859–1929) studied at Wellesley College and Oxford. She was the head of the English Department at Wellesley, neither then nor now a nest of conservative complacency. She was a formidable social activist supporting women’s suffrage, world peace, unionized labor, slum clearance, poor relief, and immigrant rights. She traveled the world and was a war correspondent for the New York Times during the Spanish-American War, which, as all politically correct people did at the time, she deplored. She was a friend of Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and William Butler Yeats, as well as a widely published poet herself. Though not, truth to tell, a very good one. Sample this verse from her “In a Northern Wood”:

FRAGRANT are the cedar-boughs stretching green and level, Feasting-halls where waxwings flit at their spicy revel, But O the pine, the questing pine, that flings its arms on high To search the secret of the sun and escalade the sky!

Bates, however, was also a lifelong Republican and quit the GOP in 1924 only because of the party’s refusal to support the League of Nations. Furthermore she may have been gay, sharing a home for twenty-five years with fellow Wellesley professor Katharine Coman. If we are looking for a representative of a simpler time and place, Katharine Lee Bates is the wrong example.

She wrote the words to “America the Beautiful” first as a poem in 1893. (The music it would be set to in 1910 was from an 1882 hymn by the organist and composer Samuel Ward.) Bate’s poem was inspired by a transcontinental train journey from Boston by way of Chicago and Denver to Pikes Peak. To begin with let us recall that trains, before they arrive at purple mountain majesties, don’t pass through the best parts of town.

Now sing along with me. And let’s pay close attention to what Bates is saying.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties

Only one out of three of which Americans can take any credit for.

Above the fruited plain!

KLB was perfectly aware of the deplorable working conditions of fruit pickers.

America! America!

God shed [Odd word choice. Like a dog sheds? America could use more God on its furniture?] His grace on thee

And crown [sixth definition, Webster’s, “to hit on the head”] thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim [whose arrival on the Mayflower would nowadays be called Christian Right activism] feet,

Whose stern impassioned stress

Like other Puritan groups, the pilgrims would be the source of considerable stress in America.

A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

KLB is putting things tactfully here. It was the germs from the pilgrim’s dirty feet that beat the thoroughfare.

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,

Implying a tailoring job for the ages.

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

KLB was a Congregationalist, and the Congregational Church was an important force in the temperance movement.

Thy liberty in law.

Which law KLB wanted to change in a variety of ways.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,

When explaining America, “liberating strife” is one way to put it.

Who more than self their country loved

KLB flatters us.

And mercy more than life!

But here she goes too far.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine,

Advocacy for “hard money” gold standard? KLB was a Republican.

Till all success be nobleness,

But she was also offended by the excesses of the Gilded Age.

And every gain divine!

Still, as mentioned, she was a Republican.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years

The poem was written during the Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression that lasted until 1897.

Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

KLB knew full well what dimmed the cities of America. Her reference here is to Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which she presumably saw on her trip west. Temporary buildings representing an optimistic future were sheathed in fine-grained gypsum.

America! America!
God shed [There He goes again. This time a snakeskin comes to mind.] His grace on thee
And crown
[not to say clobber] thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

What is America? Do other nations need this much explaining?

Ask, “What is England?” and you’ll get an earful from the Bard by way of Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea . . .

Aw, shut your hole.

Ask, “What is China?” and invite a long, boring lecture from sinologists or, worse, from Xi Jinping. “What is France?” Prepare yourself for a load of brie, and in French at that.

“What is Russia?” Churchill said it’s “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and I’d add locked in a jail cell and dumped in a shithole.

And let’s not ask “What is Germany?” for fear that they’ll show us again.

Other nations are based on battle, blood, ethnicity, culture, language, and (unlike Jamestown) terra firma. Not America. We’re strangers turned loose in an opportunity. An opportunity to treat other strangers like shit very much included.

Witness, in the Declaration of Independence, our unalienable right to Pursuit of Happiness. Whatever the hell happiness is supposed to mean. Pace Webster’s, “dominantly agreeable emotion ranging in value from mere contentment to deep and intense joy in living,” happiness has no definition. Whatever makes you happy. We are a pursuit without a purpose. Always on the go with no idea where.

America is not a place. It was the middle of no place when people first got here and somebody else’s place we’re taking ever since. America is not an ideal, or lightning would have struck us dead long ago. America is not an idea either. Or if it is an idea, it’s a fuzzy one. And we’ve always been of two (or 327.2 million) minds about it.

A friend of mine recently told me that America’s angry perplexity made him feel confused. (Admittedly he’s a cisgender hetronormative middle-aged white male from the Midwest and can’t be expected to truly have feelings.) “I don’t get it,” he said. “America emerged from the Cold War with a military that dominates the world and an economy that does the same and now business is booming. Why aren’t we taking a victory lap? Why aren’t we fat and happy?”

Well, we’ve got the fat part . . .

Maybe we should just stick with the “Ain’t it awful” explanation of America. When things don’t turn out exactly the way we want, it’s sort of comforting to think that they never did. Or maybe we should go with the “foreigner” explanation of America—a capitalistic, imperialistic, hegemonistic, grossly materialistic place rife with social and economic injustice where they all want to live.

Both true enough. Yet there’s an “exceptional” explanation of America that’s just as true and much more puzzling. Our country was founded by the delusional and the crazy, populated by the desperate and the unwilling, motivated by most of the Seven Deadly Sins, and is somehow . . . the richest and most powerful nation on earth, ever.

Which leads us to the “drunk” explanation of America. We’ll let some drunk shout it from the back of the bar.

“We had to fuck a lot of people to make this baby!”

Excerpted from A CRY FROM THE FAR MIDDLE © 2020 by P. J. O’Rourke. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

P.J. O'Rourke

P. J. O’Rourke has written nineteen books on subjects as diverse as politics and cars and etiquette and economics. Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance both reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He is a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me, and editor-in-chief of the web magazine American Consequences. He lives in rural New England, as far away from the things he writes about as he can get.