America the Disdained

This article in Salon yesterday was one of several that I saw filled with disdain for America, its people, and its history. But the writer (Andrew O’Hehir) did seem to have some semi-affectionate humor for Fourth of July picnic foods.

Interestingly, the author describes a common error in looking at history, then proceeds to write an entire article filled to the brim with it.

Some of his assertions are simply factually wrong. Most are in the category of expressing an opinion, formed from the worst possible way to view events. In general, they evidence a deep disaffection for the United States, with some bromides thrown in as a sop to be able to say “See, I said something nice, too!”

I’ve grouped some phrases from the article into categories. The phrases are his; the categories are mine. The phrases are no longer in the original order as a result (although the order within categories is preserved). I’ll start with the author’s description of his own error: Declaration_Signing


  • We like to congratulate ourselves, in the present tense, for our superior wisdom and our enlightened position (an error known as “historicism”)

On the Declaration

  • Most of us take the Declaration for granted or ignore it; we enshrine it as holy writ, or we deride it as the self-serving testament of a bunch of white, male slave-owning hypocrites.

KdH note: He clearly places himself in this latter category.

  • The Declaration had to be written and enacted quickly
  • Delegates edited down Jefferson’s draft by about one-fourth and simplified its language (which infuriated him), but they didn’t have much time for debate and cogitation.
  • This was an instrument meant to serve a purpose, and as long as it sounded about right, they probably didn’t think about it too much.

KdH note: Many weeks passed between the May 15th Declaration by John Adams (I wrote about it here), the June drafts, and the final adoption. The penultimate draft was considered by these men for three weeks before the final version was approved. Also, the writing of this document condemned each signer to death for treason, if caught. The notion that “they probably didn’t think about it too much” is utterly belied by their writings at the time.

I’ll leave the rest of this as he wrote it.

On the Constitution

  • This was virtually the opposite of the more laborious later process of drafting the Constitution – and look how that turned out! I’m sorry, but that thing is a mess.
  • It’s full of compromises, half-measures and ass-covering, and written in deliberately vague legalese that seemed antiquated even at the time.
  • How much conspiracy theory and half-baked Internet scholarship has been fueled by the famous stipulation that only a “natural born Citizen” is eligible for the presidency, without explaining what that meant?
  • On a more serious level, how much murder and mayhem has been enabled by the garbled syntax of the one-sentence Second Amendment, which reads like a cut-and-paste error from the 18th-century version of Microsoft Word?
  • The only self-evident truth in the Constitution is that it was the work of a committee who haggled over every word.
  • The Constitution was meant as the user’s manual for a new nation and a new mode of government, and since its authors explicitly envisioned a republic run by a small caste of gentlemen-farmers, their manual is hopelessly inadequate for an urban, polyglot consumer democracy of 300-plus million people.

On the Founders

  • But most of those guys with their names at the bottom (my favorites are Button Gwinnett, Caesar Rodney and “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” not to be confused, I guess, with Charles Carroll of Daytona Beach), who are believed to have signed it weeks or months later, were only thinking about the short-term practical consequences.
  • “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”
  • I bet Jefferson didn’t like that one bit. But as I’ve suggested, I don’t think any of those guys, not even him, understood what they were doing or the significance it would assume later.
  • Delegates famously removed Jefferson’s allegation that the Crown had forced the American colonists to accept the evils of slavery (talk about passing the buck, Tom!),
  • but retained the charge that George III had incited rebellion among the “merciless Indian Savages,” in the document’s ugliest phrase.
  • the Declaration is so much greater than the limited and disappointing men who wrote it and signed
  • The Declaration of Independence was like an oil well drilled into an underground vein: It brought those ideas gushing out of the Zeitgeist and onto the page, not fully worked out or entirely conscious, in a hurriedly constructed political document that no one especially intended as a philosophical landmark that would shape global history for 200 years and more.

On Conservatives

  • Freedom isn’t free. Blind, weepy jingoism from the right and cautious, boring homilies about hope and promise from what we hilariously describe as the left.
  • These days, I’m pretty sure only scary right-wing militia guys encounter that last part with any sense of its moral seriousness.
  • That’s a scary concept today, when the American mind consists of one part Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and three parts Candy Crush.
  • the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which has been viewed with hatred and suspicion ever since by the most jingoistic elements of the American right, precisely the same people who fetishize and deify the glorious Founding Fathers.
  • Insisting upon universal human rights that apply equally and without asterisks to everyone in the world has long struck many American conservatives as a sinister if not downright Communistic notion.
  • More important still, once you start to take these airy-fairy notions of universal human rights seriously – or, even worse, that second part about the rights of nations to throw off despots and usurpers and establish their own governments — it tends to interfere with oil-company profits, CIA-sponsored coups and unilateral military invasions.
  • How inconvenient that this one-world, America-hater conspiracy has its roots in the foundational document of 1776

On Thomas Jefferson

  • Jefferson, the Slave-Owning Hypocrite in Chief
  • But behind and surrounding all the political minutiae and that telltale moment of racist paranoia
  • Throughout our nation’s history, those who resisted the end of slavery, equal rights for women, the Civil Rights struggle and the fight for marriage equality — and who now, openly or otherwise, resist universal principles of human rights, national sovereignty and self-determination – have essentially embraced the guilt and hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson, rather than his efforts to transcend them.
  • I’m not saying that the deeds-vs.-words thing with Thomas Jefferson isn’t a problem. It’s a huge problem.
  • One of the greatest single sentences ever written in English, and the most important summary document of 18th-century political philosophy, were the work of a guy who looks worse and worse the more we learn about him.
  • … its author was a mendacious and deluded asshole whose personal and political hypocrisy poisoned our democracy at the roots, in ways we can never entirely undo.

On America

  • a nation that is allergic to history except in its most simplistic and mythological forms.
  • So basically it’s just America, fuck yeah, in the immortal words of Trey Parker.
  • But the true origins of the Declaration are not American, and neither is its true legacy.
  • It would be profoundly misleading to suggest that the United States embodies the philosophical principles laid out in the Declaration, or ever has.
  • the Declaration’s radical vision of universal human equality and a universal right to pursue happiness … was an almost utopian moral model, to which America did not and quite likely could not measure up.
  • It undermines the God-given specialness of America, our sense that we have earned rights and freedoms that other nations haven’t
  • This is America: We do what we want, especially when the lights are off, and call it democracy.
  • we’re celebrating something much bigger and broader in scope than one stupid country.
  • What is the Declaration of Independence? An imperfect vessel made by imperfect people in an imperfect country
  • We weren’t ready for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence in 1776; we have repeatedly tried to ditch them or ignore them, and we still haven’t adjusted to them. … Those ideas were never our property in the first place, and they didn’t make us special in the eyes of God.
  • both [interpretations of the Declaration] reflect a really high degree of national narcissism and self-importance, and pretty much assume that the fate of the world rests on our shoulders. News flash: It doesn’t!
  • [America should be] trying to provide decent lives for its citizens and get along with its neighbors. I kind of think that’s what the Declaration of Independence was driving at anyway.
  • It is pretty much time for America to get over itself and start acting like a normal country with normal priorities
  • Of course, when I say “normal country” it’s just a figure of speech.

On Fourth of July foods

  • The next year, George Washington granted his troops a double ration of rum. Now we’re talking!
  • I mean, beyond meat charred beyond recognition and then slathered with sriracha, beer that is either too watery or tastes like soup left in the fridge too long
  • as we consume aneurysm-inducing barbecue and Old Milwaukee by the 18-pack
  • So if we take a moment amid the mountains of beer-broiled brats and Buffalo wings
  • We’ll still have corn dogs and vegan corn dogs and bacon-wrapped dogs and Korean bulgogi dogs,
  • and some guy down the block will deep-fry a turkey in an oil barrel using an engine winch


Overall, this article was quite a piece of work. It would be mean-spirited of me to say of the article what the author said of the Declaration of Independence: “its author was a mendacious and deluded asshole.” In fact, I’ll simply let my friends here reach their own conclusions.

I probably should write something about the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was inspired, in a sense, by the Declaration of Independence, and pushed by a team headed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It took a long time, and was endlessly haggled over; perhaps a month for every week of the Constitution’s development.

But there are important differences that have caused me to be “suspicious” as the author above says. Briefly, it seems to me that one might be a bit suspicious of a “right” to an education that is “compulsory” as well as described in some detail as political indoctrination to “further the purposes of the United Nations.”

One can also perhaps mount some suspicion for an arrangement in which no one has to work, for all will live off of other people’s taxes:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services …

And you have a “right” to unspecified “duties to the community.” Perhaps to provide the standard of living to everyone else. Oh, and the UN will place “limitations” on all of the rights, as long as they are:

… such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

This has already been used by Islamic countries to demand (and implement in their own version) that no one has rights that conflict with Shariah law. So much for freedom of speech, religion, and the other rights.

Perhaps my concern about these points this places me among “the most jingoistic elements of the American right” as the author suggests. I will take that risk, rather than the risks inherent in the Universal Declaration itself.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle