In which Orestes Brownson is mentioned...

I was writing a message to Wishydig that I lost, so now I'm trying to sort of recreate the main content. At some point, he casually dismissed the idea of a unified American identity by asking what has become a pretty common, even predictable, question: "Whose values?--which history?--what behavior?"

So in response I wrote this impassioned argument where I insisted that Wishydig knew damn-well whose values we were talking about when we claimed that America was exceptional or whatever. I made mention of the fact that he comes from a conservative religious background, and that he's over 30, which allowed me to suggest that today's 19-year olds might really not know what we're talking about when we say "American."

In my objection I said things like, "If those were actually good questions, then we wouldn't have well-known platitudes about 'white picket fences,' and nobody would understand what it means to 'go visit an apple orchard.'" Those values. That history. That behavior. Whether you're of that culture or actively against it, or turned off by it, or whatever: you understood, until about 1988, that that was what we were talking about.

Then I talked about what I was teaching today. I'm teaching Margaret Fuller's "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." I wanted my students to have a good understanding of the kind of heavy tradition she was up against in arguing for the vindication of women. So I showed them a little bit from (incidentally, a very nice webpage; and I just got a new screen-capture tool) Orestes Brownson's oeuvre:

Browson, who started as a mainstream Protestant, then turned Transcendentalist, and then apparently saw the light (?!) and converted to a conservative Catholicism, says things like:
As we read along in the book, we keep constantly asking, What is the lady driving at? What does she want? But no answer comes. She does not know, herself, what she wants. She has an ugly feeling of uneasiness, that matters do not go right with her; and she firmly believes that if she had- I know not what- all would go better. She is feverish, and turns from one side of the bed to the other, but finds no relief. The evil she finds, and which all her class find, is in her, in them, and is removed by no turning or change of posture, and can be. She and they are, no doubt, to compassionated, to be tenderly nursed and borne with, as are all sick people. It is no use attempting to reason them out of their crotchets; but well people should take care not to heed what they say, and especially not to receive the ravings of their delirium as divine inspirations.
And what's important about that is that his was the vast-majority view right up until Fuller made her argument. And when Fuller showed up, challenging those widely- and long-held values, she didn't pretend all of the sudden that Brownson's views were just one set of views among many, neither privileged nor implicitly more worthy of addressing.

And so when I hear people say, "Oh, but which America," I kind of roll my eyes -- at least if they are under about 30. Because even if there was a Sylvia Plath behind almost every Mrs. Cleaver, we all know that they all at least believed that they believed that Mrs. Cleaver was a reality.


Wishydig said...

hm. not sure i understand your complaint fully here.

if someone defends a certain platform of american foreign and domestic policy by saying "america is exceptional" and that's challenged by saying "you're ignoring the fact that the same america has done evil" you're saying "that's so obvious, say something else"?

so, how should one disagree with a claim based on an oversimplification?

Casey said...

I'm not disagreeing with Cuomo's point, though. I'm only disagree with his/(your?) reasoning... if the reason you think we can't declare ourselves exceptional is that you don't know who "we" are, then I sort of think that's nonsense. Or certainly I think it's nonsense in 1984. We're the capitalists. Not the communists. The Christians, not the French. The inventors, not the consumers.

Maybe I was seizing on a phrase that you used informally and unjustly attacking it as if it were a cornerpiece in some important logic. I didn't meant to, but I do feel like the "Hey, wait a minute, which America are you talking about?" line is overcooked and overused.

Sorry if this one fell flat. I thought it was fun to write. :)

Wishydig said...

"if the reason you think we can't declare ourselves exceptional is that you don't know who "we" are…"

that's absolutely not the point. the point is we can't call ourselves exceptional because just like every other body, we're full of shit. and we all know that.

Casey said...


Casey said...

I think I just meant, "Oh; you're right."