worst and best of America

There’s a “challenge to the blogosphere” that’s getting a lot of attention: bloggers have been asked to list the Ten Worst Americans of the last 230 years. I find that I am not good at this, partly because I simply don’t know as much American history as I should, and partly because I don’t pay attention to names and biographies as much as to big social trends and institutions. Thus, for example, I had no idea that Harry Ansliger was the “father” of the War on Drugs, although I recognize that policy as a major part of our past and present. So here is a list of Big Bad Things that Americans have done; each one could have a representative individual’s name attached:

1. The Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself

2. The slaughter of Native Americans and the seizure of their land

3. Jim Crow

4. Seccession and the bloody Civil War that followed

5. The Mexican-American War. (I’m very glad that the Southwest is part of the USA, but the conquest was surely immoral.)

6. Occasional waves of political repression, contrary to the Bill of Rights, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), the Red Scare (1917-1920), the Nisei Interment (1942-5), and the McCarthy Era (1949-54)

7. Self-interested and harmful interventions in weak countries such as Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Angola

8. Massive underinvestment in public spaces and services

9. The flattening of vibrant urban neighborhoods and their replacement with dehumazing modernist designs. (Robert Moses should make the top-ten list.)

10. A coarse popular culture (“popular” around the globe) that glorifies violence

It would be terribly one-sided to list the bad without the good. To balance the above list, here’s a Positive Top Ten:

1. The Madisonian system of republican government with ordered liberty that has worked on a large scale for more than two centuries and proved that such a regime is possible

2. A democratic culture in which people are rough social equals, and status (especially inherited status) is relatively unimportant

3. Sustained prosperity born of freedom to innovate, optimism, and public investment in human beings

4. The absorption of waves of “huddled masses,” who have not been forced to renounce their diversity

5. The defeat of Nazism

6. Jazz

7. The Civil Rights Movement as a model for nonviolent social change in a modern society

8. The New Deal, especially as embodied in the great mid-twentieth century American cities with their solid systems of health, education, housing, transportation, and recreation

9. Restraint in war and international affairs, especially after the US became a nuclear-armed superpower

10. New York City as the world’s cultural capital, especially ca. 1930-1960 as modernism peaked and shifted to post-modernism

The last item is eccentric (although I happen to believe it). There would be excellent reasons for including the Bill of Rights, the Abolition Movement, the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and the Marshall Plan on the positive top ten.

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