The Third Armpit of Hell

July 27, 2012

Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Map of Lower Hell, 16th century. (Giovanni Stradano via Wikipedia). In public domain.

During most of my Pittsburgh years, whenever someone I knew asked me what it was like to live in the New York City area, I often said two things. One, that “New York was a great place to live if you have money.” But, “if you don’t have money, New York could be like the third armpit of hell.”

I didn’t even bother to discuss Mount Vernon until I was well into graduate school. Too unknown, too complicated to explain its proximity to the Bronx and to midtown Manhattan. And from the average Pittsburgher’s perspective, it was a distinction without a difference. As far as some were concerned, Mount Vernon could’ve just as easily been outside of Buffalo as it could’ve been in the heart of Harlem.

But I definitely knew better, that my relationship with Mount Vernon and “The City” was a love-hate one, born from my growing-up experiences during the Reagan years. The lens with which I viewed the New York City area, a trifocal one of race, poverty and “outsider” status, made me ambivalent about my times growing up in Mount Vernon and all of my times in New York.

2 NYC subway train with graffiti (cropped), 1980s, December 20, 2009. (Cope2 via Qualifies as fair use – low resolution picture.

I have my father Jimme to thank, though. Without him, I would still be afraid of New York, not just ambivalent about it. Drunk or not, working or on his way to a hole-in-the-wall bar. Jimme would take me and my older brother Darren out and down to the city often enough, to ride the Subway, to hang out with him in Harlem, Spanish Harlem, and especially Midtown. Whether it was to help him with his janitorial work on weekends, or just to hang out, we frequented Manhattan and other parts of the five boroughs off and on between ’80 and ’85, ’82 — the year of abuse — excepted.

Because of that year, the longest time I spent outside of the city growing up was between April ’81 and July ’83. After not making it down to Manhattan in all of ’82, we went to Midtown in July, where we learned about two of my father’s watering holes between 43rd and 47th. They were both near Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on 47th. He also had an Irish pub he’d like to go to around East 59th and Third, a drinking bar near his job on 64th and Columbus, and a couple of places near Macy’s on 34th Street. Because of our height and the times, when it was still legal for eighteen-year-olds to drink in public watering holes, me and Darren were allowed into these fine establishments. I learned a lot about vermouth, vodka, Cosmos and Long Island Iced Tea that summer.

Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

I also learned a lot about the not-so-nice side of New York in those years. I recognized this as I’d board the Uptown 2 Subway from West 42nd Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan at the tail end of rush hour. As I’d board the train, I’d notice the crunch of humanity in all of its oblivion, self-absorption, and diversity. As the doors close, I’d watch as the express train passed 50th, 59th, and 66th Street before it would grind to a halt at 72nd Street. I’d notice that a fair number of the White passengers alighted here. Between 96th and 125th Street, the load of the train would gradually lighten as about half of the passengers who’d crushed me between a tall, stale-breathed smoker and a woman who wasn’t my girlfriend were now at street level.

About three-quarters of the passengers for the rest of my trip would be Latino and Afro-Caribbean. After another hour of endless stops in the Bronx, the 2 would pull me out of my slumber as it would slowly roll into the rickety East 241st stop.

By the time I was a rising senior at Pitt, I certainly didn’t need my father to accompany on my trips into Manhattan. I also avoided the long trek from 616 across Mount Vernon to 241st to take the 2 whenever I could afford to. Metro-North was a luxurious godsend compared to the puddles of piss and infinite amounts of graffiti on the Subway I’d seen throughout the ’80s.

Toph’s “Hairy Pits” from Avatar: The Last Airbender (screenshot), July 26, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins). Qualifies as fair use — low resolution picture.

But it introduced me to other odious issues. Like Grand Central Station, which by the summer of ’90 was in desperate need of renovation. Especially the restrooms, festooned with enough garbage, feces and bodily odors and fluids to make a coroner vomit.

Off a return trip from Pittsburgh that summer, I made the mistake of having no choice but to use the almost  unusable facilities there, which in the end I couldn’t use. Meanwhile, I observed homeless males hanging out in the restroom with carts, along with an individual who looked to have Kaposi’s sarcoma, an obvious sign of full-blown AIDS.

That’s when I coined New York to be “the third armpit of hell,” the place where poverty had meant your dreams were dead on arrival. For once, it made me content that I was from a place where many smug New Yorkers disdainly considered “upstate.” Though the New York City area has changed — and mostly for the better — since ’90, it’s still a place where economic inequality can easily grind the life out of people.

Tells In Telling The Tale

July 21, 2012

Adm. Adama hugging Starbuck scene (screen shot/cropped), Battlestar Galactica, 2009. (

I guess that we as individuals each have tells in telling stories, including our life stories. Certainly all writers have a tell, a catch phrase or common set of words that use in telling a story or in setting a scene. All artists have a unique signature, a nuance within a particular style or genre that sets them apart from someone painting by numbers. Sometimes, at least for me, it takes heavy doses of a writer’s style or of someone’s art for me to see the unique tells in the telling.

Firefly series opening logo, July 21, 2012. (Adamwankenobi via

That’s been so true for me in watching entire TV series through Netflix over the past two years, whether through DVD or online streaming. Since the spring of ’10, I’ve watched, in order and their entirety, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager, House, Firefly, Heroes, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Oz, Eureka, Warehouse 13, Battlestar Galactica, Bones and Fringe, mostly through Netflix. Now, some of these shows I’d seen plenty of when they were regular series, especially DS9, Six Feet Under, House and Oz, while I viewed most of these series for the first time.

There’s something different about watching a TV series all at once than watching it once a week in twelve, twenty-four or twenty-six episode blocks year by year. Especially with unlimited streaming. Earlier this year, I watched all seventy-six episodes of Battlestar Galactica over a six-day span in April, including the first two seasons between Saturday morning and Sunday evening Easter weekend (see my post “Battlescar Galactica” from June ’12).

In watching so many episodes, you quickly sense the rapport being actors, the plot and its direction, and the tells about a particular episode or season of a show. In watching DS9, I learned that whenever Quark would mention Dax’s relationship with a Gallamite (a race with a transparent skull) or a Tholian ambassador, I’d learn something revealing about one of the main characters, especially Dax or Quark. Only, there may’ve been only one scene in 176 episodes in which there was a Gallamite character, and none for a Tholian ambassador.

With House, if the “sarcoidosis” diagnosis came up before the last segment of an episode, it was always wrong, but if it came up in the last segment, it would occasionally be correct. The writers obviously knew that sarcoidosis was such a general diagnosis that it could mean nothing in nearly all the show’s mystery illnesses, revealing the desperation and pressure the characters felt in finding the right diagnosis to save someone’s life.

Bones in the human hand (from authentic human skeleton), March 25, 2004. (Raul654 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via GNU Free Documentation License.

For other shows, it could be a word, a line, an appearance of a sign or character even. For the first five seasons of Bones, the tell for Brennan’s emotional state — or lack of one — was how she’d say “phalanges,” “distal phalanges,” or even “ungual phalanges.” Brennan wiggled her “phalanges” with delight for babies and kids, and examined microscopic details of dead peoples’ phalanges with scientific coldness otherwise. For the sci-fi western Firefly, lines like “the money was too good” and cursing in Mandarin Chinese illuminated the contrast between haves and have-nots of twenty-sixth century humans, between technological advances and moral devolution.

There’s also Fringe’s opening with changes in colors signifying alternate universes and timelines. Not to mention Breaking Bad’s opening scenes foreshadowing how a season would conclude, or the use of light-skinned or biracial actresses as either technically or ephemerally brilliant characters on Fringe, Warehouse 13 and Bones.

But my all-time favorite tell in any season these days is from Battlestar Galactica, when Adama asks,

“What do you hear, Starbuck?”

“Nothing but the rain, sir,” she says

“Then grab your gun and bring in the cat.”

No matter how the characters felt, how dire the situation, or how triumphant the moment, it was the line that showed how precious the connections we have and need to have with each other and with our humanity.

I think that the way I can — we can — watch movies, TV series, read books and articles, look at art, and listen to music through these tells can tell me a lot about a writer, a musician or an artist. But it also tells me a lot about me. Not just that I’m a little weird. I’m also a sucker for a good story, one that is a bit ironic, a tad asymmetrical, that is quirky and epic, unique and yet mundane. A story that mirrors my life is one that tells me about me, at least in part.

The “Invisible” Poor & The Middle Class Mythology

July 19, 2012

Transparent (or invisible) Woman (cropped), July 19, 2012. (

This past weekend, I found myself drawn into the discussion of the middle class and middle class aspirations on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes (otherwise known as “Uppers”). It was a good and yet wholly unsatisfying discussion of technical definitions of what middle class is and of the political optics of only discussing the middle class as a socioeconomic category. Chris Hayes and his guests justified this with an all-too-common refrain. “If you’re poor, you’re aspiring to be middle class,” Hayes said on Saturday. With that, Hayes and his guests rendered America’s poor invisible, and failed to see beyond the politics of invisibility in the process.

There are two issues here, and many layers within them, about America’s poor, working, on welfare, or otherwise. One issue is that journalists, commentators, political operatives and most politicians treat the poor as if they are an unknowable group of people. It’s as if they all think the same way, as if there are all Black or of color, and a complete drag on the American economy and the federal budget. And that’s on a day in which the media and politics deem America’s poor as discussable. Most of the time, America’s poor are invisible, shoved into the middle class category by commentators and politicians at every turn.

Yes, America’s middle class is struggling too, fighting tooth and nail to not slip into the class of the invisible working poor, treading water to avoid food banks and food stamps. But they have something to struggle with — and for — at least. Their homes, their cars, a retirement account, their families’ net worth, all accoutrements of being middle class in America. America’s poor don’t possess anything to struggle with or for.

Chris Hayes on a train in Switzerland, November 10, 2008. (Matthew Yglesias via Wikimedia Commons/ Released to public domain via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Except, maybe, with their vote, if they care to vote at all. Yet no mainstream commentator nor presidential candidate has truly spoken to their needs, their plight, to how their situation is completely interconnected with the struggles of the American middle class, not their aspirations. Not Chris Hayes, nor his weekend compadre, Melissa Harris-Perry, not President Barack Obama, and definitely not the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.

It’s a story I’m all too familiar with, as someone who grew up in poverty in Mount Vernon, New York. Not to mention as someone who had to go to college and graduate school and then struggled for two years at part-time work before finding a job with a Ph.D. in ’99 (see my “The Five Senses of Poverty” post from July ’10). I was thirty years old by the time I earned a middle class income. Yet in all of that time, the only mainstream politician who spent time on the issues of the American poor as if these were real people was President Jimmy Carter, and we know what happened with him. Outside of my degrees and my publications, I was invisible until the fall of ’99.

Otherwise, it’s been four decades of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton concerned with “welfare queens,” “pink Cadillacs,” and “mend it, don’t end it” welfare policies, and the media following suit. It’s like being kicked hard by someone as one is laying on the ground with broken ribs and internal hemorrhaging, as if they want to poor to die, painfully.

But it’s not just the ones with microphones and word processing programs that kill America’s poor by rendering them invisible. Despite the general notion that the media and politicians nurture — that everyone not rich aspires to be firmly entrenched in the middle class — most Americans middle class and poor aspire to be rich, wealthy, well-off.

Creflo Dollar, pastor, World Changers Church International, November 1, 2010. (Zwicky Institut via In public domain.

This is the other neglected issue, whether inadvertent like with Chris Hayes and his guests on Uppers, or deliberate on the part of President Obama and Romney. Why so? Because they don’t acknowledge that it’s hard to be truly middle class in America these days. To be in the middle class, one must borrow, borrow, borrow, beg and sometimes steal while struggling to pay student loans, car notes, a mortgage and child care costs.

This wasn’t the case even thirty years ago, before the severe double-dip recession, high interest rates and inflation and Reagan Revolution took full hold. Then, a high school diploma and raw initiative was all most folks needed to find a job at a GM plant or to get an administrative job in government or with a large corporation (although, typing at 90 words per minute enhanced a woman’s chances, at least). Now, two years of college or postsecondary technical training, some experience in a specialized field, and a personal connection is the floor for a living wage — not exactly middle class. Of course, no one wants to be in the basement with nearly one in five Americans, 50 million in all, working just to be poor.

Stacks of money, April 13, 2008. (Allureme via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 License.

America’s poor and fledgling middle class both aspire to be rich (or die tryin’), and not just middle class. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity, mega-churches and the cult of prosperity as these pastors reimagine the New Testament. The endless lines for Powerball and Mega Millions whenever the pot is more than $100 million. The fascination with reality shows about the well-off or about competing to be well-off. All of this is the manifestation of the warping of the American Dream since the early 1970s, where the pursuit of riches has led to debt slavery for millions.

The old American Dream has become myth, and the old American middle class is but the story of Camelot, Timbuktu and Shangri-La. In our new world, “the poor will be with us always” has been made a plain and unyielding truth by those in power, reinforced by those with a media platform.

Boy, Interrupted

July 16, 2012

Oz (HBO series) wallpaper, July 15, 2012. (

As I continue on my blogger’s journey reliving parts of my summer of abuse from thirty years ago, I’m reminded of some simple truths. That in terms of time, while I certainly remember everything that happened to me in July ’82, I don’t remember being outside the confines of 616 at any point during that month, even during those times when I actually was. Mount Vernon had become my prison. I don’t recall a single moment of laughter or goofiness, a single song or thought beyond surviving my ordeal. It was as if someone had kidnapped and then tortured me for five weeks. It was the longest interruption of my higher ordered thinking that I can remember.

Not only did my stepfather Maurice/Judah forbid me from the outdoors or from reading because I refused to acknowledge him as my father, but he forced me to do every conceivable household chore (see my “Whipped And Beaten” post from earlier this month). He invented them on a whim to keep me busy every day. His justification, of course, was the Torah. “Honour thy father and thy mother…” was what I’d allegedly violated as a sinful Hebrew-Israelite. I scrubbed behind our two refrigerators on a Saturday afternoon in mid-July — our so-called Sabbath day — while they were turned on, burning myself on coils and cleaning walls with plain water. I whitewashed the bedroom, living room, foyer, and hallway walls on Saturdays and other days, again without any soap or other cleansers.

Maurice inspected my work for any mistake, and if there were any, I’d get beat with a belt or punched in the chest or gut and would have to start the whole thing all over again. All while he laid on his unemployed ass farting and watching the ’30s Tarzan movie series starring Johnny Weissmuller on WNEW-Channel 5. On a Sanyo TV set my father Jimme had bought us the year before, just before his Louisville Slugger incident! I scrubbed those kitchen walls as if I were scrubbing Maurice with a steel rake tipped with Brillo pads. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have anything but water to clean them with.

A modern jail cell (numbering modified by author), Brecksville, Ohio PD, January 3, 2006. (Andrew Bardwell via Wikipedia/ In public domain.

Both Jimme and my Uncle Sam tried to see me during this torture. My stepfather threatened to kill Jimme, practically running him off. I got in trouble for chasing after my father down East Lincoln Avenue after Maurice threatened him. Maurice yelled at me, “If you go after him, you betta keep goin’!” Mom stopped my Uncle Sam from confronting my stepfather about his abuse of her and me when he came over for a visit at the end of July. He was obviously frustrated beyond belief. Uncle Sam said, “Don’t expect me to keep comin’ over here while that son-of-a-bitch’s still here!”

I was completely exhausted by then. I dreamed every day of slaughter. I thought about cutting up my stepfather in his sleep with a steak knife and feeding him to wild dogs. I’d start with his balls, then his whale-blubber belly, and then his throat. Then I would stuff his balls down his throat. These wonderful thoughts probably kept me from committing suicide.

Despite it all, the idiot had failed to break me. Off and on throughout my month of torture, I did think of Crush #1. She’d sometimes show up in my dreams. Or I’d think of her as I walked the streets of North Side Mount Vernon, as I passed her  block near East Prospect, on the way to pick up a new stroller for Yiscoc or to go to Waldbaum’s or some other grocery store. Then I started thinking that this was a pitiful waste of time. After all that had happened, there was no way someone as great as Crush #1 would ever be interested in me, I thought one day at the end of July, just a couple of days before my five weeks of continual abuse had ended.

I assumed that I was damaged goods, a person no self-respecting individual would see as having any value. Kids, even poor kids, made fun of me all the time, my religion was a sham since my stepfather had become a worse person, Mom was making dumb decisions, and my grades despite my end-of-the-year rally didn’t meet my usual standards. It was July ’82 and I didn’t know if I’d make it to my thirteenth birthday.

I was so stressed out that I hadn’t noticed that I was in the midst of growing four inches in two short months. I missed my foot growing a full size in a span of a month, my first pubic hair growth. I even masturbated without knowing what it was I was doing, having made it my way to release all of my fear and stress. If a psychiatrist had evaluated me on July 16 of ’82, they would’ve put me on antidepressants. That’s how out of sorts I was.

This Is No Korra-Nation

July 14, 2012

Avatar: The Legend of Korra – Welcome to Republic City (game screen shot), April 10, 2012. (Harryhogwarts via Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because image is only being used to visually identify the subject.

I wish that this was only a pun. But, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender spinoff The Legend Of Korra was only a legend in their own minds. It’s not that Korra’s first season wasn’t a good one. It’s that Korra could not possibly live up to what was the greatest animation series of all-time.

Any fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender couldn’t help but be disappointed with the first season of Korra. First, it took four years for them to bring Korra to Nickelodeon, and a full twenty months after they released the first stills for the new series in August ’10. They wasted two of those years making the terrible live-action The Last Airbender (2010) as directed by M. Night Shyamalan (see my “The Last Airbender, or Shyamalan’s Cynical Egg?” post from July ’10).

Korra, Avatar: The Legend of Korra (artwork), October, 2011. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as image is only being used to identify blog subject.

So Korra was behind the 8-ball already when the show officially launched in April. Then the first episode began, exploding through waterbender Avatar Korra’s growing-up years in about three and a half minutes. That opening scene set the tone for all twelve of the first season’s episodes. One could sort of justify the rapid pace of Korra because she’d already mastered three of the four elements and because the spin-off had moved seventy years into the future, and a somewhat modern one at that. But the pace left little room for character development and the clear-cut personality distinctions that made Avatar: The Last Airbender the ultimate experience.

It took three episodes for me to find a good-and-honest scene that produced a personality quirk (see Bolin as a poor man’s Sokka here) and a hearty laugh. You got no sense of how Tenzin became part of Republic City’s council, or how tension-filled his life must’ve been as the responsible son of the great Avatar Aang. The elderly Katara appeared in a couple of scenes, and there was no attempt to explain the intervening years between the end of the Hundred-Year War until the last couple of episodes. Even then, these were fleeting scenes in a fast-paced, let’s-get-Korra-to-the-Avatar-State season.

The sheer lack of an attempt at authenticity with Korra, though, was what I found most disappointing. Seven decades into the future with modern technologies would create cultural tensions for sure, but it certainly wouldn’t wipe out the traditions of the four nations, even in Republic City. That, and only flashes of the spirituality that was completely infused in Avatar: The Last Airbender, made Korra a poor facsimile for whatever tensions between tradition and modernity that the main character faced in the first season.

I plan to watch Season 2, assuming that DiMartino, Konietzko and Nickelodeon plan on putting out a second season of Korra now that Season 1 is over. But I’ve lowered my expectations for the new series, especially if the creators intend to continue to rush through plots. It was as if Avatar Korra was on an out-of-control 2 Subway rumbling through Midtown Manhattan, about to flip over and derail.

Whipped and Beaten

July 6, 2012

Whipped and beaten buttercream, October 10, 2010. ( In public domain.

Another day, another “thirty years ago on this date” post. But this one was my full confirmation that my childhood was over, that humans — especially Blacks males — couldn’t be trusted, and that I had a long way to go to make my life worth living (see my post “Another Day of Days” from July ’07 for more). It took years for me to undo the conclusions I drew from what occurred on this date.

My stepfather cut my Pookie hunt three days short on the sixth of July (see my “Lightning On A Cloudless Day” from last week) of ’82. Because I wasn’t man enough to actually find and confront Pookie to get the money back, it was now time for my whuppin’.

Whap! Whap! Whap!

“Are you gonna do what I say nigga!,” Maurice kept saying as he kept whipping me with his belt.

Kunta Kinte being whipped, Roots (1977) screenshot, July 6, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution.

I stood there with my arms and legs stretched out — and with my pants and underwear pulled down to my ankles — in front of a grimy white wall in my room being whipped by him with his leather belt. I could hear the belt cut through the air before it landed on my nearly naked body. I assumed that he pulled this straight from the ABC miniseries Roots.

Whap! Whap! Whap!

“I’m yo’ father and yo’ gonna listen to me!” he barked.

As the inquisition continued, my room started to spin in my head, and the white walls turned yellow and red.

Whap! Whap! Whap!

“Are you gonna listen to me? Are you gonna listen to me?” he kept saying as each hit became harder and harder on my back, butt, and legs. I started seeing pools of blood forming on the ceiling and nothing but hatred was forming in my mind.

Whap! Whap! Whap!

“Are you gonna listen to me?,” he screamed.

“I hate you! I hate you! You’re not my father, you’re just a bully!” I yelled.

My stepfather then paused from whipping me. Punches and kicks followed about a second later. First came three punches to my head and jaw, after he spun me around from the wall.

“You hate me, huh nigga?!?”

Then he kicked me in the stomach and the mouth as I lay on the floor, at least until I started to spit blood. After I threatened to go to the police, Maurice picked me up and threw me by my arms four feet into a corner wall, almost knocking me unconscious.

“Go to the police, muthafucka! I dare you! If you talk to the police, I’ll kill you!,” he said.

When I came out of my daze, my stepfather told me to move out and go live with Jimme. He told me, “This is MY house. If you hate me get out!” A suitcase then greeted my head as my stepfather said, “Start packin’!”

Mom arrived from a long day at work, around 3:15 pm, as Mount Vernon Hospital was about to go on strike, and she wasn’t a part of the union. “My poor mom,” I thought. When she came into my room, she immediately became angry. “What happened?,” she asked. I told her the story, and she told me to unpack.

After five minutes of quiet, I heard her arguing with Maurice in the living room.

“He’s a defiant child. We have to get rid of IT!,” he said.

“Who pays the bills? Who feeds your fat black ass? If this child of mine leaves, we’re gonna turn this mutha out, and you’re gonna be the one goin’ to hell!,” Mom said in response. I guess she really didn’t remember what happened to her on Memorial Day.

My stepfather then walked into my room to say “Unpack, nigga.” I finished unpacking, and then I sat in my walk-in closet and began to cry. I hadn’t cried in the closet since the day I finished third grade, because Mrs. Shannon was no longer my teacher. I had a crush on her all through that year. Now I closed the closet door, wanting no light to shine on me.

I felt trapped, with no place to escape from the wrath of my stepfather. I thought about poisoning his food, the fat slob. Or slitting his throat when he was asleep, because he could sleep through a thermonuclear detonation. Then I thought about killing myself again. I could jump out of the window in the living room and land flat on the blue-gray slate walkway between 616’s front door and the five stairs leading to the sidewalk and street. I thought that one of us would have to die to end this senseless ordeal.

Muhammad Ali at end of last fight, SI cover, October 13, 1980. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution.

I discovered that my waking nightmare had just begun. It turned out that my ribs and stomach were bruised, I had another knot on my forehead, my lower lip was busted, and my butt and right leg had bloody scars on them as a result of the belt. And I knew, all too well now, that there was more to come.

If there’s anything to learn from my experience, it’s to not wait for a teacher to notice — in my case, the late Harold Meltzer — or twenty years to feel comfortable enough to talk about your child abuse without being embarrassed.

American Un-Exceptionalism

July 4, 2012

Captain America and waving US flag, July 4, 2012. (http://

One of the great myths of American history is that the US is an exceptional society with an exceptional history, earned as the shining light on the hill of democracy, the first modern republic in world history. Despite all the claims of such luminaries as Chris Matthews (of MSNBC lore) and presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin, America is hardly exceptional. What makes us exceptional is the frequency with which we claim to be so different and so unique from the rest of world. Beyond that, we’re about as exceptional as a C+ level college student.

Chris Matthews at 2011 Time 100 gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Speaking of students, my US history students have laid claim to American exceptionalism almost as often as Chris Matthews. If it’s US history prior to the Civil War, then the claim has been about breaking free from Great Britain’s empire, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the US Constitution, and building the first modern representative democracy. If it’s the twentieth century, then it’s about the good ol’ US saving the world from the tyranny of communism — or at least, anything that wasn’t supportive of US-style capitalism (which isn’t the same as democracy, by the way). Both are hogwash, as full of half-truths as George Washington’s honesty, Abraham Lincoln believing in Black equality and Henry Longfellow’s portrayal of Paul Revere’s ride.

I’m sorry, but I don’t find it exceptional that the US formed a representative democracy that represented the interests of rich, landowning White males, many of whom were plantation slave owners too chicken to deal with the issue in the summer of 1787. Even the comparison to ancient Greece and Rome is specious on a power-blue cloudless day in New York in September. Whether it was direct or representative democracy, both were limited democracies that relied heavily on slavery, warfare, and eventually became empires. America was born out of an empire, and to this day, has imperialist notions about itself and its relationship to the world.

As far as American the Superpower since 1945, I find it laughable that people see us as this shining beacon of truth, justice and the American democratic way on the world stage. There are folks who really think that we were too generous and altruistic in our Marshall Plan largesse, in our dealings with nations whom became aligned with us in the quarter-century after the end of World War II. Hogwash! With the US controlling fifty percent of economic production and activity in the world in 1945, it needed trading partners to ensure its future prosperity and dominance. The Marshall Plan was as much about the creation of stable trading partners and economies as was about checking Soviet influence in Central and Southeastern Europe.

Besides this, for every West Germany, South Korea and Japan, there were also our CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, military disruptions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and protections of American corporate interests throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Middle East. But I’m sure that this was only about spreading our exceptional democracy and economic prowess to the rest of the world. At least, that’s what American exceptionalists keep telling us.

“Dorian Gray” as played by Stuart Townshend, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), July 4, 2012. (

There’s another perspective here, though. One that would describe America as an empire, or an empire in the making, at least. For American history is the stuff of imperialism, including the very justification we use for our actions on the world stage. Based on this point of view, America is unexceptional. As Dorian Gray of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) would say, “Empires rise and fall. There are no exceptions.” The choice we as Americans have is whether we prefer the soft landing that Great Britain recently experienced, or a crash-and-burn.


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