14 November 2015



My heart breaks.

What do you say? I chose to say this, directly to the people of France.  

(If you want to know why I’m writing this, scroll to the English section at the end. But the why isn’t really the point.)

* * *

Paris. France. Mes amis.

Je pleure et debout en solidarité avec vous que je vous écris cette 6.765 kilomètres de distance, à Minneapolis.

Votre courage et votre résilience étonner constamment moi-votre belle nation forte a résisté face à la violence tant de fois.

Comme beaucoup d'Américains, je vous connais seulement comme un touriste: quelques jours errant la ville, manger pain au chocolat à Gérard Mulot, regarder le coucher du soleil de Montmartre. Je souhaite que je savais que tu mieux que je souhaite que nos nations se connaissaient mieux. Mais je tiens à vous dire que les Etats-Unis, vous admire. Non seulement vos pâtisseries et vos paysages, les choses que nous éprouvons en tant que touristes, mais votre esprit, votre courage. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, fermeté.

Vous avez résisté avec nous tant de fois, et nous sommes avec vous.

Je vous souhaite la paix et le confort que vous reconstruisez votre ville et vos vies. J'espère vous voir bientôt.

(Mes excuses pour le mauvais français. Il est de la faute de Google Translate.)

* * *

And here’s a note for the Americans.

My Facebook feed is filled with French flags and vacation photos of Notre Dame and Les Deux Magots and a certain tower. I understand and admire the impulse: This awful thing has happened, I don’t know to express my sadness, and a Facebook photo is something, at least.

Yet I can’t bring myself to change my profile, post my snapshots, offer tales of strolls along the Seine, as though my tourist memories were somehow an acceptable proxy for the real human lives torn apart.

I understand that the power comes from the aggregate—collectively, these pixelated squares send a message: There are so, so many of us thinking of you. No judgment, I promise, of people who do post photos.

But to me, for my purposes, it feels so damn easy, like a Yo app for empathy and activism (Click! Done! Solidarity accomplished!). Moreover, the audience is so incredibly limited: it’s message-making exclusively for my curated friends, a whisper in the echo chamber rather than a genuinely public statement. It’s not attending a vigil, it’s not a West Point football player carrying the Tricolor onto the field, which is also easy but unexpectedly moving, because a football game at West Point is about as rah-rah-America as it gets; there’s real meaning in that gesture.

But still, you have to say something. And while I fully acknowledge that this is also an empty gesture (particularly because no one reads this blog, much less anyone in France) . . . this is the best I’ve got.

09 November 2015

American History as a Hero's Journey

As I've worked on my book about the US territories (still in progress, thanks for asking), I've been thinking about the role of the territories in two separate versions of American history: the collective-memory mythology and the actual, factual master narrative.

In the process, I've also been pondering what, exactly, the mythology version looks like. Here's where my mind is right now: I think that the USA largely sees itself as living out its own rags-to-riches tale. Or, to put it another way, a Hero's Journey, in Joseph Campbell's classic formulation:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The key detail for the American Hero's Journey is that in the popular imagination, it's now effectively complete, aside from a bit of ongoing housekeeping.*

Basically, it's like this:

Click for larger image
All jokes aside, I think this accurately shows the general contours of how Americans, collectively, see history. I'm very curious to hear if anyone has any alternate takes, so please add your two cents in the comments. 

(And so we're clear: Yes, I know that even the slightest bit of scrutiny and understanding of Actual History reveals this mythology to be mostly false. That's a recurring theme in my book. But for now, I'm just interested in identifying what those Hero's Journey beats are, how the mythology is constructed.)