Category Archives: American Ideas

The America of 1842 Loved Dollars

It’s uncanny how the America of 1842, at least as described by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, resembles the America of today:

[Their conversation] was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them! (Chapter 16)

American Ideas II

Given our military might and a widespread belief that our grandest actions are divinely sanctioned, we’re convinced that we can settle any argument by force. And when we resort to force, we expect our victories to be spectacular and absolute, even if the goal is vast and improbable, such has the utter annihilation of our enemies.

For decades we’ve boasted that we can bomb any land into a parking lot. And what is a parking lot? A featureless expanse that leaves nothing to doubt.

To any expect any other outcome to our actions—for example, to anticipate adaptations from our opponents, evolving circumstances, “quagmires,” and other undesirable outcomes—would be to adopt dialectical thinking, a mode favored during the Cold War by Marxists and Hegelians, a tribe over whom we claim yet another of those victories we consider absolute.

For too many Americans, complexity is error. We can blast the shit out of anything, and the next thing, and the next. Especially in the face of intractable problems, bludgeoning, alas, may be the true American argumentum.