Unexceptional

Check In: The recent in-house crises continue through this week. I’ve been building a computer for 😻 which required installing Windows fresh and a handful of favorite games (some of which then required post-facto tweaking to play right). The computer is ready and being delivered today.

Also our sofa-surfing refugee has found a place to live, so it’s now a matter moving her to the new place so she can sleep in a bed, and not on a sofa.

Meanwhile, American Independence Day came and went, and I’d like to think that I would have been able to write something appropriate to be posted on the day proper, hadn’t I been building a computer. Probably not, though. My own history has shown I’m just not that organized. Still, the computer delayed my doing pretty much anything else and serves as a solid excuse. And I did actually write a decent Independence Day article:

Running the Madhouse

Bedlam is a word for chaos or confusion, suggesting a large crowd, such as a mass panic or a riot. We get the term from Bethlem Royal Hospital, possibly the first ever madhouse.

And a madhouse it was. Founded in 1247 it was a prison for the demon-stricken or brain-damaged or spirit-possessed or just plain too-queer. They weren’t good at diagnosis then, but at the time London needed a place to put the folk who were clearly a few planks short of a barrel to function in proper society. There were too many village idiots in London, and they needed a place to go, so Bethlem Royal was founded.

As was typical of prisons and repositories of people we don’t like or understand much, Bethlem wasn’t a very nice place at all. It was really rather wretched.

For it time the hospital got enterprising and would invite tourists in for a small donation (free Tuesdays!). These guests could view the inmates as a spectacle. Bethlem even furnished their paying guests with a stick by which to agitate underresponsive patients. Look, he’s ranting again!

Bethlem eventually went under audit. It was decided that the raving madhouse was more likely to drive the orderlies to lunacy of their own than successfully treat a patient back to functionality. It took several reforms before the hospital became something other than a quality setting for Gothic horror. Certainly few stories coming out of Bethlem were anything else.

It didn’t help that the science of psychology itself wasn’t respectable until the late twentieth century. Oh, we had ideas which made sense, but society liked to assume that crazies (in this case, crazies are those who dysfunctionally suffer from mental disorders) were all psycho-killers. As a result, most mental hospitals through to the 1970s tried all sorts of treatments which mostly fried the brains of their subjects, or otherwise added history of abuse to their list of troubles.

But times did change, and we did get better at treating for mental-health, and
Bethlem Royal Hospital exists today as a state-of-the-art psychiatric foundation. Bethlem now has several facilities, and provides a full spectrum of mental-health services to the British public and does a decent job of it.

Interestingly (to me) rather than suppressing its grotesque, embarrassing history, Bethlem embraces it, recognizing that it started with a less-than-ideal mission, but through time, scientific advancement, human compassion and lots and lots of terrible mistakes, it managed to change from a horrific menagerie of lunatics into a respectable institution of medicine.

Bethlem Royal is now a high-end establishment of psychiatric care and study, not due to British competence or the power of will, but a matter of trial and error over centuries of time.

Fairy Stories

Across the pond, here in the United States, we teach a our children a hagiographic history of our nation.

Manifest Destiny is spun as a benefit to the peoples displaced, reeducated or drafted into servitude. Westernization, the process of pushing Western European culture onto aboriginal peoples is taught as a good thing.

Freedom for all is emphasized without acknowledgement of the countless sharecroppers who came to the new world who would never know liberty, themselves. Rather, such unfortunates took on an insurmountable debt to escape persecution. At the time, typically, it was religious persecution: Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics still took their religion very seriously, and the faith of whatever royal was in power would determine which citizens were legal, and which were committing the capital crime of heresy. (Then there were those who were of other faiths, such as Puritans and Quakers. Heretics the lot of them!) When the only alternative was to perish in the fire, taking on huge debt and fleeing to become servants in the new world was the better deal.

American colonials, thus, had little choice but to submit themselves and their families to a lifetime of feudal servitude. Lower then them, Africans were captured and brought to the new world as outright slaves. They weren’t even regarded as human (Until it was time to count for the census, at which point they were given the value of three fifths of a person). Women (of any color) were still property and had no stature, and often were married (in arranged unions) as young as nine years old. (And yes, they were expected to perform their marital duties.)

The United States, child Americans are taught, promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, according to our public-school itineraries. Omitted is the caveat that you had to be white, male and a property owner before you were eligible for any of them (and then, only for limited shades of white). To this day, in 2017, we teach as if women, Irish, blacks, American Indians and Latin-Americans (that is, the children of Spanish colonials who interbred with aboriginal Americans) were included in this emancipation.

Our education departments have lots of ‘splaining to do.

The American Scheme

Books have been written about the unspoken nit and grit of US history. Our real history is a tumultuous saga of peril and scandal, rife with heroes and assassins and traitors and betrayal, tyrants and cruelty and grafters and deception. You know, history.

And yet, when we teach our children, we distill out all the drama, reducing our nation’s story to steamed mush. Why is this?

Part of it is a grand conspiracy.

Not a smokey-conservatory-hatched scheme like the business plot, where a handful of well-to-dos got together and decided what the United States needs right now is a good shot of that fascism stuff that’s working so well for Italy and Germany. And their big plan would have worked too if their cover wasn’t blown by a high-ranking US Marine named Smedley. (Seriously!)

Rather, a cabal of parents and teachers and administrators got together (by cabal I mean casual tea party like with actual tea and shortbread). They started pondering what the message was of US history. What are we trying to convey to our kids?

They decided it was certainly not that the US is (and has always been) a bag of dicks: Whether the United States was massacring Indians for their land or sending American draftees to war with shoddy gear; whether it was letting US officials embezzle huge sums from the public fund unchecked or crushing the governments of democratic nations and replacing them with corrupt authoritarian regimes on the US payroll; or whether the United States going to war because some American aristocrats wanted it real bad, and then kidnapping and torturing people for their pleasure (without trial or due process, or any good purpose), the US has often not served as a good example for our small young Americans to follow.

So they started with the message they did want the kids to glean, specifically the message of American Exceptionalism. They then worked backwards to polish the American story to fit that ideology. In short time, this Exceptionalism policy became the US educational norm. Curiously, we never created a standard history curricula, leaving textbook publishers to choose how to revise the narrative. Still, when history teachers want to spice their lessons up with authentic scandal and treachery, parents still get weird about it.

The Exceptionalism message teaches:

The United States and its people are special and unique. Not just snowflake special or unique. Rather Americans are more special and unique than any other people in the whole world.

The United States and its people deserve more and better than anyone else, on account that we’re that special kind of special and unique.

The United States and its people have a duty to convey American-ness to the rest of the world, which is to say, Americans are obligated to spread Americanism and American ideology to other peoples and other nations. We pressure other peoples to behave as we do, to speak our language, to engage in customs and tasks as we would, and to believe the things that we believe.

Does this sound as creepy as fuck to anyone else?

It sounds a lot like the Great Commission, especially as it’s been used to justify wars and massacres. It sounds like the Islamic State which that Islamic state is trying to be. It sounds like Pax Impera or Manifest Destiny, like someone is trying to indoctrinate our kids. If we were looking at any other culture or country (such as the Islamic State or Communist Vietnam) we’d call it brainwashing.

Kids aren’t special because they got hatched under a given flag. They’re special for who they are in life. The Wright Brothers weren’t exceptional because they lived in North Carolina under the US banner, but because they created a powered plane that didn’t fall apart mid flight. They would still be exceptional if they were French or Chinese or Guatemalan. (We don’t even get to say ours is a nation that inspires inventors. Our actual innovators commonly wind up penniless like Charles Goodyear with their patents owned by monied interests.) Americans are only as virtuous, as innovative, as friendly or as resilient as we individually set out to be, and living in US territory doesn’t change that.

Fanfare For the Common Man

(Incidentally…)

David Mitchell observed a tendency of the people of the United Kingdom (specifically those people with whom he associates) to sustain a certain pervasive humility. The English, he imagines, are keenly aware that they — individually and as a people — aren’t anything special to speak of at all. British folk aren’t particularly super-wise, talented or sweet-smelling, Mitchell believes, and they know this. And, he surmises, this is good, even useful.

Self-awareness beats competence anytime. Mitchell observes. By knowing they are not all-that and they don’t know what’s what Englishfolk might realize that it’s not though any intrinsic talent or brilliance or awesomeness that they’re going to excel, but only through sustained perseverance: Only by effort and practice over a long time, suffering countless mistakes and embarrassments that will they ever get good at anything.

Brits, David Mitchell asserts, know their flag gives them no advantage.

Of course, as he points this out, he also expresses his annoyance at politicians of the UK referring to the Great British Public and people responding to this phrase, enjoying pretending that it means they’re the ones who are great (as in brilliant or superior), rather than just someone from Great Britain. This phenomenon, which seems relatively new, defies his notion that Brits are humble like they should be. Some Brits get that they’re ordinary, but some, it seems, don’t.

Regardless of how consistent the English are in their personal humility, it is a useful feature to those who sustain such a tact: Neither Brits nor Americans are exceptional, and even when we are desperate for our individual identities to shine, it’s by a false premise to assume that our nationality makes a difference (or, for that matter, our race or culture). This also means that we can’t be discredited because Americans and English don’t have to try as hard because we’re naturally better. We aren’t, and when we do accomplish greatness, we don’t have to subtract a factor based on nationality when assessing our credit for it.

Also, when we indulge notions of national exceptionalism or racial exceptionalism or cultural exceptionalism, we set ourselves up to be chumps for the next big cult or ideological movement looking for an army of mooks to do its dirty work. Worldwide, we humans are all imbiciles of the same cloth. When we assume we’re special intrinsically, we forget that we’re only the good guys so long as we don’t behave like bad guys.

And behaving like bad-guys is how we make school administrators embarrassed about what we contributed to US history. Behaving badly drives them feel we set a bad example for our future Americans. And it encourages them to edit us and our deeds out of classroom curricula.

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