Geronimo, bin Laden, history and popular culture

That headline sounds like the title of a college course that might be briefly popular among those trying to fulfill a requirement in history or sociology or the like, doesn’t it?

Just ran across this WashPost piece from six days ago, stepping away from emotion over the use of “Geronimo” as the name of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and noting the parallels between the U.S. military’s pursuits of the two men. I found it informative, so here it is. An excerpt:

The similarities are not in the men themselves but in the military campaigns that targeted them…

The 16-month campaign was the first of nearly a dozen strategic manhunts in U.S. military history in which forces were deployed abroad with the objective of killing or capturing one individual. Among those targeted were Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein.

The original Geronimo campaign and the hunt for bin Laden share plenty of similarities. On May 3, 1886, more than a century before a $25 million reward was offered for information on bin Laden’s whereabouts, and almost 125 years to the day before the al-Qaeda leader’s death, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a joint resolution “Authorizing the President to offer a reward of twenty-five thousand dollars for the killing or capture of Geronimo.”

In both operations, the United States deployed its most advanced technology. Whereas a vast array of satellite and airborne sensors was utilized in the search for bin Laden, Gen. Nelson Miles directed his commanders to erect heliograph stations on prominent mountain peaks, using sunlight and mirrors to transmit news of the hostiles. Neither system helped anyone actually catch sight of the man who was sought.

Small raiding forces … proved more decisive than large troop formations in both cases. In 1886, Lt. Charles Gatewood was able to approach the 40 Apache warriors still at large with a party of just five — himself, two Apache scouts, an interpreter and a mule-packer. He convinced Geronimo and the renegades to surrender on Sept. 4, with a deftness that would have been impossible with 5,000 soldiers. Similarly, the United States could never have deployed the thousands of troops necessary to block all escape routes out of Tora Bora — the deployment of 3,000 troops three months later to Afghanistan’s ShahikotValley in Operation Anaconda failed to prevent the escape of the targeted individuals from similar terrain — but a lightning strike by a few dozen commandos was successful.

Both campaigns also demonstrated the importance of human intelligence to manhunting. Gatewood was alerted to Geronimo’s location near Fronteras, Mexico, by a group of Mexican farmers tired of the threat of Apache raids, but he also needed the assistance of Apache scouts familiar with the terrain and with Geronimo’s warriors to close in on his quarry. So, too, according to administration officials, did the success in finding bin Laden depend upon the interrogation of his former confederates in al-Qaeda and upon the efforts of local agents in Pakistan to track the courier who led U.S. intelligence officers to the Abbottabad compound….

And so forth. By the way, on a related topic, here’s a piece written by a paratrooper on the history of U.S. soldier’s tradition of yelling that name when jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. Apparently, it all came from a 1939 movie starring “Chief Thundercloud,” a.k.a. Victor Daniels (not to mention the immortal Andy Devine!).

And talk about your coincidences… I had been clicking around through my Netflix instant queue one night recently and watched a few minutes of the ubersilly “Hot Shots Deux,” starring Charlie Sheen and Lloyd Bridges. (Hey, in small doses, I very much enjoy the whole “Airplane!” comedy genre — even when Leslie Nielsen is absent.) The scene below was part of what I saw. The very next morning, I first read of the controversy among some American Indians over the “Geronimo” operation… Seemed ironic. You know, what with Charlie Sheen being such a paragon of sensitivity and all.

Oh, and what do I think of it? The same thing I think about the Redskins, the Braves, et al. It’s a tribute, not a sign of disrespect. You really have to want to be insulted to take it that way. But as you know, I have little sensitivity toward — or, admittedly, understanding of — the complex resentments than can be felt by people to whom Identity Politics is important. And I hate arguing with people like that, because I’m willing to grant that in many cases such people DO actually feel hurt, with or without justification that makes sense to me. But it seemed like it would be a cop-out if, after bringing up the subject, I didn’t share my own opinion, for what little it’s worth, and however lightly I may hold it.

82 thoughts on “Geronimo, bin Laden, history and popular culture

  1. Doug Ross

    Yeah, it was pretty sad that Geronimo attacked our country and caused so much death like bin Laden. Why didn’t he just go back to where he came from?

    The genocide of the Native American is one of those historical events that we American exceptionalists gloss over. Read the story of Custers Last Stand sometime. He was sent in to clear out the Indians so the American government could take the gold from South Dakota to pay for war deficits.

    And remember the impact on travel Geronimo had when they implemented the TSA (Tenderfoot Stagecoach Agency)? Only three handguns were permitted after that.

  2. Brad

    And Doug’s just sore because he has to pass through Apache territory 200 times per year, and he’s tired of being frisked…

    And that President McKinley trumped up a war with Spain, when it was the Chiricahua Apache who attacked us…

  3. Brad

    Oh, and kidding aside… anyone who thinks “American exceptionalism” means everything that ever happened in our history is just hunky-dory doesn’t understand the term, or history, or America, or why it is exceptional.

    But Doug’s kind of like that. If he can find a flaw in something, it taints EVERYTHING — like the way he sees the U.S. military (the whole, entire military and everything touching upon it) as wicked and corrupt because of the Pat Tillman snafu.

    So, you know, what with slavery and what happened to the Indians, America doesn’t stand a chance with Doug. There can’t possibly be anything special about it.

    Of course, anything involving human beings can never pass muster with Doug.

  4. Brad

    Watch — Kathryn’s going to accuse me of trying to drive page views. Which is entirely unfair. If I were trying to drive page views, I would have put “Ron Paul” in the headline.

    It’s nice, though, not to be accused any more of “trying to sell papers.” What people who said that didn’t understand was that, insulated as we were from the business side, most journalists would have been just as happy if you had STOLEN the paper, a la Abbie Hoffman, as long as you read it. At least, that was our attitude in the old days. In latter decades as we (against our will) became somewhat more away of the troubles on the business side, and more to the point, how those troubles could affect us, the more savvy newspaper journalists might have added a qualifier: “Steal it, but make sure advertising gets credit for your reading it…”

    Not that any of it mattered in the end.

    Anyway, I suppose I could have written about Nikki Haley’s continuing childlike belief that privatization is inherently good, without seeing any need to prove the unlikely proposition that a for-profit contractor would run our school buses BETTER and at LESS COST to us…

    But I get bored with that stuff sometimes. The same tired ideas, the same arguments, and we never get anywhere…

  5. bud

    I’ve heard about a billion things that American Exceptionalism is not. But never really a satisfying answer as to what it is. Seems like we’re just like any other country, trying to cope with economic problems and bring a bit of peace and happiness to our citizens. We all have episodes that we’d just as soon forget. I’m inclined to think this whole exceptionalism stuff is just a bunch of bunk to be used by conservatives as a political tool.

  6. Doug Ross


    If I am on one end of the spectrum then I would hope you would acknowledge that you exist on the complete opposite side where facts and evidence never get in the way of a good opinion.

    I deal in reality not crafting a message. Things are exactly what they are, not what I want them to be.

    Personally, I think 100+ years of state sanctioned slavery and the genocide of countless Native Americans isn’t something to be brushed aside. What I find baffling is your typical contortions of logic that find abortion despicable but the plight of the American Indian to be some kind of example of how great America is in that we learned from that experience to not have it happen again.

  7. Doug Ross


    That’s because there is no such thing as American Exceptionalism. There are exceptional Americans (even some in politics, the military, and working at the DMV) but Americans are, on average, AVERAGE.

  8. Brad

    Sometimes you’re hard to follow, Doug. Perhaps you can cite to me when I said the United States is a horrible place because we have abortion. Because I would sort of need that in order to see the parallel…

    And for that matter, what have I EVER said that gave you the impression that I thought abortion was worse than slavery, or worse than killing Indians? You’re completely losing me here.

    And Doug, we are in very different places, but “opposite ends of a spectrum” doesn’t describe it. That suggests there is some sort of one-dimensional line on which all views exist, and one is toward one end or the other — which, as everyone should know by now, is something I thoroughly reject as a gross oversimplification of the way the world is.

    The difference is that you seize on a thing, and go “That’s it! I’m against everything that has anything to do with that.” And I look at things more holistically. I see the good and the bad and all the in-between, and am generally much slower to turn against something, because it takes a great preponderance of evidence for me to condemn something entirely.

    For instance, to cease to believe in American exceptionalism… and this passage is for Bud, who has trouble understanding what it is about… I’d have to decide that self-government is a bad thing. I’d have to turn against representative democracy (as I think you largely have). I’d have to reject the ideals upon which the nation was based, and the way that our revolution (and I refer less to the Revolutionary War and more to the revolution in thinking about what government can be, and really radical notions, at the time, about how we can live as a free people) inspired people in France, and Latin America, and eventually Eastern Europe and all over the world to free themselves from the shackles of their pasts as well. I’d have to ignore the powerful, epic narrative about how those ideals gradually were realized (or rather, moved dramatically in the direction toward realization) in the face of considerable odds. How we started out as nation that SAID it believed that all men were created equal, and then, after long struggles and sometimes much blood, managed to translate those words very gradually into something approaching reality in spite of HUGE economic, cultural and other barriers. I mean, we had a country, initially, in which about half the states had economies almost entirely dependent on slavery, and yet, within 90 years (and after the bloodiest war of our history) the ideal had to a remarkable extent triumphed over that economic fact. How over the next century, in spite of tremendous cultural barriers to doing so (cultural barriers that were very much a part of the human condition, and in no way particular to America), we gradually asserted our society’s faith in the ideal of equality. I’d have to ignore the truly radical notion that is almost entirely identified (historically) with this country that a nation doesn’t have to consist of people of the same race, or faith, or language. (I wish I could find that piece that I read in The Economist that explained that one of the things that separated us Yanks from the Japanese was that to be Japanese you had to be of a very specific ethnicity, but that little green men from Mars could be Americans if they adhered to a set of ideals set out by a few men of English descent back in the 18th century.)

    To understand American exceptionalism, you just have to understand the overall thrust and sweep of our history, from the ideals upon which we were founded through the long struggles that, in terms of overall direction, tended over the course of 235 years toward greater implementation and realization of those ideals, through wars and court cases and movements and historic trends and millions of individual human narratives.

    You either look at the whole of our provenance and our story and see the pattern — the pattern that caused so many around the world to want to try the same experiment we’ve been conducting over these two centuries and more, or to move here because of the opportunity they saw — to get what makes this story exceptional. But you have to be able to see it as a whole. A lot of people’s minds don’t work that way, because, you know, it takes all kinds to make a world. But mine does, and I’m not alone.

  9. Doug Ross

    235 years to achieve what should be pretty simple concepts (don’t enslave people, don’t kill native Americans, let women vote) isn’t exceptional. An exceptional system would rectify those situations instantly. There are plenty of nations that never had to work through those little bumps in the road to exceptionalism.

    I’m not sure a black American would feel the timeline for America’s progress would fall into the exceptional category.

  10. Brad

    Geez… Doug, show me the nation, at any time in history, that even TRIED to do these things before we did. I mean, the Brits were ahead of us on slavery, but that was actually related to the movement going on here, and facing greater economic barriers (and their history at that point was much, much longer). During that same period, you couldn’t hold certain offices in Britain without being in good standing in the Church of England, so it’s all relative.

    The bottom line, the elephant in the room that you stubbornly ignore, is that there had never been a nation founded on the ideals that ours was founded on, and which we’ve struggled so long to live up to. In fact, I’m at the moment coming up with a blank trying to think of ANY nation of any size at any point in history prior to 1776 that was founded on any kind of IDEAS, good or bad — starting with the Mayflower Compact, running through the Declaration and the Constitution. Sure, lots of nations had documents or ideas that were greatly influential to what they became (I’m thinking, say, Rome after Constantine), but they were not foundational in the same sense. Rome brought a system of laws to much of the West, but it was not a nation OF laws, FOUNDED on laws, the way this one was (and many of the laws that had been regarded as particularly Roman, the republican ideas that had developed over time, were cast aside with the rise of Julius Caesar, and in the wake of his death). Its founding is lost in the murk of legend, and after all it was a nation based in plundering other people’s ideas and resources, rather than producing much that was original. (Watch this — someone will say that’s what WE do, when any comparison between us and the plundering, unapologetic bully Rome should embarrass anyone attempting such an analogy.)

    No, the point is, there was no precedent for this experience. There have been many imitators since, many sadly unable to get past the huge barriers that we have struggled over time to overcome. It was a unique development in human history, and has stayed on the cutting edge of the experiment it started.

  11. Karen McLeod

    The concept of the equality of human beings is exceptional. Christianity has paid lip service to the concept for millenia. Nations are exceptional only to the extent that they try to implement the idea.

  12. Doug Ross

    An analogy:

    An exceptional person apparently is someone who develops a heroin addiction and kicks it over a span of several years with multiple relapses. An unexceptional person is one who kicks it cold turkey or never starts using at all.

    I know several Canadian friends who would find the concept of American Exceptionalism a hoot. The fact that they are constantly trying to sneak over the border to participate in the exceptionalism is a clear sign.

  13. Doug Ross

    “Slavery in what now comprises Canada existed into the 1830s, when slavery was officially abolished.”

    “Slavery remained legal, however, until the British Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire effective August 1, 1834.”

    Only took America thirty more years to figure out the concept of owning another human being might not be right. And it only took a Civil War (still being fought in our state even by some longtime legislators) to end the practice and replace it instead with 100+ years of mistreatment. Stellar.

  14. bud

    I’m just not buying it. America is just too fraught with greed, corruption, indecency and hypocricy to ever consider a garden variety republican form of government the end-all proof of exceptionalism. Sure we’re better than North Korea but really are we a better, more exception nation than Sweden or Holland? Those are place that really do tolerate differences unlike here where we throw people in jail for smoking a joint. Plus, we don’t even have universal health care here. We have a long way to go to live up to the “Exceptionalism” standard so many people suggest that we are. Hopefully we’ll get there eventually but for now we’re pretty ordinary.

  15. Brad

    Wow. Doug and bud, Y’ALL are a hoot. Seriously. Y’all are like characters in a sitcom that fans can rely on always to react in a certain outlandish way… I’m just shaking my head here.

    Bud just inspired a new tagline for the U.S., that I think we should use in tourism brochures and such: “Hey, we’re better than North Korea!”

    You know, there are a lot of people who dislike or look down on or are bemused by this country — such as Doug’s Canadian friends… but wow, not many people with any sort of historical or geopolitical perspective regard us as ORDINARY. They might think we’re exceptionally BAD, but not many think we’re ho-hum or unremarkable, or would have trouble spotting the U.S. in a crowd…

    You guys are something…

  16. Brad

    Back to our original topic, and the piece I quoted from…

    I had this distant cousin — a contemporary of my grandparents, or I guess even a little older — who told me when I was a kid about accompanying Blackjack Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Now there was an operation that was definitely not carried out with the practically superhuman skill and effectiveness of the Seals (I guess you’d say it wasn’t “exceptional.”)

    He told of Pershing and his staff eating at a Mexican tavern while Villa was in the back eating in the kitchen before taking off again and leaving them in the dust…

    I have no idea how much of that, if any, was true…

    Una cosa me da risa
    Pancho Villa sin camisa
    Ya se van los carrancistas
    Porque vienen los villistas.

  17. Doug Ross

    No trouble spotting the U.S. in a crowd. He’s carrying a bazooka and wearing a “I’m #1” t-shirt.

  18. Brad

    … and next to him is his little brother, wearing one that says, “We invaded Iraq, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

  19. Doug T

    I didn’t know if I would ever write this:

    I agree 100% with Doug Ross

    Brad…some of the things lately you’re spouting. Have you gone off the reservation? Um, wait…there’s probably a better way of putting that….

  20. Mark Stewart

    One, there must be national exceptionalism since they are not all relentlessly average. At the other extreme some countries really suck.

    Two, exceptional doesn’t mean perfect; monarchies thought that.

    Three, if one is better, because of one’s forefathers, then it’s unseemly to talk about it. Instead, pitch in and work to ensure our following generations are also in such a privileged position. That’s our duty today, to live our ideals and protect our shared and evolving heritage.

  21. Lynn T

    I worked with American Indians for many years. In my experience, many showed remarkable restraint in the face of offensive racism and stereotyping. Their objections to being reduced to team mascots are understandable.

  22. Phillip

    Wow, glad I stayed out of this one.

    Well, until now. My only comment is that, Brad, your long paragraph in your 2:20 pm comment (that begins, “for instance to cease to believe”) is a very eloquent explanation of the exceptional nature of the American experiment and I totally agree with it. But all the things described in that paragraph, about the concept of our nation, our government, struggling to reach our ideals, all has to do with how we have dealt with ourselves, with our OWN nation. Getting our house progressively more and more in order. None of it has to do with how we have behaved in the international arena and among the brotherhood of nations since the Second World War, which has not always been about upholding the virtues you described in that particular paragraph.

    Moreover, ultimately the “exceptional”-ity of America is irrelevant if the nobility of our founding concepts or pride in our accomplishments leads us to feel that it can justify any behavior on the international stage. If we take a wrong turn, use our power for ill, send our own young men and women to die and kill many innocent civilians of other places for dubious geopolitical ends, then our history up to that point matters not a whit.

    The truly exceptional nation realizes that what makes it exceptional is dependent on what it does in the present and in the future, not in what it accomplished in its past.

  23. Steve Gordy

    Personally, I believe in American Exceptionalism, with one small caveat: No nation is exceptional forever. Athens was exceptional in its time; so was Rome; so was France under Napoleon; so was the British Empire from 1815 to 1914. A day of reckoning came for all those societies; it will come for us as well.

  24. Brad Warthen

    Mark, I think I was misunderstood. My point is that humans, including those with the best intentions, are fallible. Doug has no patience with that fallibility. Therefore any human endeavor is in great danger of drawing Doug’s scorn.

  25. bud

    Exceptionalism is what any individual says it is. I would only go so far as to say the USA is a work in progress. Here are some ideas on how we can come closer to the ideal of exceptionalism:

    1. Please get rid of the electoral college. Any nation that plays fast and loose with the term “representative democracy” hardly deserves to be considered exceptional.
    2. Provide health care for all.
    3. End the practice of imperialism. That is so 19th century.
    4. Acknowledge the differences of individuals. That is something we have really not been able to achieve as a nation. Just look at how the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero” issue was treated.

    Once we’ve addressed these glaring deficiencies then we can revisit this discussion. Until then we’re not exceptional.

  26. Karen McLeod

    Brad, if you’re not a WASP you surely sound and act like one. Ok, I know you’re Roman Catholic, but “WASP” signifies an inbred, cultural world view to a large extent.

  27. Brad

    Now I’m inbred. What’s that, some crack about me being a Southerner? Y’all are being way insensitive to me.

    I am, as I’ve admitted in the past, an Anglophile. Close as I can come. Even that has limits. When we were in England, we went to Mass at St. Thomas More church. A subtle way of cocking a snook at Her Majesty. No disrespect meant, though, of course…

    Back when everybody was putting American flags on their houses after 9/11, I wanted to add a Union Jack as a way of showing solidarity with my main man Tony Blair (and also because, as I’ve said before, it’s an awesome flag).

    My wife wouldn’t have it. She’s Irish. You know how they are…

  28. Doug Ross

    “My point is that humans, including those with the best intentions, are fallible. Doug has no patience with that fallibility. Therefore any human endeavor is in great danger of drawing Doug’s scorn.”

    If you can’t see the difference between my scorn for liars, cheats, and killers and people who make mistakes, that’s your issue.

    Wiping out the Native American race was not a case of “best intentions” no matter how you try to spin it. Taking 100 years to abolish slavery isn’t about “best intentions” either.

    I’m guessing someone in your family tree invented the “Participation Trophy” for soccer.

  29. Brad

    Mark, Doug’s being mean to ME now. He brought my family into it…

    Doug, you twist everything around. I was talking about (actually, I didn’t bring it up; someone else did, and I reacted) the American Experiment. You were trashing it because of slavery and killing and displacing Indians. I simply pointed out that American history is a tad more complex than that, and that the general direction of it has been AWAY from such historic injustices (injustices that are in NO WAY unique to this country, and that rather, to the contrary, it is a marked tendency of what this country is about to reject such evils; the only reason we talk about them in this context is that they stand out in stark contradiction to what the country is actually about, as opposed to just being facts of life like in most other countries that proceeded this one).

    Where was I before that parenthetical? Probably repeating myself…

  30. Doug Ross

    Will you agree that wiping out the Native Americans was a black mark on the history of America no matter how good we feel about not doing it any more?

    I guess we can applaud Charles Manson for his long streak of not killing people too.

  31. Brad

    Phillip, the agreement we have achieved is very gratifying. For that reason I will not spoil it by getting into the fact that for the past century, the United States has poured phenomenal amounts of blood and treasure, over and over, into protecting the rest of the world from the shadow of totalitarian tyranny, and being the single greatest guarantor of OTHER nations having the ability to move toward the same freedoms we enjoy.

    Set aside what you think about Iraq for a moment. Think about Lend Lease and Normandy and the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan and Somalia and Bosnia and on and on. That IS the narrative of US involvement in the world since it became a global power. Yeah, we had a rocky time when we were first feeling our oats with the Spanish-American War and such, but after that, the general thrust has been far, far more benign — and idealistic (however blundering or mistaken you may regard that knight-errantry at times) — than that of ANY great power that preceded us. The Brits didn’t do this. Nor the Romans, nor Alexander, nor Persia nor the Egyptians nor anyone…

    The period of American dominance in the world has been just as different from the historic norms as our own internal quest to live up to our extremely high ideals. Often just as troubled and fumbling, sometimes with two steps backward for every three steps forward, but the general thrust and direction of the trends has been unmistakable.

    Unless, of course, one is motivated to see it as otherwise — as many people in different parts of the world at different times have often had powerful motivations to do.

  32. bud

    Where can I get a pair of those rose colored glasses that Brad is wearing.

    Seriously, that is just about the biggest pile of pure, unadulterated crap I’ve seen in a long time. We’ve meddled and weaseled our way into the affairs of so many countries since WW II it’s beyond any reasonable persons ability to twist it around to make us look like the adoring, benevolent Uncle Sam that all the little kiddies fawn over. And you just can’t say, “forget about Iraq for a moment”. No, you can’t forget about that, or Vietnam or Lebanon or Granada or the Shah of Iran. Apparently what disturbs me the most about American behavior is the thing that Brad (and the neocons) admire the most. We simply must stop this imperialistic behavior before it destroys us as a nation.

    We can start by pulling all remaining troops from Iraq and cutting our military budget in half. Those are the moves that would help make us exceptional. Not the ongoing imperialism that only makes us look like a bully to the rest of the world.

  33. Brad

    By the way, I appreciated Mark’s contributions, as usual. But I must react to this: “if one is better, because of one’s forefathers, then it’s unseemly to talk about it.”

    I agree. Which is not what I’m doing. I don’t have ancestors who played prominent roles in making America what it is. There’s no personal genetic stake in this for me. I look upon it as a student of history and national affairs.

    The phenomenon you speak of is what I decry in these people who are defensive of their Confederate forebears. Most of my forebears of that period were also Confederates — from illiterate small farmers to slaveholders who were also legislators and therefore very culpable for secession — and I unequivocally reject what they did. It is VERY important to look history objectively and not in terms of what one’s great-grandaddy did. (Taking credit for, or defending on grounds of personal pride, the actions of one’s ancestors is the height of absurdity to me. It’s also unAmerican, being related to the kinds of racist, genetically based sense of nationalism that has defined other nations, but not this one — even though we have to be constantly on guard against people who WOULD define Americanism in such terms, because they don’t get it at all.)

    When my ancestors deserve criticism, they get it from me. Even though you don’t see me going on about it, because, you know, they’re dead. There’s no way I’m going to persuade them to improve. (And as Huck Finn said, in a profound expression of the American character, “I don’t take no stock in dead people.”)

    When I look at John Adams or Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain or Martin Luther King or FDR or, I don’t know, Elvis Presley, I don’t think “Aren’t WE awesome?” I look at what they did, the bad and the good, and come up with a holistic evaluation of what I think of them based on all that.

    In a far, far more complex way, I look at the overall thrust of American history and see that yes, it has been a unique and noble experiment, looked at as though I were examining it under a microscope. Actually, that’s a lousy analogy. What would be the opposite of looking at something in such a narrow way? An “omniscope?”

    You are perhaps confused by the fact that I am an American, and take pride in the country of which I am a part. Perhaps it would be useful to look at the way I feel and think about South Carolina.

    I am thoroughly a South Carolinian, going way back on three-fourths of my family tree. About as South Carolinian as you can get. I love this place, and the people in it (or lots of them, anyway).

    But I’m am extremely aware of its deep flaws and continuing failure to be what it should be. The pathologies that caused us to fire on Fort Sumter, putting us at the vanguard of the wrong side of our nation’s great, defining central conflict, are VERY much in evidence in our politics today, and continue to hold us back from being what we should be and could be.

    I am in no way blinded to this by my heritage or my love for this place. I see it for what it is. And I see the United States for what it is. Perhaps it looks so wonderful to me in part because I AM a South Carolinian, and can see how much better the US has done throughout history than my home state of SC has done.

    One more thing: I invite you to get ahold of Tony Blair’s recent autobiography and reading what he said about THIS country in his introduction. It’s a very good match for what I think — maybe closer to what I think than anything I’ve seen an American write about it. Blair came from the point of view of a public-school Brit with a fairly typically jaded view of those arrogant Yanks, and overcame it based upon what he saw as he studied this country over time. I, too, have studied this country carefully — its history and its current affairs — my whole life, and have reached the same conclusions.

    It’s not about being proud of my forebears. It’s about the totality of what I have seen.

  34. Brad

    Fortunately, Bud is not in charge.

    Bud, you need to study some actual empires, and note the very fundamental, definitive differences between what they do and the US has done.

    As I noted, we had our imperialistic period, back in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. It didn’t last. We didn’t have the appetite for it.

  35. Mark Stewart

    Now it’s me being misunderstood… When I meant forefather’s I meant:

    Benjamin Franklin,
    George Washington,
    John Adams,
    Thomas Jefferson,
    John Jay,
    James Madison,
    and Alexander Hamilton.

    Plus the other’s like Polk (just for the Manifest Destiny), Lincoln, the Roosevelt’s, et al. Actually, I would include amongst our forefathers all the people who have toiled to shape our country and grow it within the framework of a set of exceptional ideals.

    It would certainly also be fair to include fur trappers, 49ers, Africans, Indians, Cajuns, Mexicans (the pre Republic of Texas ones), immigrants of all stripes through the centuries (even the “illegals” of today), and the Bald Eagle.

    What I was thinking was that it is unseemly to be self-congratulatory both amongst ourselves and on the world stage. As Phillip said, our duty is to the future. Leadership is by example.

  36. Brad

    Don’t forget the Monroe Doctrine.

    The thing is, I think of those as guys OUT THERE whom I have come to appreciate, on the whole, for who they were and what they did.

    It’s not about ME. It’s not self-congratulatory.

    I mean, hey, lucky me that I have this accidental connection to what I conclude is a pretty awesome country. But my own totally unintentional association with it is NOT why I think so highly of it.

    I thought my South Carolina example was a pretty devastating way to refute that. SC, to which I am inextricably connected and regard with great affection and even identification, is just NOT so many of the good things that the US IS…

    Oh, well. Must keep trying…

  37. Brad

    The irony in all this is that I am a hypercritical person. I find fault VERY easily, and am extremely quick to criticize. Ask my wife. It’s one reason I went into opinion writing. I have no shortage of opinions, and the sharpest ones are highly critical. It can make me hard to be around.

    But over time I discovered something — how much harder it is to see the good, and to stand up for the fact that it IS good. Be the critic, and loads of people will pat you on the back, urge you to “give ’em hell,” and even admire you.

    Stand up for something that in the aggregate is actually GOOD, and you put yourself in a very uncomfortable position. You catch all kinds of hell for it, and you don’t feel nearly as cool as when you’re cleverly cutting things down.

    I decided over time, as a challenge, and as a part of my maturing process, to stand up whenever I could for that which is deserving of praise. And it’s the hardest, most uncomfortable thing I ever do. It’s much easier to play the hard-bitten cynic.

    You’ll note that there is no shortage of criticism coming from me (or you won’t if you are capable of seeing what is before you). It’s cheap, and easy, and fun. But you will see me work the hardest at swimming against the tide and pointing out what is good, and defending it against facile characterizations that seek to dismiss it.

    Everybody respects and loves to quote the H.L. Mencken, scorn-everything, kind of journalist. People scoff at you when you stick up for something. But I don’t want to be remembered as a Mencken type.

  38. bud

    America’s history is complex and we’ve certainly accomplished much in both humanitarian and techincal ways (the moon landing for example). And all of that is for the good. But the discussion here is whether America is exceptional. That means to me that on balance we’ve contributed more to the common good of mankind that we’ve taken away. My thinking process is such that I instinctively try to boil things down to quantifiable terms. I’m not comfortable with esoteric, subjective thinking. I find no value in simply describing in vague terms how we’ve bettered humanity because of this or that principal. I’m much too results oriented to view the world that way.

    That’s why it’s really hard for me to see the USA as exceptional simply because we’ve traveled this path for 235 years that in an abstract sense is suppossed to be exceptional, different, better. Rather I see a nation that in a complex way has acted in good faith on many occassions yet falls short in achieving an unmistakable breakthrough in exceptionalism. The pluses simply don’t outway the minuses to any great extent.

    But we still can if we pursue a course of action that will acknowledge the values and sensibilities of all people, not just those with the title “American” beside their name. That’s why I find the term “God Bless America” so off-putting. It seems arrogant and condescending. And until we can move beyond that we will never put enough check marks in the plus column to be an exceptional nation.

  39. Brad

    Small point here — “exceptional” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” Even though people generally DO think it’s good, as do I, in this context.

  40. Brad


    Which part, Rose? On which part am I being an Ugly White Guy? The original point about Geronimo, or the thing we’re going on and on about more recently?

    Your answer will determine whether I’m inclined to argue with you. Because I really don’t want to repeat myself.

  41. Steven Davis

    What will the Muslims think now that Bin Laden’s extensive porn collection has been located?

  42. bud

    Sort of like Time’s “Man of the Year” doesn’t necessarily mean he is a good person. It evolved that way over time. We’ll never again see an evil SOB as Time’s Man of the Year. It will always be someone who makes a possitive contribution.

  43. Rose

    This part:
    “The same thing I think about the Redskins, the Braves, et al. It’s a tribute, not a sign of disrespect. You really have to want to be insulted to take it that way.”

    White Americans very nearly wiped out an entire race of people and their cultures and then appropriated the most savage imagery of those people as demeaning caricatures and sports mascots. I sure as hell would be insulted. Some of their nations were peaceful; some were farmers. A lot of them did NOT wear feathers! Some were ruled by women, like the Cofitachequi, a major chiefdom near Camden, SC. And they had a lot of different housing styles, not just teepees.

    And do you think it would be okay to appropriate a 1940s caricature of a Japanese person or a blackface minstrel character as a mascot? Or if you need a warrior emphasis how about a Zulu caricature? No? Then why is not okay to use those nonwhite cartoon figures but it is okay to use Native American cartoons and mascots?

  44. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    @ Rose– The privilege denying by some of the white people, especially men, on this blog is impenetrable, but thanks for trying.

    It seems to be hard for so many to see what it might be like to be female, or a member of a minority, or really poor, powerless or otherwise disadvantaged….I mean, why don’t they just see things the way middle class white male Americans do? really! It’s “common sense.”

  45. Brad

    Exactly! See, Kathryn gets it!

    And Rose — we don’t have Zulu teams for the same reason that we don’t have kangaroos as a mascot. It wouldn’t be place-appropriate. (Although we do have Tigers…) For a similar reason, Florida has the Seminoles and NOT the Lakotas.

    We have the Fighting Irish, though. Which might as well be short for “Drinking and Fighting Irish”…

    Do the Irish count as white? Not in some circles, I suppose. Because, you know, they ARE Papists. Hence the drinking, followed by the fighting…

  46. Rose

    Actually, at various times in the past the Irish, Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and others weren’t considered white or “white enough” by the WASPy whites.
    Um…let’s see there’s the Columbia College Koalas, Bama’s elephant, Alabama-Birmingham’s dragon, Wyoming’s Shetland Pony, Pitt State’s gorilla, a bunch of tigers and some lions, and oh, yes, Missouri-Kansas City’s kangaroo.

    And the indigenous peoples that lived on this continent before European settlers came were their own NATIONS.

  47. Brad

    Yeah, I acknowledged the Tigers, as my way of saying there were exceptions… my point, which should be obvious, is that there’s a reason we name teams in this country after Amerind people, and not Zulus…

    And you know what? If you find a case of an American team that IS named for Zulus, I think I’d still be able to overwhelm you on points for all the teams named Redskins, Indians, Braves, Warriors, etc…

    And who said anything about TeePees? Or Tipis. Or whatever…

    Hey I’m a Davy Crockett guy, not an Andrew Jackson guy

  48. Rose

    Also, using native and non-native animal species is very, very different from using human beings as mascots.

  49. Mark Stewart

    And then there is the whole issue of Massachusetts and Connecticut and Seattle and Winnebago and Cheyenne and Iowa and Casco Bay and Merrimac and Tampa and Miami and Biloxi and Manhattan and Allegheny and Chatanooga and Utah and Alabama and Mississippi and Malibu and, well, I could go on and on. Actually, South Carolina is one of the few states that hardly has any place names taken from indian nations, tribes, individuals or words.

    I would agree with Rose, however, that “Redskins” and “Redmen” are probably among the names that ought to be retired from the world of sports.

  50. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Wateree, Santee, Edisto…

    “Fighting Irish” was selected by a school largely made up of Catholics who were largely made up of Irish immigrant descendants. It’s like when blacks use the “N” word, or gays co=opt any number of derogatory words–queer, for example.

    Actually, using animals’ names as mascots, when it type-casts them in unfairly negative ways –Koalas are fine, but most other animals are portrayed as fighters, when they may not be unless provoked, leads to extermination and endangered species…..

    How ’bout the Univ. of South Carolina Fighting Drunks, instead of the Gamecocks–describes a lot of the team members and fans, if the news reports from Five Points are any indication…I know Thomas Sumter was the “Gamecock” but the mascot isn’t a depiction of some Revolutionary era guy–it’s of a rooster in cockfighting stance…

  51. Brad

    Um… human beings are not “mascots” in the sense of being kept in a cage or tethered along the sidelines. Unless I missed something the last time I went to a Braves game.

    Rose, I’ve heard all these arguments. I could cite them myself, if I believed in them. But I don’t. I just don’t see ANYTHING hostile toward Native Americans in fans’ embrace of, say, the Cleveland Indians.

    The Trail of Tears — now there’s something to get upset about. The tomahawk chant, however, just seems like typical absurd behavior by sports fans.

    The disconnection here, the thing that keeps me from seeing it as you do, is that I cannot see taking one’s own ethnicity so seriously as to get offended by such misguided tributes. An Irish Catholic should get offended when someone sings “Croppies Lie Down,” but not over the Boston Celtics. It’s just absurdly disproportional.

  52. Brad

    To elaborate, here is the final verse of Croppies Lie Down:

    “Oh, croppies ye’d better be quiet and still
    Ye shan’t have your liberty, do what ye will
    As long as salt water is formed in the deep
    A foot on the necks of the croppy we’ll keep
    And drink, as in bumpers past troubles we drown,
    A health to the lads that made croppies lie down
    Down, down, croppies lie down.”

    Now see, when attitudes like THAT are aimed at Indians (as they so often were in our history), or Irish Catholics, or anyone else, THAT’S offensive.

    But the “Fighting Irish” are not. Insisting that one is the same as the other is asking not to be taken seriously.

  53. Rose

    “The disconnection here, the thing that keeps me from seeing it as you do, is that I cannot see taking one’s own ethnicity so seriously as to get offended by such misguided tributes.”

    That’s because you have never experienced the racism that has been and is still being experienced by people of color. I have not experienced this personally either because I’m white. My Maya Indian son, however, will face it – hopefully rarely – but I am not so foolish or blinded by the benefits of being born with white skin to believe that it will not happen. It has already happened with another adopted child of color in his KINDERGARTEN. Children repeat what they hear at home, after all.

    For the record, that stupid “woo-woo-woo-woo” so-called Indian chant was completely fabricated by Hollywood.

    It’s just some harmless tribute, right – until your child is taunted by racial slurs and called “dirty Indian” because his skin is brown. That’s all I’m going to post on this topic because it raises my blood pressure.

  54. Mark Stewart

    So Brad, you agree then that perhaps the Redskins as a team name have overstayed their welcome?

    My college’s mascot was a Continental (soldier). I don’t think anyone ever figured out, or was interested in figuring out, how to make that into a humerous sideline mascot. Instead, we received tri-corner walking canes at graduation. Now that’s old and waspy!

  55. Brad

    “Redskins” would certainly be the least defensible.

    Rose, I’m so sorry your child has had that horrible experience. I’m also sorry that I failed to explain better the distinction I was trying between truly reprehensible behavior and attitudes, such as the painful incident you just described, and, say, the Atlanta Braves. As facetious as I may get sometimes, I think the distinction is important.

    One of these days I’m going to learn to pick up on the fact that I’m hurting a reader on a personal level with my own insouciance. I certainly never intend to.

    By the way, that’s not an insensitive white guy thing. It’s a me thing. I really think most people are better than I am at picking up on other people’s personal stake in what I see as an abstract discussion.

  56. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    It’s easy to see an abstract discussion when it’s not your ox being gored (or whatever a better metaphor would be). I note you get fairly sensitive when folks point out, uh, apparent inconsistencies in the Roman Catholic Church….You are only voluntarily a member of two maligned classes that I know of: Catholic and Journalist–asthmatic just doesn’t rate very high on my list of oppressed classes, but I’ll give you that–three and only one is involuntary

  57. Brad Warthen

    Well, thanks for mentioning the Catholic thing instead of calling me a WASP again, but it doesn’t really help. I mean, it’s my best effort ever at belonging to an oppressed group, but it just didn’t buy me any cred at all…

    All that mackerel-snapping, and I’m still looked upon as the Oppressor…

  58. Brad

    Bottom line, I wish I had just passed on the interesting piece about Geronimo, and not felt obliged to put that one graf of personal opinion on the end. People would have found it interesting, and we still could have had a good discussion.

    I’m often torn about whether to do that.

    To change the subject… at lunch today I said something about bin Laden, but consciously didn’t say it very loudly, because I wasn’t sure how the group of young men speaking very animatedly in Arabic (I think) at the next table would take it. You get to thinking things like, “Every one of these guys may have cheered Osama’s death — or not — but it could be very awkward if they half-heard ME saying something, and they thought I was saying it because of them, or didn’t know what I thought about what they thought, or…” I don’t know. You just wonder. You have all sorts of thoughts about wondering what other people would think, especially when they’re talking and you don’t understand a word of what they’re saying, much less thinking.

    And I also got to thinking about how other folks probably feel all kinds of awkwardness around people they hear speaking Spanish in public. Which I think is one of the roots of all the resentment about illegal aliens.

    Especially in South Carolina, where being foreign is such an exception. Our ethnic narrative, throughout our history, has been mostly very simple — there are black people and white people, and we’re still having trouble sorting that out. (Yeah, there are smatterings of Germans, and Huguenots, and Greeks, but in terms of affecting our politics, mostly it’s about black and white. You don’t have the true, hard-core ethnic variety of, say, Chicago.) So many South Carolinians never, or seldom, have the experience that is common in New York or London of taking a walk down the street and hearing five languages within a couple of blocks. So when they hear Spanish in the Walmart in West Columbia, it’s like the Twilight Zone to them or something…

    But I digress…

  59. Doug Ross

    “Which I think is one of the roots of all the resentment about illegal aliens.”

    I thought it was because they were brown?

    Some day you may see the light and find the key word in the above sentence that generates the resentment. It’s the same feeling you get when someone speeds past you on the highway above the legal limit. I’m pretty sure it’s not the fact that the car is silver that bugs you. It’s what they did, not who they are.

  60. Brad

    Yeah, I think we need to pass a law empowering law enforcement to stop people walking down the street who look like they MIGHT be a speeder.

    And I said “ONE” of the roots.

    And Doug, when I hear lawmakers getting up in the House and Senate and delivering angry diatribes about how we’ve GOT to get control over speeding, and lots of other angry people going “Hell, yeah!” and diverting money from other functions (such as, say, setting up a special unit to go after illegal aliens), and I hear them speaking of speeders with tones redolent of the way white lawmakers used to speak of certain people compromising the purity of Southern womanhood with their uppity glances (and the TONE of the outrage is a telling factor here), then I’ll accept your comparison. In fact, I’ll join the crowd saying, “Hell, yeah!”

    Interesting that you should make that particular comparison. Because that is precisely what is wrong with all the passion over the wicked, intolerable illegality of people being here without the proper paperwork. I just don’t see that kind of passion directed toward other illegal behavior that actually harms public safety.

    The only thing I hear politicians denounce with anything like the ire directed toward illegal aliens is taxes… and big gummint, of course. And it’s still different.

  61. Doug Ross

    It isn’t about “improper paperwork” – they have NO paperwork. They cross the border ILLEGALLY. They blatantly disregard the law and then follow on with additional crimes.

    We don’t have to “get control” over speeding because there is already an entire system of law enforcement and prosecution in place to deal with it. Ever seen a speed trap? You think radar guns are free? You think our court system should be used to determine if Joe Smith was driving 10 miles over the limit and not 15?

    In 2003, South Carolina ranked 8th in the country in number of speeding tickets given out: 228,000 total.

    I’d settle for 1/10 the effort put into identifying and deporting illegal aliens as is spent on speeding enforcement.

  62. Doug Ross

    And here’s some real irony for you… Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, is a vocal opponent of the bill to require checking the immigration status of people at traffic stops and was quoted in The State yesterday playing the race card: “You all who enjoy such freedoms because of the color of your skin ought to see what it’s like on the other side,” said Rutherford, who is African-American. “You just don’t know.”

    Guess what important legislation he was working on just two months ago? Yep, speeding tickets.

    “Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, has offered two bills for consideration during the upcoming session. One bill would give all vehicles on interstates in the Palmetto State the go-ahead to zip along at higher speeds and another would create an alternative to some speeding tickets.

    The speed limit along interstates and freeways would be increased from 70 mph to 80 mph.

    If approved, South Carolina would have a speed limit at least 10 mph higher than anywhere else in the Southeast.
    Rutherford has insisted that the change won’t cause problems because drivers are already driving around 80 mph, he previously told The State newspaper. He said the change would allow law enforcement to focus on other matters, such as aggressive and drunken driving.”

    Guess he wants to play the racecar card on that bill.

  63. Brad

    NO paperwork? Golly, I didn’t know they were THAT evil… Man, I can feel my dander getting up right now…

    No, I can’t. Sorry…

    If, as you say, the emotional center has nothing to do with the unsavory things to which I point, then I just have nothing to hang my understanding upon. Because it makes no sense.

    You ask me, would I rather they come into the country legally? Yep. In fact, I think it’s important enough to have paperwork on everybody that I’d very much like to come up with a way of getting all the people who are here illegally either into the system or out of the country (and between the two, the former seems a lot more practical and doable). You know, to address the illegality thing.

    But I just can NOT see getting all ticked off over their status. Hits a null place, emotionally. This is a practical, dry, highly bureaucratic thing. Not something to stir the passions…

  64. Doug Ross

    Same way I feel about speeders. I’ve never got a speeding ticket and probably never will. So it doesn’t bother me at all that there are laws against it.

    And I’ll support any law that is passed regarding immigration but I don’t think you will support enforcing existing laws until that happens. That’s the difference between us.

  65. Doug Ross

    And the paperwork argument is just so weak. It has nothing to do with paperwork and you know it. They don’t have paperwork, can’t have paperwork, commit additional crimes by creating false paperwork, and think it is racist to even suggest that they show paperwork. The bill specifically says that all you need is a drivers license when stopped to avoid being checked further for immigration status. Driving the car without a license is a crime. It probably means there is no insurance – another crime. How dare we expect people to follow laws when all they want to do is escape from their home country?

  66. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Brad–Just because you switched religions as an adult, doesn’t change the fact that you were raised as a WASP and still wear a WASPy aura–you dress like a Ralph Lauren ad, for Pete’s sake!

    Harry Bull, a prominent member of Trinity Cathedral, and one of the Bull Street, Bull Island Bulls,(and a darned nice guy) tells about how he walked right into the National Advocacy Center shortly after it was finished and up and running–no one questioned him because he looked like he belonged (this was before 9/11, but still there was security). He wore the mantle of privilege.

    Do you really think someone who did not exude class and breeding and just the right amount of tailoring could have done that?

  67. Brad

    I do NOT! It’s more like Brooks Brothers. Or Bill Blass. Blass jackets are about the only ones I never have to have altered. I have a couple of Blass camel’s hair jackets that…

    Dang it! You trapped me!

    Attitude helps, too — on the walking right in thing. Have you ever seen the movie “The Paper?” It’s wonderful. There’s a scene in which Michael Keaton’s character needs to get into a police station in a hurry, and he takes a clipboard with him and waves at the desk sergeant, explaining to someone with him, “You can get in anywhere with a clipboard and a wave.” Actually, you don’t need the clipboard. Or the wave. Just walk in like you BELONG there, and don’t, no matter what you do, look around like you’re trying to figure out which way to go. Look like you know exactly where you’re going, and don’t talk to anybody. You can get your bearings once you get in.

    That is to say, that used to work, in my reporting days. Everybody is more security conscious now. I’m far more aware of being challenged and questioned now than back in the day.

    Funny thing is, the suit and tie might be causing trouble in that regard. If you look like an executive, and they don’t know you, they figure you don’t belong (because they know all the honchos that belong). Whereas if you dress the way I did as a reporter, tieless and with a leather jacket or something else casual, you blend better.

  68. Brad

    Of course, the way I’m challenged isn’t “Hey, you!” It’s more of a “Sir…. Sir!…” But it’s still pretty insistent, and I still don’t slip by as easily as I used to.


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