What It Means to Be American »

Inaugurations Highlight the Strengths—and Tensions—that Define the American Presidency

By | January 10, 2017

On Jan. 20, tens of millions of people will watch the pomp and spectacle of a uniquely American tradition. The hushed politicos in the pews of prayer service, the gleaming marching band brass on parade, the holy men and women delivering solemn invocations, the tuxes and gowns dancing their way through evening balls. And, of course, the next president of the United States of America, …

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Melania Trump Won’t Be the First First Lady Who Wasn’t Born in the U.S.

By | January 6, 2017

It was hard for Louisa Catherine Adams, the only first lady born outside the United States, to say where she came from. She began her life in a narrow alley in London, in 1775, but she was taught not to think of herself as British. Her mother, Catherine, was English; her father, Joshua Johnson, was a merchant from Maryland and an American patriot. When she …

What It Means to Be American »

What Does L.A. Look Like to an American Reporting for Japan’s Largest Newspaper?

By | January 4, 2017

“Scarlett, Scarlett!” I waved pleadingly. Across the red carpet she sauntered, her eyes invitingly meeting mine. There I stood—a 24-year-old Jewish kid from Chicago decked out for the 77th Annual Academy Awards with my overgrown eyebrows and a cheap rented tux—face-to-face with America’s luscious girl-next-door, Scarlett Johansson.
I had been waiting all year to ask her this question: “What do you have to say to your …

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The Disneyfication of American History Began Long Before the Theme Parks

By | January 3, 2017

There are few symbols of pure Americana more potent than the Disney theme parks. To walk down any of the destinations’ manicured Main Streets, U.S.A.—as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each day—is to walk though a particular vision of America’s collective memory. It’s small-town values. It’s optimism. It’s energy. It’s innovation. It’s a certain kind of innocence. It is by design, the story of …

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How Alpine Yodeling Mutated Into American Blackface Minstrelry

By | December 27, 2016

In 1822 the Austrian emperor Franz I and his ally Tsar Alexander I of Russia held a meeting in a remote valley of the war-torn Tyrolese Alps. They were entertained by the Rainers, a locally renowned family of singing farmers. When the visiting dignitaries heard the improvisational simplicity of the family’s performance of native Alpine songs, they encouraged the four Rainer brothers and their sister …

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For Generations of Chicagoans, Marshall Field’s Transformed Commerce Into Holiday Wonder

By | December 20, 2016

Christmas has not been celebrated at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department stores since 2005, but mention the name to just about any Windy City native, and it will plunge them back into the childhood wonder of the flagship downtown shopping emporium during the holiday season. Gazing up at the towering evergreen of the Walnut Room, glittering ornaments weighing on its boughs. Winding through lines for Cozy …

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When the Lone Ranger Died the Radio Helped Me Feel Connected

By | December 13, 2016

The digital age, we are told, has made media more immediate, more democratic, more visceral than what came before.
I have my doubts. Was there ever anything more visceral than the radio of the early 20th century?
When I was a child in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, our family never missed a broadcast of The Lone Ranger, and the introduction, always accompanied by Rossini’s …

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The American Revolution Story Has a Hole the Size of Spain

By | November 29, 2016

Americans like to think of our nation as exceptional in nature, a dramatic break from all that came before it. Being exceptional, it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that two European powers provided invaluable assistance in our struggle for independence from Britain. So we usually don’t. The American origin story thus has scrappy colonists fighting the British alone, with little outside help except for France’s Lafayette, and …

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Thanksgiving Dinner Reflects Not Only Who Americans Are, but Who We Want to Be

By | November 24, 2016

No American holiday conjures up images and memories of food like Thanksgiving. Starting in preschool, most of us learned that Thanksgiving commemorates the moment in 1621 when Pilgrims sat down for a peaceful meal with their Indian friends. They wore funny hats and buckle shoes that are conveniently easy to replicate out of construction paper. They ate turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and stuffing … …

What It Means to Be American »

At Just 19 Years Old, the Marquis de LaFayette Traded Versailles for Valley Forge

By | November 21, 2016

The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette had met only a handful of Americans when he signed up to join General George Washington’s army, but he felt certain that the people of the United States were as honorable as the cause of freedom for which they fought. Their idealism was intoxicating, and its hold on Lafayette reminds us of a time when the young United States seemed …