What It Means to Be American »

Donald and Bernie, Meet Andrew Jackson

By | March 28, 2016

We hear a lot about populism these days. Throughout this primary season, headlines across the country have proclaimed the successes of the “populist” contenders, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Without embracing the populist label, moreover, candidates in both parties had already adopted populist tactics by branding their opponents as tools of the “establishment.”
But what is populism, anyway? There is no easy answer, for “populism” …

What It Means to Be American »

The Secretive Boys’ Clubs That Once Offered Friends, Fun, and Financial Support

By | March 22, 2016

Once, when I visited my brother, who lives in a small Texas town, he took me down a winding road to a turn-of-the-20th-century cemetery in a forest clearing. There, we found three tall tombstones in the shape of tree trunks, each stamped with an insignia reading “Woodmen of the World.” What were these strange things?
When I got home, I dug into the mystery of these …

What It Means to Be American »

Let’s Not Pretend That ‘Hamilton’ the Musical Is History

By | March 17, 2016

Hamilton is the hottest show on Broadway, filled with hip-hop songs, R&B rhythms, and tri-cornered hats. Its multi-racial cast portrays the pantheon of Revolutionary greats, and for many a starry-eyed critic this sing-along with the founders offers “a factually rigorous historical drama.” Those are the words of Jody Rosen in The New York Times, and he is not alone. As an academic who spent years …

What It Means to Be American »

How Adele and the Kardashians Bridged the Transatlantic Fashion Divide

By | March 15, 2016

An American woman I know in London recently posted on Facebook about being grateful to be out of the country during the current presidential election. That prompted a feisty response about American exceptionalism from a friend of a friend in Texas: “Sorry, I refuse to buy into your anti American socialist/communist rhetoric. We ARE better than everybody else, by far… If you believe otherwise, you …

What It Means to Be American »

Would Brits Really Rather Watch Fussy Old Lord Grantham Than a Dashing Winston Churchill?

By | March 11, 2016

If you were disappointed to see Downton Abbey come to an end on PBS this past weekend, the good news is that the producers of this sensation on both sides of the Atlantic have optioned the rights to another series featuring an even more dazzling cast of Edwardian English aristocrats.
In this one, the characters are all drawn from real life. There is a fabulously …

What It Means to Be American »

Last Night at the British Museum, Zócalo on British Cultural Influence

By | March 10, 2016

Will America Always Be a British Colony? from Zocalo Public Square on Vimeo.
If you’ve ever seen close siblings argue, you will get a sense of the relationship between Britain and America—and a sense of the discussion trying to define this relationship at a Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” event at the British Museum in London.
In front of a full auditorium, a panel of …

What It Means to Be American »

Does the British Empire Still Have a Grip on America?

By | March 8, 2016

In 1776, on the brink of his first battle with British troops after America declared independence, George Washington gave a spirited defense of breaking from British rule. “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army,” he told his troops. “Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of a brave resistance, or the …

What It Means to Be American »

The No-Fuss Meal That Lies at the Core of Minnesota’s Soul

By | February 29, 2016

I am a Minnesota writer. I realized this only after my first book was published in 2009. One reader called it “a crash course in being Minnesotan.” Reviewers noted that my characters were oddly formal, obsessed with grammar, wanting to connect with others but unsure how to do so—all traits that I had grown up surrounded by and passed on to my characters. A friend …

What It Means to Be American »

Let’s Not Play ‘Gotcha’ with the Great Emancipator

By | February 12, 2016

“I am naturally anti slavery,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” That doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering that every American is taught in school that Lincoln was the president who freed the slaves.
Yet, there has always been a small cloud of doubt …

What It Means to Be American »

Running for President Takes a Stiff—and Clean-Shaven—Upper Lip

By | January 26, 2016

In 1948, Emilie Spencer Deer, a solidly Republican woman from Ohio, announced to her family that she would vote for President Truman instead of the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey because she could not vote for a man with a mustache. She was neither foolish nor alone in her opinion. Educated and conscientious, she was, like other women of her day, simply reading the signs of …