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Looking at History from the Outside

Photo credit goes to Michael Doherty
Photo credit goes to Michael Doherty

You ever notice how our history seems exceptional?

I don’t mean American Exceptionalism the way it comes up in the State of the Union, or not exactly. I mean the way it feels when you think about it, compared to when you think about the history of Rome, say, or Mexico. There’s something less straightforward about  it, something more nuanced; we have more shades of gray.

Whether or not you agree with any of that, meditate on it for a minute. Try the Vietnam War. Why were the French in Indochina in the fifties? Because of colonialism, simple. Why were we there in the sixties? Supporting our allies, maybe, or war profiteering, or as part of the containment policy and domino theory. Tell that story to yourself and see if it comes out as cut and dried.

It’s natural and almost inevitable to feel that way about your own history. If you’re American, you probably know more US history more intimately than anyone else’s, and that much just by osmosis. The same is true of French history if you’re French, Canadian if you’re Canadian. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexican schools, and just like their counterparts in the US, they spend every single semester learning about the same group of guys who founded the Republic, repeated year in and out.

I’ve studied more Roman history, more Latin American history, and more European history than my own, but I have a better feel for how it looked and sounded in the back when in the US than in any other place. Everyone feels this way about their own country’s past, which is, just to note, why the phrase ‘American Exceptionalism’ rubs pretty much everybody in the world the wrong way.

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