May 03, 2005

John Brown's Body

"What makes [John Brown] a typically American idealist is not his lust for killing -- he was eager to avoid murder if he could -- but his indifference to human life lost on the way to his ideal." -- Adam Gopnik reviewing David Reynolds's "John Brown, Abolitionist", in a recent New Yorker.

But what's typically (or exclusively) American about that? Isn't that almost the definition of idealism, regardless of whether it's in America or some place less plagued by the ideal of America (like, say Britain...) -- and isn't idealism orthogonal to that lust for killing? Are Western UnAmerican idealists generally more prone to blood lust than their American counterparts? (Think: "Manifest Destiny"...).

But for me, what is a case of typical American idealism here is Gopnik's belief that such bloodlustless idealism -- supposedly shorn of the murderousness typical of UnAmerican idealism -- is somehow essentially American. Gopnik seems to have fallen (again) for the ideal of American exceptionalism here...


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