The History of Edmund Morris

 

What’s up with Edmund Morris? With a new volume on Teddy Roosevelt, I was all ready to forgive the man for botching one of the greatest opportunities of all time, the official Reagan biography. The last two days he has made some of the blogs for having caused CBS to bleep out part of a quote from Marissa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny.  As it happens, I agree with him on the larger point he was making, about how you can’t just pluck someone out from history and declare what they would have made of some event today.

However what caught my ear was what he said later, about Americans. Again, there’s a germ of truth here, in that we can be complacent about the competition from people in other countries. I don’t know, though. The way he says it here — “I’m aware of the– the fact that people elsewhere in the world think differently from us. I can sort of see us, us Americans with their eyes. And not all that I see is– is attractive. I see an insular people who are– are insensitive to foreign sensibilities, who are lazy, obese, complacent and increasingly perplexed as to why we are losing our place in the world to people who are more dynamic than us and more disciplined” — just seems snotty. (Full Transcript here)

I’m sure the 19-year-old Marine from Ohio who was sent to Anbar as part of the surge likely didn’t know much about Iraqi history, or the difference between Sunnis or Shias. Come to think of it, how much did those GIs who landed at Normandy or the Marines who took Iwo Jima know about other cultures? Curious what others think. As someone who has lived a good chunk of his life abroad, I wonder if we might flip the question: How many foreigners really understand America, i.e., are able to look past MTV and Disney World to appreciate the virtues of a free and vibrant American society? When I was in Hong Kong,  the Sinophiles constantly lamented how we didn’t understand China. Never really read about China’s almost complete lack of understanding of us. 

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  1. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius

    Edmund Morris has a vacuity of truly Homeric proportions. He immortalized himself as the Chuck Barris of biographers by saying that Reagan’s famous (hello Peter Robinson, how are the oysters?) “Tear down this wall” speech was all wrong and he should have used (if memory serves) Robert Frost or some other such existentially longing tripe.

    Ever since Chris Matthews became the 18 hour support girdle for the Obama administration (with run resistant pantyhose causing the tingle in his leg) I haven’t been a regular watcher, but I do remember Matthews pounding on Morris about his biography and Morris shuffling like teacher had caught him red handed putting gum under the desk.

    Say what you will about Matthews, but he knew what it was like to be on the losing end of Reagan’s charm (favorite quote: “If Reagan is such an idiot and he keeps wiping the floor with us on last minute saves during House votes, what does that make us?”) and would have none of Morris’s vacuous stupidity in a 13 year biographical effort that turned into a lame Richard Dreyfus movie of the week on the Hallmark channel.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @LadyKurobara
    Bill McGurn: What’s up with Edmund Morris? …The way he says it … just seems snotty.

    Of course it is snotty. Morris is just another snotty elitist. Moving along…

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    I thought Dutch was a masterpiece. I’m well aware that it was as much fiction as biography, but I thought it was enormously inventive and beautifully written. As for foreigners understanding America–no, they don’t. And we don’t understand them. Past a certain age, no one ever really deeply understands another culture. But then again, it’s nearly impossible to understand another human being–or oneself, for that matter.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RobertBarraudTaylor

    1. I have to shamefacedly confess that I like Dutch, in certain parts. The trope of Reagan as America’s Lifeguard, the man who saved us, was very nice; though not perhaps worth all those years of labor. And I kept saying things like, “Damnit, Morris, where’s the discussion of the 1976 primary?”, etc., etc.

    2. I agree with you Bill in part, due to four years spent in Britain, in which my mother’s strict upbringing forced me to listen politely to every other Brit who wanted to tell me exactly what was wrong with America, based on their dimly remembered viewing of Dallas and Dynasty; the usually hilarious perspectives of the Sun, Daily Mail, and sometimes even more hilarious perspectives of the Washington correspondents of the broadsheets; and a trip to an outlet mall in Florida, if well-travelled.

    3. Having said that, I wish I had the self-discipline to get out there and lose twenty-five pounds, learn two new languages, figure out what’s happening in Turkey, start a business, and encourage some form of civic philantrophy. I mean, it isn’t like we’re living out Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography around here.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RobertBarraudTaylor

    Crying out loud, Lady K, if it’s elitist to tell someone to get in shape, develop a broader perspective, work harder, lose the complacency and stop acting like the world owes you a living, than my dad must have been the Secret Grandmaster of the Skull and Bones, and branded John Kerrey on his left buttock. And Rob Long. Not that my dad would tell me. About either of them.

    Just shows what a secret elitist he is; he even claims he didn’t go to Yale.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius

    The Judge is the indispensable book to understanding Reagan. Morris didn’t.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Just a few weeks ago the news reported that some foreign correspondent was marvelling that the Americans had just done what no other people in history had done: ask for less handouts from a smaller government. Of course other countries don’t understand us. Nor we them. That’s why they are OTHER.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius

    Hasn’t anyone here read Climbing Parnassus or Who Killed Homer? And where do the Classics survive and limp along? Great Britain and, drum roll, Kentucky. Yes, Kentucky.

    Why are the Russians so good at math? Don’t ask me, ask Kiselev. Singapore ahead of us in math? You don’t say. Quick, name the Columbia University prof who single handedly did more to cripple grammar instruction in North America from the 1930’s onward than any other thinker. Jacques Barzun has mentioned him a few times in his books.

    Think the Obama administration has any worthwhile ideas on education reform? Think again, Mr Bill Ayers. But surely ed schools have some bright spots? I don’t think so.

    And let us not forget the Liberal Arts surviving amongst hordes of bitter gun clingers.

    What’s the opposite of university? Diversity. Pop culture is a seething morass of mediocrity and sexual titillation because every worthwhile alternative to it has been shut down by the elite’s unfettered domination of state run education for the past 50 or more years.

    To me, Obama is Gorbachev with a better rimshot.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @LadyKurobara
    Robert Barraud Taylor: Crying out loud, Lady K, if it’s elitist to tell someone to get in shape, develop a broader perspective, work harder, lose the complacency and stop acting like the world owes you a living, than my dad must have been the Secret Grandmaster of the Skull and Bones, and branded John Kerrey on his left buttock.

    I am not disagreeing with the particulars of what Morris said; I am agreeing that he said it in a very snotty way. Because he is a snotty elitist.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @TripedisCanis

    What troubles me most about this quote is its broad-brush approach. He seems to be condemning the entire American character, and this is especially troubling from someone who emigrated here in 1968, when naturalized citizenship actually meant something.

    Basically, people want to come here because we are different. We don’t understand the sensibilities of Europe, or India, or North Korea, because we don’t want them. We want the sensibilities that defined the nation: individual liberty, opportunity, e pluribus unum. Insular? America is based on a creed, an idea; not a nationality or language group. We do not conquer, we do not colonize. We ask to be left alone to work out our own destiny. Overweight? When those called “poverty stricken” in a society are overweight, what does that tell you? Complacent? When your society is the envy of the rest of the world, complacency is certainly understandable.

    A list of “dynamic” and “disciplined” societies: Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, Libya. Dynamic and disciplined, but to what end?

    Mr. Morris was justifiably contemptuous of Mr. Schieffer’s question. However, his follow-on comment did not raise the tone.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius

    John Kenneth Galbraith was a better prose stylist than Milton Friedman, but that doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t read a Galbraith book in 30 years. Friedman I still read.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Contributor
    @BillMcGurn

    Claire, All due respect, Dutch was a tragedy. Had he written it after writing a straightforwar biography, that would have been one thing. But to have granted all that access, and then to give us fiction is, at the least, disappointing. It seems designed more to illustrate the cleverness of the author than illuminate the mind and work of the subject.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius

    I have to shamefacedly confess that I like Dutch, in certain parts.

    We have counsellors standing by on 1-800 numbers as I type this. I kid.

    Regarding Bill McGurn’s much more calm and level headed post I view biographers like a figure skating competition: if you hit the ice with your butt 3 times, don’t tell me how beautiful your skating was: I remember the pratfalls. Same with asking a student for a business case analysis and they turn in a poem. It may be a Pulitzer or Nobel or whatever winner, but it still gets an F. I asked for a business case.

    Ecce homo. Show me the man (or woman). If you didn’t do that, I don’t care how inventive it is. Trashcan.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I don’t appreciate the liberals’ snooty attitude toward Americans, but I daresay we as a general population should know more about the world than we do. Our lack of knowledge stems as much from the liberals’ dumbing-down of our education system as from any inherent American attitude they may object to.

    Yes, as the world’s most powerful country, I do think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of world knowledge. If we really want to be leaders in the world we should know and understand the world. It should also help us be grateful and appreciate the ways in which America is blessed.

    That said, again I don’t hold it against anyone if they choose not to care about every little detail of foreign affairs. Given the current state of our education, it would be a great improvement if our population could even show a basic level of knowledge about our own country.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @

    As for our attitudes, we should be both proud and humble. Proud of our country and what makes it and us unique, but humble enough to realize that doesn’t make us superior as human beings to the citizens of other countries; that we were given these things as a gift, and that we must treasure them and pass them on carefully.

    And as for obesity, it is an enormous problem here, no pun intended. We don’t have as much of a health care crisis here as we have a simple health crisis. But instead of using social tinkering or passing health care reforms that don’t get at the root of the problem, we could start by eliminating federal farm subsidies, which make certain kinds of high-calorie foods much cheaper than the healthy varieties. These subsidies are one of the main reasons our poor are so much more likely to be obese, in contrast with the rest of the world.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CaptAubrey

    I agree with Claire about understanding other cultures and they us but I think its very American to overvalue other cultures relative to our own. We are currently in the midst of another adolescent infatuation with China just as we once were with Japan Inc. As for Desmond Morris, I suppose its easier to believe in American decadence if you surround yourself with decadent, spineless, ennui-ridden, whimps who know nothing except what they hear on National Pusillanimous Radio.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    Robert Barraud Taylor: Crying out loud, Lady K, if it’s elitist to tell someone to get in shape, develop a broader perspective, work harder, lose the complacency and stop acting like the world owes you a living, than my dad must have been the Secret Grandmaster of the Skull and Bones, and branded John Kerrey on his left buttock. And Rob Long. Not that my dad would tell me. About either of them.

    Just shows what a secret elitist he is; he even claims he didn’t go to Yale. · Nov 30 at 9:17am

    Hmmm. Not sure about the placement. I’m picky about my brand.

    • #17

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