For months I’ve been working on a problem related to my current writing project, and this essay came out as a part of my conclusion: arrogance without context is hubris. Not exactly sure how the ideas will fit into the story, but they’ll be there, even if only in the foundations. I hope you find it interesting!


Toward the end of 2022, I moved to Málaga, Spain, for three months — a place first settled by the Phoenicians. I then moved to Montpellier, France, where the university was founded in 1200, and the botanical garden was established by Henry IV over 400 years ago. I’ve visited castles and palaces occupied by a succession of conquering armies; sat in their gardens and contemplated their fountains, admired the breathtaking craftsmanship of tile work and architectural detail.


In Málaga, as I steeped in the silent presence of a Roman theater next to the cathedral, and Gilbrafaro Castle, which overlooks the city — built in 929 CE by Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba and which fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1487 — a pattern of thought began to take shape in my reflections. 


Summarized, it is that without sufficient context, arrogance becomes untethered hubris. That thought is not original to me, I know, but this is how I came to think it. Specifically, I began to ponder the shallow arrogance, seemingly proudly ignorant, I see in the American myth of exceptionalism.


Certainly no culture is without arrogance — the world is strewn with palaces and other monuments celebrating the wealth and power of the few, while little record remains of the nameless ordinary folk who built them. But this post is more about the importance of context itself, rather than the content of that context. It’s about the medicine historical context provides for the arrogant.


Carl Sandburg gives that medicine voice in his poem “Prelude to Four Playthings of the Wind.”

This is an excerpt:


The doors were cedar

and the panels strips of gold  

and the girls were golden girls  

and the panels read and the girls chanted:  

  We are the greatest city,  

  the greatest nation:

  nothing like us ever was.  


The doors are twisted on broken hinges.  

Sheets of rain swish through on the wind  

  where the golden girls ran and the panels read:  

  We are the greatest city,

  the greatest nation,  

  nothing like us ever was.  



It has happened before.  

Strong men put up a city and got  

  a nation together,

And paid singers to sing and women  

  to warble: We are the greatest city,  

    the greatest nation,  

    nothing like us ever was.  


And while the singers sang

and the strong men listened  

and paid the singers well  

and felt good about it all,  

  there were rats and lizards who listened  

  … and the only listeners left now

  … are … the rats … and the lizards.  


“We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was.”

This is an emotional declaration, not factual, as the rats and lizards remind us. Denial of historical context is required to make that emotional claim, which then needs only the flimsiest chauvinism to support it.


It’s been a mere 500 years since white Christians invaded North America, and it’s been the only major invasion / occupation that North America has seen since, making the history of white people’s dominance in North America a thin layer, stretched out over deeper stories that for the most part have been co-opted, buried, or ignored entirely. 


I grew up in a culture that holds the gilded age homes of post civil war robber barons as important historical sites. I learned about Hearst Castle and Biltmore long before I learned about the Great Serpent Mound, which wasn’t even named a national historical landmark until 1966. (Inquiry into the arrogance behind that single fact might be worth following at another time.)


More relevant to me right now is that the vast material greatness of white Christian presence in the United States has been built on 1) exploitation of the Other — Black slaves and Asians who were treated like slaves, laborers from Latin America, and the betrayal, suppression, and attempted eradication of the peoples who were here when the white Christians arrived; and 2) unchecked consumption of natural resources: treating Nature as personal property — yet another slave.


Resistance in American schools to teaching environmental responsibility and the history of white people’s subjection of others is resistance to context. Why? These studies call us to acknowledge how it has come to be that the doors of our institutions are cedar, the panels strips of gold, and how golden girls and the panels both chant, We are the greatest city, the greatest nation: nothing like us ever was.


Refusing to acknowledge the historical context of our culture’s rise is a crime, an intellectual and emotional dishonesty that protects the worst kind of arrogance: “We are not accountable. We have an unquestionable right to everything we currently possess and owe nothing to others. We are exempt even from responsibility to Nature.” 


Nothing like us ever was.


From that premise, mere commercial success justifies rapacious greed, worker exploitation, environmental devastation. No respect is required if we are not accountable. But lack of accountability comes with a terrible cost: we stop caring. 


We disconnect. We lose our empathy and become psychopaths. We cut ourselves off from others, and from the natural world, the living planet that sustains all peoples.


I ponder this problem through the context provided by time — the lesson taught by layers of triumph, cruelty, beauty, and failure stacked on each other in one place. On one 45-minute walk around Málaga centro, I could pass the cathedral, the Roman theater, the salt pits once used for curing fish, the Alcazaba at the foot of Gilbrafaro Castle, the plaza where cruise ship tourists get off their buses, and streets of upscale shopping including a Victoria’s Secret. 


This astonishing stack of human stories in one place is not so obviously available in American cities, and it’s easy to slide into the myth of exceptionalism when the reminders of a larger historical context are few — and what few there are have been sanitized or suppressed. 


I think this ignorance has become defiance, forcibly sustaining a convenient cultural amnesia which protects our origin story from embarrassment, and protects the grotesque emotional immaturity that needs immunity from such embarrassment. As comforting as that amnesia might be for some, the rest of the world goes on, and eventually we will be faced with a reckoning with reality, possibly all the more traumatic for being suppressed so long.


So how should this amnesia be dispelled? Through education, age-appropriate but unflinching, in the way a school child in Germany begins learning about the Holocaust at age 9 or 10.


At the start of the American Civil War the southern states seceded to protect slavery. There are plenty of original documents to prove that. But that’s not what I learned in a Colorado grade school in the 1950s. I was taught that it was a conflict between a domineering industrialized north and a valiant, gracious agrarian south, and that secession was simply a society’s attempt to preserve a way of life. Which it was, of course — a way of life predicated on the slavery which made cotton king. 


I’ve seen arguments that learning about slavery and institutional racism in America would be too traumatic for school children. But taught well, such trauma must certainly be less painful than learning in adulthood that what had been learned in childhood was a pack of lies taught by people we believed. I can attest that I would have much rather learned the truth about the Civil War in that Colorado grade school than over a decade later as my illusions collapsed in a Canadian university classroom.


It’s way beyond my knowledge and skill to know how, but it seems to me that teaching hard facts is essential to civilized life — but in this case, with a larger context: regardless of the atrocity, humans committed it. Ultimately, we must teach how humanity is capable of evil as well as good. But to get to that elevated lesson, white Americans have got to walk through the thorny and long-neglected garden of their actual history and embrace it. All of it.


As a tiny start, next time you hear the old folk song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” ask yourself, Who is singing this song, and to whom? Is it true? And if it is, ask yourself how that came to be.