Dedicated to the Proposition

Every moviegoer remembers the sign: "Keep your change. Tipping is un-American." It is on the cash register of the roadside diner that is the setting for The Petrified Forest. It is a strange expression. We don't say "un-French" (and hardly ever say "un-English"), and when we do, we mean only that something is not typical of the national character. For something to be French, it must be witty or stylish or off-color: "It's a general rule, though your zeal it mav quench, if a family fool tells a joke that's too French, half a crown is stopped out of his wages."

To be un-American, however, is to be undemocratic or elitist or class-conscious. In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce spoofed American chauvinism by defining un-American as "wicked, tolerable, heathenish." In our national myth, as understood by one presumptuous immigrant (Crévecoeur), "He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced." This was 80 years before the American Caesar tried to persuade us that our nation was "dedicated to the proposition." Another presumptuous foreigner was closer to the truth: "Americans . . . would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom," and we have been forging the chains of equality since Tocqueville's time. Henry Luce's...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here