I was watching a History International program on Andrew Jackson last night, and as the experts who were interviewed throughout tried to sum up Jackson’s accomplishments (more on that in a later post), all but two of them encountered the difficulty of being Jackson fans yet having to explain the Native American genocide he happily instigated. They each fell back on disreputable arguments to support their case as fans, and one of them used the old tried-and-true: “Well, Jackson was an American original.”
I notice that this phrase is always dragged out to describe/boost someone whose main quality is that he does not ever think he is wrong. Jackson defied the Supreme Court and overreached the powers allocated to the executive in order to mercilessly betray and kill Native Americans, and never once betrayed the slightest regret or doubt about that. So what do you say about him if you admire his in-your-face independence and confidence? He was an American Original.
This seems to mean someone who did bad things but was charismatic. Someone who never once admitted they were wrong. We translate this into confidence, and independence, and being a maverick who doesn’t kow-tow to the powers that be. A rebel. These are qualities we like, and so we decide they are only exhibited by Americans.
But there is a difference between rebelling against injustice and rebelling against justice, and anyone who does the latter is not an “American original” but a criminal. Yes, the person may be irritatingly charismatic. But there’s no excusing or forgiving the crimes.
So if Jackson’s slate can be washed clean by calling him an “American Original”, it’s time to retire the phrase when used as a compliment.
Thinking you are never wrong is not admirable. It’s not a strength. And no American should ever be that way, because never admitting fault is anti-democratic. It’s saying one person knows what’s right and whatever they do is right and everyone else can just shut up. When the executive won’t ever admit fault, it means his entire administration must support his wrongheaded policies because there’s no other option. And that’s not good for democracy.
Jackson was many things, but in a world filled with criminals and anti-democratic leaders, original is not one of them.
See part 2 for a full analysis of the harmful mythmaking in this program.