Americans have always been nice. But is it just a sham?

The paradox of Trump’s insisting on his own niceness even while engaging in distinctly nasty conduct (political and otherwise) has a long history in the United States.

Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us.

.. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life.

.. Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

.. Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.

.. In 1814, Gen. Andrew Jackson supervised the mutilation of the corpses of more than 800 Creek Native Americans killed at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama during the Creek War. The desecration of the bodies involved cutting off the tip of each Indian’s nose to count the number of victims, and taking long strips of skin from the dead to use as bridle reins.

.. Thus the mistreatment of Indians wasn’t only a political problem but a profound failure on white Americans’ part to live up to their Christian reputation for courtesy, respect and kindness.

.. This same conflict could be seen in the issue of slavery.

.. If kindness were the rule in the master-slave relationship, Douglass argued, then Southern newspapers would not be filled with runaway-slave notices describing branding with irons and scarring from whips.

..  One is based on historical forgetting, on empty gestures and cliches, on refusing to own up to American errors; the other connects niceness with ethics and justice by recognizing Americans’ failures to be the kind people we imagine ourselves to be

The New German Question

Soon after Germany’s peaceful unification in 1989–1990, Fritz Stern unforgettably described it as Germany’s “second chance.” Europe’s economically dynamic central power had had its first chance in the years before 1914. “It could have been Germany’s century,” as Raymond Aron once remarked to Stern. It blew that chance in two world wars and the Holocaust. Now it had another.

.. there are so many ghosts in the German language. As the former foreign minister Joschka Fischer has noted, you can have a conference of young leaders, but junge Führer…? I find people often slip into English to use the word “leadership.” So, because of Hitler, the palette of contemporary German political rhetoric is deliberately narrow, cautious, and boring.