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Tragedy with a Happy Ending ... is already here

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“Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending.”

I like that funny quip, but I am surprised when I hear that some people really believe it.

What the little joke really means is: Americans, being new and young, don’t understand culture, in comparison with other cultures, mainly Europeans. Europeans know what tragedy is. They’ve been doing tragedy for two thousand years. It’s established, you can’t change it, it is what it is and anyone who does things differently doesn’t get it. What the funny saying is saying is that the Europeans have the right of definition when it comes to culture.

I heard the saying recently in a podcast of an excellent podium discussion on American history at Stanford featuring Jack Rakove and Gordon Wood (yes, I’m a fan). It was a toss-off statement, Americans making fun of their own supposed lack of culture. But it surprised me that they took it seriously: They were talking about writing books for a broad public and they accepted the adage that Americans are too …