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Plain-Style American Populism

Yankee Doodle's Macaroni

When Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it "macaroni", he was making a statement that was then and remains to this day characteristically American. That feather was as much a text as the Declaration of Independence and as true as the message that underlies this book: that those on the bottom can stick it to the elitists not by getting into Harvard and learning how to play their game but by challenging them in their own vulgar voices.

In the eighteenth-century European courts, "macaroni" was the name of an extremely elaborate Italian hairstyle. Ladies of the court of London, when preparing to attend a ball, would spend hours having their hair done up in huge constructions, often braced by wooden supports that rested on their shoulders. Some would have ships of the line circling around towering beehives. Others would have elaborate birds nesting above. Those stiff minuets that required the head be held high and the back arched had a practical purpose. With his feather, Yankee Doodle is making fan of the aristocrats of England, his cap as much an act of rebellious sarcasm as his name. A "doodle" in eighteenthcentury slang was a foolish bumpkin, somewhere between an illiterate redneck and an outright retard. Yankees, of course, were the English settlers of New England. When the Brits sneered at the colonial militia as "Yankee Doodles," they were dissing them something fierce. But rather than hang their heads in shame, these self-reliant Americans, Bart Simpsons to the core, con fessed to being Yankee Doodles and proud of it, made a song about it, and used that song to diss the Brits right back. Here then we get two themes together, the need to accept who we are and not let ourselves be intimidated by the sneers of those who think themselves our betters, and the need to speak back to the elite in our own plain voices.

McMurphy's "Average Asshole"

In Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Randle McMur phy finds himself incarcerated in the ward of an insane asylum trying to convince his fellow inmates to stand up for themselves against the bullying of Nurse Ratched. At one point, he shouts at Dale Harding, there to be "cured" of being gay, "Hell, I been surprised how sane you guys all are. As near as I can tell you're not any crazier than the average asshole on the street." With this classic statement of American egalitarianism, McMurphy tears down all of the hierarchical assumptions that make some people feel superior and other inferior. For him the question is not who is sane and who insane in some snooty division of us and them. Instead, his is a planet crowded with different assholes all believing different things and seeing the world in different ways. His let-it-all-hang-out egalitarian attitude is able to accept the varsity. He is able to liberate the other inmates from what Mar tin Luther King called a "psychology of servitude" by showing them not how to conform to society's idea of some political or moral correctness, not how to fit into the prevailing paradigm, but how to ignore society's great shaking finger of shame and, like hi, just be themselves.

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