Badassery Incarnate, pt 1: Glorifying Rich White Men (And Erasing Everybody Else)

While visiting Los Angeles last week, I saw the trailer below during the previews for a movie. As I sat there in the darkened theater, I thought to myself, “Self.  You are writing a blog post about this when you get back to the East Coast.”

I present to you: The Men Who Built America

In the trailer, this tag line appears: “America wasn’t discovered. It was built.” It then flashes between depictions of men like Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Ford, Edison (I assume), and Carnegie–all of them rocking suits and  yelling various things which peg them as badass, ruthless, and unaplogetic capitalists.
There’s a lot to talk about here. (after the jump)

There’s the whole ideology behind what it means for someone to build something. (See: the RNC in Tampa.)  The History Channel doesn’t seem to agree with Mark Twain on this front (to quote another American white dude):

“It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did.”


There’s also a lot of people this show erases by the way it frames itself.


–It erases the women who were discouraged from being inventors and entrepreneurs, who when they did invent and do business, were often labeled as “assisting” so they rarely got credit for what they built, and whose projects are just wholly ignored by historians and tv execs.  (Women like Biddy Mason, who became an entrepreneur and the richest person in Los Angeles, after she petitioned a CA court for her freedom, having been born a slave and all.  Oh right, but these are “men who rose from obscurity…”)

–It erases the huge chunk of America(n economy) that was built by slave labor and the economic and social legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws that basically prevented African Americans from being rich investors. (It also didn’t help when Black entrepreneurs saw communities (including their businesses) go up in flames from rampaging white mobs.  See: The Tulsa Race Riots)

–It erases the chunk of America(n infrastructure) that was built by immigrants (like the Chinese Americans in California) while these same immigrants were denied citizenship on racist grounds and (thus/also) were not allowed to own land or businesses. (See: White By Law by Ian Haney Lopez)

–It erases the Native American tribes and nations who apparently don’t have a claim to “America” because they didn’t build a a big enough, imperialistic nation-state.

–It even erases un-entrepreneurial inventors like Tesla whose non-desire to make money off of his inventions precluded him from engaging in rampant amounts of ‘building.’ (There’s also a story to be told here about the relation between ‘success’ and neurotypical and atypical behavior.  And for two different accounts of the Tesla/Edison story, see here (NSFW for language) and here.)


And there’s the way this trailer frames the show as: The BADASSES who built America. Who cares about some woman who bought and sold real estate in California? Who cares about construction crews?   This show is about the Badasses who built America. (And okay fine due to social constraints most of them were rich white men. That doesn’t make them any less badass.)


But this last point is why I find this show (or at least its trailer) to be extra pernicious.  It glorifies these men through the lens of badassery, but in the process, it contributes to the ideal of badassery as something best exemplified by rich white men.  This aspect of the trailer is what induced a visceral response in me, which I would describe as something like the intense desire to flip a table.  And while some people might think that badassery as an ideal is a shallow one, we should acknowledge that it’s seen as a virtue in some of our cultures.  So when people feel like they are precluded from obtaining this virtue, that implies they are incapable of full human excellence (or at least the full range of human experience).  And that can have a profound psychological effect on people.  For myself, I’m an avid video gamer and so I do put some stock into the whole, “hey here’s this game where you can be a total badass–woo warm fuzzy feelings!”

I’m sure there’s also an element of stereotype threat here too.  Even if I didn’t care about whether I was a badass, if I think other people in a specific subculture care whether I’m a badass or not (cough-professional-philosophy-cough) then the subtle message that badassery looks primarily like a rich white dude can still be devastating.  Or even just really annoying / draining / demoralizing.

This post got really long so I split it into two parts, the second of which I’ll post a bit later.  I will end part one with this claim:  The trailer for “The Men Who Built America” (especially in the absence of anything like “The Women Who Built America”) is contributing to an ideal of badassery that makes it harder to think of some people, like women, as (badass) philosophers.

This is why I think it’s important and good to have projects like this:  US History Minus the White Guys



11 thoughts on “Badassery Incarnate, pt 1: Glorifying Rich White Men (And Erasing Everybody Else)

  1. It seems like being “bad-assed” is one of the less noble and less admirable aspects of U.S. culture.

    Why would people who have for centuries been oppressed, dominated and excluded by
    “badassed” rich white capitalists and the ugly system they created want to be members of the “badassed rich white” club?

    It’s like Palestinians wanting to be Zionists or Jews wanting to be antisemites.

    Being “badassed” means interiorizing a set of practices and ideas that contribute to oppression and mystification.

  2. The thought “I will write a post about this” has probably helped my blood pressure on many occasions.

  3. Left out are also the women who made sure these badasses had a warm meal in the evening and clean undies in the morning so they could be badasses again the next day.

  4. It will be interesting to see the movie — it wasn’t obvious to me that these men were being glorified. In fact, I got the impression that the movie was going to show that the U.S. was built by a bunch of ruthless schmucks.

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