This Noble Land by James Michener


"In a stirring essay on America's past and future, octogenarian novelist Michener outlines his native land's strong and weak points, and his hopes and fears for America's future."

I like that "octogenarian novelist" is part of the pitch. I suppose once you hit a certain age your age gets used as a qualifier whether it matters or not. Here it probably does matter; you know you're not just going to get a lot of Harry Potter references.

There's only 12 chapters, so let's take them one by one. Most pics selected from a google image search for popular American iconography; some others I had hanging around.


Michener starts things off with a modest spin through his c.v. in order of salience to the topic at hand: his public service, his life at both economic poles, his research and training, travel, and so on. All of this combined to keep him in an ongoing state of evaluating the American dream and America's place in the world.

On his early education and early education in general:

 "In those days the indoctrination of children with a love of their homeland began at age six and continued daily for the next twelve years. I have often thought back on that simpler time and concluded that it is better for a child to have some strong moral and social beliefs rather than none at all, even though his indoctrination may have been chauvinistic, muddled, or even erroneous. Later he can correct error, but if he has allegiance to nothing he has nothing to work on in his later re-education."

I agree. Elsewhere he makes the same point re: church and though he fully concedes many people are fine and morally virtuous human beings without religion or without specifically Christianity, he comes down the same way for it that he does for patriotism: better to have it and not need it/ outgrow it, then never have it to begin with.

Ditto for canon. (Balzac, Shakespeare, and all the rest). And I agree there, too. This isn't about my vision for America, of course, but I can't help throwing my two cents in along the way. The idea that an early and ongoing indoctrination of church, country, canon, and family is a net positive for society might be out of fashion, but he argues it can be adapted to meet whatever new circumstances present themselves (i.e. people's ideas of canon / family can change, as is only natural, but certain fundamentals both in the micro and in the macros still apply unless you willfully destroy them.) He likens it to the foundation of a house: whatever structural changes you want to make above-ground, without a solid, unseen foundation, everything sinks into the muck.


Michener lists the questions he asks of any country to determine where it is on his personal scale of greatness:

 - Has the nation been able to create a stable society? i.e. is there a reasonable expectation that a way of life / secure form of government can be passed to the next generation(s)?
- Does the nation have a reliable monetary system? One that can survive inflation or deflation without fatally undermining the middle class?

- Does the nation maintain a decent balance between poor and rich and provide for an abundant middle class?
- Does the nation have a responsible transfer of power tradition?
- Does the nation provide its young and old with adequate health services?
- Does the nation provide effective schools for training?
- Does the nation provide free libraries?
- Does the nation provide enough employment opportunities for its entry level work force and college graduates?
- Are there churches and synagogues and other places of religious worship? 

- Do the cities have well-funded and attended recreational opportunities / arenas? Museums, opera houses, symphonies, zoos, etc.?
- Is there equitable treatment for all diverse groups?

Some may quibble with the "liberal" character of this criteria or object to the absence of "does the nation maintain a strong military?" or whatever other qualifier, sure. But (and he makes the point much more in depth than I, here) any country that fails to positively answer a majority of the questions above can have the strongest military in the world and not, truly, be a "noble land." Or, longterm, a very stable one. He uses the example of Sparta - not just in this chapter but throughout. No one envied Sparta anything but their military success.
He ends the chapter by comparing the America of his youth (the teens and twenties) with the America of the 90s. His conclusion? Undeniable progress in some areas, such as civil rights, but a) not enough, and b) klaxons for everything else.


Michener bemoans the trend (escalated since) of the wealthy getting wealthier, the poor getting poorer, with a stagnant (now shrinking) middle class. History shows us this doesn't end well, and America will be no less successful in staving off the inevitable if it doesn't take immediate steps to address this.

His steps do not include some forced surrender and redistribution of wealth, of course; Michener was well-versed in the folly of communist "solutions." But he reasonably points out that a) the trickle-down economics approved by allegedly "free market advocates" are similar fake-solutions, and b) getting money into the hands of the most economically marginalized raises prosperity for all, as they buy more goods, use more services, generate more taxes, etc.

It was while reading this chapter where I wrote in my notebook: "Michener is a depressing reminder of how Americans - both liberals and conservatives - used to be people you could do business with." 



These days it's more fashionable (perhaps even holy work) to write off everyone born before a certain year or of a certain pigmentation as having some kind of racism original sin - i.e. some kind of cultural or genetic inescapable predisposition to it. Hell, I make it sound like it's some fringe theory; it's the mainstream academic discourse in this country in 2017. Now I know I'm just some cisgender Caucasoid kook, but I specifically appreciate the POV of a guy like Michener - i.e. that early-to-mid-20th-century white American guy who went to war to stop fascism, then came home to fight for civil rights and all the rest. To not just be a witness but a participant in such epoch-shattering events signifies a lot more to me than being #superwoke.   

Like or dislike his conclusions/ pigmentation, it's difficult to argue with at least this idea: "It shouldn't require a city to be terrorized before the community provides the services it needs."

He spends quite a bit of time on the OJ Simpson trial and speculates on what that whole circus ("like a Marx Brothers film around a grisly homicide") might portend:

"I chanced to see the disturbing shot of the students' union at Morehouse College, a black institution in Atlanta, where the students broke into paroxysms of joy when the verdict was announced. I was shattered to hear the Morehouse student union echo with boos and hisses when the cameras in the Los Angeles courthouse panned to the distraught white families of the two murdered victims. In that awful moment I caught a glimpse of the years ahead. Blacks will make OJ Simpson and Johnnie Cochran their national symbols of revenge. Blacks who serve on juries will be expected to bring in not-guilty verdicts whenever a brother is on trial, and worst of all, those decent middle-class whites who have slowly made themselves able to see and understand the just complaints of blacks will harden their hearts." 

Let's break these last couple of predictions down.

- I've seen too many different takes on what OJ and/or Johnnie Cochran represent to believe consensus in any community - black, white, or other - actually exists. But as symbols of revenge? Maybe I'm the wrong guy to ask, but I don't think it's the case.

- Regarding "blacks who serve on juries," while I've seen no hard data on the subject I have certainly read of instances where juries - black and white - return verdicts based on their perception of race in the trial above all other evidence. It's a miscarriage of justice for sure; add it to the list. But I don't think the OJ Simpson trial specifically ushered in any kind of era of expectations for African Americans on trial. Such things were ongoing. 

- As for this last point, ("decent middle-class whites will harden their hearts") I fear he may have been correct. At least for the middle class, and a better way of putting it is that "decent middle-class whites" can no longer be certain whether legal jurisprudence (or media-academe integrity) is the ultimate guiding factor in anything concerning race. And hey, guess what? Most decent middle-class blacks and browns and all else have the same concern - and probably had it (!) for a lot longer. Yet more common ground paved over by those who profit from racial division. My two cents, you understand, not Michener's.


"We pay a fearful price for the bargains we enjoy."

Are we 16th century Spain? Michener saw some troubling parallels. Like Spain, we've allowed our own peasants/ working class (once the best in the world, as even the Spanish peasant belt-maker, etc. was regarded as the best in Europe) to languish, while we send our raw materials overseas where they are re-worked and sold back to us. In Michener's lifetime, he saw the US become a nation of consumers when once American production was second to none. What an influx of South American gold and silver did to the Spanish middle class/ economy, too-easy credit did to the American one.

Things became this way, asserts Michener, because what works for corporations and bottom lines rarely does for families and people. He stops short of calling belief in the contrary some kind of mass hypnosis, but he implies it. The same excuses are always given (you can still hear them on Shark Tank) about how sending all manufacturing abroad "makes sense for everyone in the long run" or how those with jobs in manufacturing will transition to jobs in regulation. It never works that way, but these axioms are ingrained in consumer-vs.-producer discourse, almost as if the latter is scripting the lines for the former.

"Welcome to Costco... I love you... Welcome to Costco... I love you."

Never one to shy away from a lesson from history, though, Michener takes pains to point out that deficit spending is what allowed Britain to become a world power. Always be wary, he cautions, of those politicians who speak of going into any debt - even of the $100b variety - as an evil thing; historically speaking, this is not the case.


Occasionally you'll see one of those "Here's a high school exam from 1908" things make the rounds (usually followed by a bunch of defensive remarks in the comments.) If you ever thought to yourself, "Wow, kids back then had to learn a lot more stuff than we had to," just remember: Michener was one of those kids. 


Additionally, as a writer of American textbooks for many years, he had a front row seat in what is commonly called the "dumbing down of America." When he was hired he was given a list of vocabulary words that were considered too advanced for each grade level. In the short time of his employment (at Macmillan) he saw how each year the list would be revised so that words formerly too advanced for junior high students eventually became too advanced for high school students; what formerly was considered average knowledge for any incoming college freshman soon became the norm for a fully matriculated one. 

Granted that's a broad-strokes assessment and I don't mean to suggest all textbooks are dumbed down to this extent or as a matter of practice. But I think we can all agree that when Americans rank 30th in math and reading and 19th in science and people live in mortal fear of bilingual instruction that there is room for improvement.

He offers up a list of recommendations at the end of each chapter in This Noble Land, mostly bullet-pointing the longer argument just made. In his closing recs for this chapter, though, he includes one he hadn't brought up at all, perhaps because he felt it was so self-evident that he needn't spend time on it: never, under any circumstances, allow creationism to be taught in any classroom.



"Loving people living together in a stable union constitute a family whether we approve or not."

I'll be cautious here, as he covers too much ground here for me to summarize properly. This is a thoughtful chapter that, like the Racial Time Bomb chapter, isn't afraid to call out bad assumptions on both sides.

In a nutshell his is common sense, centrist approach: bolster the family where you find it, not as you define it, and everyone wins. He gets into things (gay marriage, welfare reform, the decimation of the black nuclear family - bad in the 90s, up to epidemic levels now, and not aided by an electorate eager not to think about it) and perhaps some of his examples aren't as representative as he thinks they are. Still, compared to what every other 80 year old was telling me in 1996, Michener sounds like a combination of Einstein and Michelle Obama. 

I mean that in a good way. 


"Any careful observer of America's health care system is perplexed as to why such an admirable collection of health experts, supported by one of the richest nations on earth, cannot provide all of its citizens with an insurance system they can afford and with medical care through something like Medicare. (Our) failure to solve the problem is one of the mysteries of American life, especially when both major parties agree that steps must be taken to solve it. The reason for the failure is the rampant greed that pervades the medical profession, the insurance companies, the various types of medical corporations, and the character of the individual taxpayer."

My day job is signing up doctors and nurses with Medicare, Medicaid, and the various commercial payers. I've had a front row seat for some of the challenges of Obamacare, as I will for whatever new challenges are coming down the pike. As such I have to recuse myself from commenting in too much depth, but I think Michener is entirely correct in his assignation of blame. I agree with his exasperation. I don't know what the answer is, but I wish I did and I think as someone once said with great power comes great responsibility and we're blowing it. 

Michener gives several real-world examples related to his late wife's medical care. ("We had both Medicare and private insurance as well, (but) both seemed to be vying for a prize to see which could have the stupidest bookkeeping system and the most lost records. It was a draw (...) wasting billions on repetitive paperwork alone.") He also spends some time on the all-important Milliman rules that began appearing at the end of the last century. Understanding how they transformed health care - so many aspects of American business but health care most specifically- is crucial.


If there is one chapter that may be an old-fogey bridge too far, it's this one. I suspect some readers will think he didn't go far enough in this attack on "toxic masculinity," while others will think he's making a lot of assumptions based on false equivalencies (particularly on guns.)

As for me, I can see his point for the most part. Somewhere along the way (and it's funny to think of the WW2 vet's macro-response to the action movies of the 80s and what they might mean), Michener argues, we began to subscribe to Sparta over Athens. He glorifies Athens a little more than I would, but it's an interesting theory when applied to post-WW2 America. I wish he'd been around to see The 300.

One quick thing, though. When discussing the upswing of violence in movies and on television, he remarks that the westerns of yesteryear were generally more philosophical with violence. Whether or not that is true - I've certainly seen the idea floated by many scholars, usually in essays about The Wild Bunch and how it shattered the tradition - he uses as one of his examples "the classic John Wayne film The Hunters."

Michener was an old guy and I don't blame him for misremembering the name of the film (The Searchers) but where was the editor on this one? Come on, yo.


Three guess where Michener comes down on this one!

Given the life-saving impact art (particularly art free to the public) had on the author, it's not surprising to see Michener attacking those who want to totally de-fund the arts. Many of his ideas are aimed at appeasing understandably aggrieved "middle-of-the-roaders," who don't deserve their public art to be crucifixes drenched in urine, etc. His list of recommendations at the end of this chapter seem wise to me, particularly the idea of funding groups and art organizations (and museums and arenas and theater orgs, which typically need the most start-up money) and not individuals. This makes the practice more about funding the arts and not just one person's idea of them/ political agenda.
He also points out the most sensible reason for any government or community to make money available for the arts: in addition to their ameliorative effect on hearts and minds, they make money.


Michener was writing this in the thick of the Clinton administration and New Gingrich's Contract for a New America. He more or less compares Gingrich to Hitler and all the GOP who flocked to his side as Nazis. That sort of thing has become par for the course in 2017, but Michener must have been really fired up in the 90s to make such charges. I was surprised at the vitriol until I got a little further into the chapter.

"I am personally affected and greatly agitated by one of the stated philosophies of the new regime. When its leader said repeatedly, during his battle to win votes for his party, that members of the other party could not be considered to be in the mainstream of American life and that liberals generally could not be trusted to behave like responsible Americans, and when he even questioned the patriotism of Democrats and liberals, his arrows of contempt struck me with ugly force. Was my Americanism truly in question? Was it possible I was little better than a communist? Was it right for him to read me out of the mainstream, and was my patriotism faulty? I went to war despite my age (36) and my religion (Quaker) qualifying for me for a deferment.

"Instead of the Speaker's questioning my patriotism, I think I have a great deal more right to question his: although of draft age, he evaded service in the armed forces. No, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and alter the word evaded to the possibly more gentle avoided; evaded carries a sense of his having taken specific steps to escape a duty, and he has explained several times that he was excused under the same legal exemptions that allowed so many other leading Republicans of our generation to remain at home. I accept his excuses. But the fact is I went to war and he didn't, and I get angry when he presumes to read me out of the mainstream of American life, as if he were the sole arbiter determining what behavior is acceptably American."

I love fired-up Michener! Elsewhere, though, he exhibits some of the blind spots that drive me crazy about the American left, such as his assertion that there's ample evidence that the GOP's historical anti-public-radio bias is because of public radio's bias against conservatives. This is true. Also true? Public radio's historical bias against conservatives. It's kicked into high gear over the past 10 or 15 years, so more now than in Michener's day, but still. (Also also true? The funding for public radio is a drop in the goddamn bucket and a ridiculous hill to die on for fiscally-minded conservatives. My two cents again.)

Anyway, this does not alter one jot the basic thrust of his argument, which is that moralists in government should not set themselves as the moral arbiters of the nation. Historically has this ever worked? Good for remote religions extending into modern times; terrible for actual governments. I was disappointed he did not extend this position - which I very much agree with - to the Social Justice Warriors running over the media-academe today, but they were not quite the visible blight on the landscape in the 90s that they are today: 

"Do we really want to invite these reactionaries to dictate what the moral values of society should be? If we do (sooner or later) moderate men like me are outlawed, too."

I know who I thought of when I read that in 2017, and it wasn't (just) Newt Gingrich.    


In the last chapter Michener rings the It's Later Than You Think bell pretty hard. And not without reason. I felt humbled, actually, that the man took the time at the end of his life to write this - which is kind of funny, as I bet anyone over a certain age would take the time to tell you all of this and more if given half the opportunity, or even proximity at a bus stop or in the checkout line. What I mean is a man like James Michener did so. He took being an American artist - and both of those things individually - quite sincerely.

His takeaway: marshaling our resources intelligently and course-correcting while we still can, we could still be a leading nation through 2050, but like all great nations our decline is inevitable. But if we follow his plan (not that he says this, I'm just paraphrasing) we have at least as good a chance of settling into the next phase of all once-mighty civilizations with our morals, borders, wealth, resources, and government still in admirable shape. "Clear sailing - albeit through increasingly roiled waters - through 2050, then the beginning of twilight."

I couldn't help thinking of this funeral scene from The Fall of the Roman Empire while reading this chapter. Not just the allusion but what it might have meant for a man of Michener's century-spanning perspective to be looking around at the reality of life in the 1990s and back over his shoulder at all of the above. Like the Romans in that scene, Michener heard in the distance both the ghastly call of his own demise and a very real lament for an America gone forever. 

Whatever may come, the past dies - again and again - so the future can breathe. May we all face our collective mortality as respectfully and thoughtfully as Michener does in This Noble Land.


  1. (1) If I were an octogenarian, I'd probably append that adjective to everything I could.

    (2) "Here it probably does matter; you know you're not just going to get a lot of Harry Potter references." -- Just you wait until we start getting career retrospectives celebrating such-and-such's 25th anniversary of launching their Twitter account or YouTube channel. Fucking retrospectives of the career of, like, the Nostalgic Critic or whatever. Ugh.

    (3) "I have often thought back on that simpler time and concluded that it is better for a child to have some strong moral and social beliefs rather than none at all, even though his indoctrination may have been chauvinistic, muddled, or even erroneous. Later he can correct error, but if he has allegiance to nothing he has nothing to work on in his later re-education." -- Damn. Well said, Mr. Michener.

    (4) "klaxons for everything else" -- If he could somehow be resurrected for a year or two to study the current climate and give us an assessment, wouldn't that be a heck of a thing? I don't think he'd find much to be positive about.

    (5) The very idea of "woke" aggravates me. Not because I don't think it's important to be aware of the world around you, but because it's a torturing of the English language. You're so aware of things that you have to use a verb as an adjective? Fuck that.

    (6) "decent middle-class whites will harden their hearts" -- I come from one of those, so I know without a twinge of doubt that they/we exist. And, by the way, those are the people who elected Trump. Even he is preferable in their eyes to "liberal judges," "the liberal media," etc.

    (7) The documentary "OJ: Made In America" makes a persuasive case that at least some black jurors do indeed make decisions based on a righting-the-balance type of thinking. I don't doubt it for a bit. My personal feeling is that it's less a "black" thing than it is a minority-of-any-sort thing. And maybe not even that; I think there's a certain degree of us-versus-them always on the loose, and even if you try and keep your head above those waters, you're inadvertently choosing a side.

    1. (8) "Still, compared to what every other 80 year old was telling me in 1996, Michener sounds like a combination of Einstein and Michelle Obama." -- I suspect that would remain if you compared him to the octogenarians of today, too. Maybe those of twenty years from now, and forty, and sixty, too.

      (9) "Any careful observer of America's health care system is perplexed as to why such an admirable collection of health experts, supported by one of the richest nations on earth, cannot provide all of its citizens with an insurance system they can afford and with medical care through something like Medicare." -- There is only one conclusion to draw: we, as a people, do not want it. End of story. We SHOULD want it; but, perhaps because we believe in our hearts that we all deserve to suffer, we do not.

      (10) I wonder if that gaffe with "The Searchers" -- which, for the record, is one of THE great movies -- had to do with Jeffrey Hunter being the co-star? But yes, the editor on that one better have been sent to a gulag.

      (11) "He more or less compares Gingrich to Hitler and all the GOP who flocked to his side as Nazis. That sort of thing has become par for the course in 2017, but Michener must have been really fired up in the 90s to make such charges." -- Again, I feel a pang of wonder to consider what Michener might make of the current climate. It's arguably not that different; but it seems to me to be so, so worse (in a logical-progression sense, but still). Shit, at least Gingrich is still somewhat marginalized. We're probably lucky he isn't Vice President with fucking Alex Jones as Secretary of State.

      (12) "Public radio's historical bias against conservatives." -- Why does this exist? I hear a thing like that and immediately assume it to be less an agenda-related thing than a people-who-gravitate-toward-radio-tend-to-be-liberals thing. Same for creatives of any type. Doesn't mean there aren't conservatives with those leanings; just that those impulses are more natural in those with liberal leanings. That's my theory, at least.

      (13) "He took being an American artist - and both of those things individually - quite sincerely." -- You've got to wonder what sort of cumulative impact his career had on the country (and, likely to a lesser extent, the world). Such a thing can't be quantified, but it also should NEVER be underestimated. Michener fought the good fight in the way he best knew how; he did it with vigor and he did it for a long, long time. That dude was, and is, a fucking hero.

    2. (2) I hadn't thought about that! That'll be kind of funny, sort of "Okay, last call" situation when that stuff starts coming round. "Everybody out of the pool."

      (4) Resurrecting Robot Michener: A Tragedy! "They should have left well enough alone, but they had to know... the secret of the historian from beyond the grave..." I'd watch it.

      (7) Oh without a doubt. Here in Chicago all the time, but everywhere. And in all directions of course, I don't mean to suggest this is only a black jury/defendant problem. But that it IS a problem is unquestionable. There's a very instructive case study in David Simon's HOMICIDE book - although everything in that book is instructive, so I'm being redundant.

      (9) Don't get me started! Actually I'm unsure of what I can or cannot say on social media about anything related to my job, which would involve some of my comments. Every training we have there is the proverbial "guy who got fired for blabbing on facebook of something he thought was okay to say." Usually involving some Personal Health Info but it can extend to any aspect of job performed. So, I'll just leave it! Michener's right, tho.

    3. (11) ZOMBIE MICHENER 2: BALLISTIC! ECKS VS. ALEX JONES. "This time he brought a friend, and it's NO conspiracy..." Okay this is the terrible straight to video sequel that I might not see for several years, but I'm happy it's out there. (produced by Troma of course)

      (12) But that's the same thing! i.e. if your medium reflects the bias of the people who work in it, it's inevitable to some degree - acceptable at 60s Marvel as one of many examples - but when the people in it are happy to manipulate media to pursue their agenda, in collusion with other mediums and coordinated with one political party and its donors, then it ceases becoming public radio, doesn't it? And it's just an extension of one party's message.

      I've seen people say okay well it needs to combat the same on the right. And to that I can only say this is an arms race where no one wins. I've seen the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NPR, the Ivy League, and so much more lower their standards to combat Fox News (as that thinking goes), and this of course leaves out lower levels of hell like Vox and Occupy Whomever and what not, and their right-wing or InfoWars counterparts, and at this rate I wonder who will be left.

      But, if I'm driven back to just the comics, sports, and weather of all news, my 10 year old self will be happy to tell me he told me so, I'm sure. Keep 10 Year Old McMolo Happy in 2017: A Slogan for the Summer.

      (13) So say we all!

    4. (7) I need to read that. And watch the series.

      (9) Likely a wise decision.

      (12) There is certainly a line that ought not be crossed. Unethical behavior knows no party affiliation.