Is America Out of Gas?

Is American Exceptionalism "the old whiskey bottle we pull off the shelf when we're feeling down?"

There is a widely perceived "hiccup" in the American story today. While we once saw ourselves as "exceptional," is America now out of gas?

This is the question Tom Ashbrook raised to a panel at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, Massachusetts. Ashbrook tapped the perspectives of Lisa New, Chris Matthews and David Gergen on American literature, history and political culture. After all, is the notion that we "look back in awe, look forward in gloom" (as the economist Matt Ridley put it) a defining feature of the American psyche? 

"Americans have always loved doom," said Lisa New, professor of English at Harvard University. "Doom is inspiring." While Americans have always taken deep pride in the idea that ours is a self-created country, New says that Americans have also "derived part of their identity from the sense that their specialness was in peril." In fact, it's hard to find a work of American literature that doesn't involve the question of our specialness played out.

Henry James's, Portrait of a Lady, for instance, involves a character who believes she can have "an original relation to the Universe," as Emerson put it. And yet, despite her earnest belief in her liberty, "her can-do spirit," New explains that we watch her make fatally bad choices. 

In other words, freedom doesn't necessarily make you happy. This condition is no different to what many Americans are feeling today. People are bereft and uncertain. And so is this notion of American Exceptionalism "the old whiskey bottle we pull off the shelf when we're feeling down?" 

According to NBC's Chris Matthews, the danger of seeing ourselves as special is the notion that we have to be "the world's policeman, saving the day all the time." David Gergen, who has advised five U.S. Presidents, agrees. Exceptionalism, as it was understood by American pioneers and European observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, meant the country was "different, not better." Americans had certain historic differences, such as a lack of a feudalism structure. Instead, it was  the individual that mattered, or "the need to be self-reliant."

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Images courtesy of ShutterstockMeghan Brosnan

To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit

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It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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