Friday, January 08, 2010

The Danger of American Mythology

With the news that unemployment remains stagnant at 10% and that employers have cut more jobs than expected is a fresh blow to the American psyche. Based on what I have informally observed, the latest stats are a more-or-less accurate portrayal of what I see on the ground. I might even be compelled to believe that today's grim news is in fact a bit sugarcoated, particularly among those under the age of thirty-five. Friends of mine have undergone the ultimate of indignity and shame of moving back home, temporarily, they always conclude. Returning to the womb does not exactly do wonders for one's self-esteem, particularly when independence in the form of separate living arrangement are one of the metrics we consider essential to attaining that sometimes elusive construct denoted as "adulthood".

Jobs, jobs, jobs continues to be the story line that trumps all others, an issue unlikely to subside for a long while. Aside from the political repercussions that have been debated extensively for months and will continue to be debated as we get closer to November, I admit I'm more interested in trends often sparsely covered by the major outlets. We've seen the demise of certain industries and businesses that had been hanging on by a thread even in good times. We've noted the strain upon government agencies and the many socialized component pieces that variously make up a bulk of our infrastructure--those which depend heavily on tax revenue. What we have not really come to grips with as a people is how we best ought to respond to a period of reduced harvest over a protracted period of time. I have read many pieces that detail that which is wrong, but few which propose a resolute, firm course of action for the future. These may be unprecedented times, but it would be nice to see someone's grand unifying theory.

Alongside the latest doom-and-gloom headlines, the media tries its best to put a micro human interest aspect in play, but these sorts of character sketches at times resemble caricature sketches more than anything else. While I appreciate a desire to show the personal impact of any massive crisis like the one in which we are still mired, it has always seemed a bit cloying to highlight the The Typical Hispanic Immigrant Family™, The Typical Single Parent African-American Family™, The Typical Asian-American Family™, and The Typical White Working Class Family™. To be sure, the mainstream boys and girls tend to leave in-depth analysis to print magazines and NPR, but in a crisis this pervasive, one can't help but wish they'd incorporate some degree of truly thoughtful analysis. Instead we get two tiresome talking heads from opposite sides, each granted four minutes airtime each to devote to often-meaningless improvisational variations on a theme.

The noted historian C. Vann Woodward wrote,

In an illuminating book called People of Plenty, David Potter persuasively advances the thesis that the most distinguishing traits of national character have been fundamentally shaped by the abundance of the American living standard. He marshals evidence of the effect that plenty has had upon such decisive phases of life as the nursing and training of babies, opportunities for education and jobs, ages of marriage and childbearing. He shows how abundance has determined characteristic national attitudes between parents and children, husband and wife, superior and subordinate, between one class and another, and how it has molded our mass culture and consumer oriented society. American national character would indeed appear inconceivable without this unique experience of abundance.

A closely related corollary of the unique American experience of abundance is the equally unique American experience of success. During the Second World War, Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger made an interesting attempt to define the national character, which he brought to a close with the conclusion that the American character "is bottomed upon the profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond its power to accomplish." In this he gave expression to one of the great American legends, the legend of success and invincibility.

Woodward continues,

If the history of the United States is lacking in some of the elements of variety and contrast demanded of any good story, it is in part because of the very monotonous repetition of success. Almost every major collective effort, even those thwarted temporarily, succeeded in the end. American history is a success story. They have, until very recently, solved every major problem they have confronted--or had it solved for them by a smiling fortune.

While on the stump, Barack Obama skillfully appealed to this particular strain of American mythology as a means of direct emotional appeal. I do not believe that it was a tactic employed disingenuously, but at any rate it sought to advance the idea that our unique character was so high-minded and noble that, despite the struggle getting there, eventually we embrace social progress. With this assertion came a very American, very unflinching belief in our perceived superiority and our own perceived invincibility. But, following this line of logic, if we as a country can elect an African-American and seriously consider electing a woman as President, it would then stand to reason that the solution to revive a sick economy would be easily within our capabilities. One would believe that with abundance would come a corresponding abundance of proposals, each novel and credible in its own way. However, it should also be noted that casting a ballot and breaking a sweat are two entirely different matters, a notion not lost on Woodward. One would hope that when this country elects a female President that we don't inundate ourselves with self-congratulatory talk that the glass ceiling has finally been shattered forever. It has proven to be quite resilient to even the largest of cracks.

When the formerly Grand Old Party states its own interpretation of American success, it clothes its own mythology in terms of resolute military triumphs, battles won, enemies vanquished in heroic terms by complete unknowns and by generals who never lost a fight. America is a magical place where everything is possible, but only to those who embrace a struggle between God and Satan, Good and Evil, dark and light, impurity and purity. When the system fails, it writes apology after apology for the failures and corruption of capitalism, pointing to the inevitability of its eventual rebirth. It is as sure of its own infallibility and superiority just as surely as Marx was in thunderously concluding that the bourgeoisie would someday prove to be its own grave-diggers. If either were any help now, I'm sure we might be seriously considering them.

What we need, then, is to truly act as though we really are what our mythology triumphantly proclaims. Setting aside irony and cynicism for a moment, we have the power within our grasp to put into place a new American mythology, one that is comprised of more than just jingoistic platitudes or narcissistic back-patting. But what it will entail is effort and a willful desire to scrape off the rust, even when doing so is uncomfortable and puts us out of our comfort zones. Now more than ever, we ought to be the country the rest of the world thinks we are. Now more than ever we ought to live the notion that we really meant it when it was written that all are created equal, that we were a welcome respite and land of promise to our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and that our exceptionalism is not a club quick to bludgeon or a license for arrogance, but instead the source of healing and solution of a sort that is profoundly lacking today.

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