Monday, May 04, 2009

End of the American Façade

Most of us have been disappointed with some essentials of American culture, mostly because they were never any deeper, any more solid than a Hollywood set, since at least 1968. This is one of those moments in which such myths can be recreated or be superseded -- and this little essay aims to aid the latter.

Let's look at the year 1968 for a moment. That is the time when, to hear candidate Barack Obama tell it last year, one group of Boomers pit itself against another in a hatred that has lasted a generation.

The year 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive, when the fortress myth of American invincibility was first breached in the war that would deal the nation its first defeat. That was the year Martin Luther King, Jr., and the notion of successful nonviolent change suffered a deadly blow. That was the year the last great white hope, Robert F. Kennedy, perished -- he was consumed, I still think, by the self-destructive forces of the power of money from which, ironically, he sprang.

The news media told us of students in Paris accused of instigating a deep crisis and later of peers in Prague hailed, from the West, as heroes -- yet all of them (us, it was my generation) were in the same dionysian revolt against our apollonian elders. And what did we achieve?

The cult of youth, too, turned out to be a false god, especially evident now that we are no longer young. The only surefire result of the Democratic Convention riots was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 -- if only it could have been foreseen and prevented!

But it couldn't. At heart we Americans are much too fond of our essential self-delusion that we can overcome everything and anything.

Everything about an American and the degree of his or her success is fake. Fake it 'till you make it, runs what seems to be the quintessential American nursery rhyme. We spend lifetimes telling one another that "everything is great."

Happiness is a constitutional right, we believe (and no, it's not there). And it is a duty. If you are sick or you are poor, it's your damned fault.

Yet none of it is true. Indeed, not only is America the land of the false optimism, it's also the land of the scam.

Go back to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and even to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Our Protestant, Calvinist, capitalist ethos and its anxiety inspiring lies are writ large in our literature and culture.

Yet at times such as these, when the wages of our collective prevarication come due, we have the remarkable opportunity to tell ourselves the truth: perhaps we have just muddled through with a bit of luck and perhaps we could recognize that not all that glitters is gold. Or is that too Catholic, medieval and fatalistically feudal?
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