Calhoun’s Cannons, The Bay News, Tolosa Press, SLO, CA for September 26, 08
American Bedtime Stories
There’s a new TV series barnstorming the country. It’s “The Mavericks,” starring John McCain and Sarah Palin as two rock em, sock ’em reformers ridin’ to Washington to clean out that nest of pork-swilling varmints. Never mind that one star was an ear-marked pork swiller herself, while the other was part and parcel of all the Washington de-regulators who helped bring about our present financial mess. Nope, this is a new series of repackaged stars calling out to the American Myth, our deep nostalgia for a world that never was.
As Joe Klein writes in his Sept 23 Time essay, Palin is from a state – Alaska – “that represents the last, lingering hint of that most basic Huckleberry Finn fantasy – lighting out for the territories.” And in her acceptance speech she spoke of good people in her small town, “ . . . the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars.” Except, Klein notes, “ . . . that’s not really true. We haven’t been a nation of small towns for nearly a century. It is the suburbanites and city dwellers who do the fighting and hourly wage work now, and the corporations who grow our food. But Palin’s embrace of small town values is where her hold on the national imagination begins. She embodies the most basic American myth – Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the fantasia of rural righteousness – updated in a crucial way: now Mom works too.”
And so we have this political season’s newest stars – The Mavericks, campaigning on the great American Myth: Davy Crockett with lipstick, Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Jackson Go To Washington, “jes’ plain folks” ready to tromp through the White House, muddy boots, dead moose and all.
Along with another thread running through this election season that reappeared in a recent letter to the Tribune that noted with alarm that liberal Democrats had “pushed through the nomination of an intellectual elitist to head their party’s presidential ticket . . .” That too hews to the faux populist American Myth that anybody can (and should!) become President, a job that is something you or your neighbor could easily do. After all, we Americans don’t cotton to “intellectual elitists,” forgetting, of course, that this country was founded by French-looking, superbly educated, extremely intellectual elitists -- Guys who wore lace at their throats, not dead fur on their heads.
Both these myths – the Yeoman Farmer and the Common Man, with his distain for pointy headed intellectuals – are powerful stories that help illustrate and sustain the American Dream that we’re all equal and we can all reach the top. Reality, of course, is often very different, but that is of little account since Myths are intended to be lodestars, not operating manuals.
But myths can also be blinders. There are no territories left for Huck Finn to run to. Maw & Paw Kettle have sold the farm to an agribusiness conglomerate and moved to a condo in Florida. Davy Crockett settled into suburbia and watched his job get outsourced to India. And the whites-only, homogenized America of “Leave it To Beaver” has become a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation of Gen X,Y & Z’s who don’t think that letting gay people get married constitutes a national crisis. As Klein aptly observes, we now live in “. . . an America not yet mythologized, a country that is struggling to be born – a multi-racial country whose greatest cultural and economic strength is its diversity. It is the country where our children already live and that our parents will never really know, a country with a much greater potential for justice and creativity – and perhaps even prosperity – than the sepia tinted version of Main Street America.”
Which makes this particular election so interesting since the voters are faced with a transformational choice-- The Old Order with its old myths or A New Order creating our new myths.
Choose the wrong myth and America will likely get sidelined for 8 more years –stuck in sepia-toned nostalgia. In normal times, that choice might not be so fateful. But these are not normal times. A complicated 21st century world is rapidly on the move and will not wait around for American Nostalgia to play itself out. There simply isn’t enough time for that sort of self-comforting delusion.