9.02.2009

The Tree of Liberty

I'm starting to think American culture is off the tracks. Two epigraphs (can epigraphs follow an opening statement?) -- read them closely. Don't skim:
1. What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world... The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. --This is an American.
2. Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper-consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath. Until such time as it will have to hear. The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he's got to do it secretly.
The first is from letter III of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The second is an excerpt from D.H. Lawrence's book, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).

Here's my position: a significant number of the people who voted for Obama (including me) were hoping for a destructive kind of "change." We saw clearly that America had been "conserving" a system that was not worth conserving for too long. But President Obama has done little to remedy the situation. His administration has been fundamentally conservative in many ways. His maintenance of the war in Iraq, the already-existing structure of the banking and auto-industries, his adding-to, rather than starting over, in the arena of healthcare -- all of these are decidedly Toryish maneuvers.

Think of it this way: when you wake up in 5th grade and realize your parents have been dressing you in their own image, you don't want the kind of change that means putting dimes in your penny-loafers instead of pennies, and trading in plaid oxford-cloth for argyle cashmere. You want Kurt fuckin' Cobain.

See I didn't grow up in a household where... I ever heard (of) NPR. Not to brag, but, the guys I hung out with in high school didn't know what letter (R or D) preceded the current administration, but they'd have been as comfortable telling Bill Clinton to shove off as any republican.

So upon arriving in graduate school in 2001, I was very pleased to find that I was in the company of other people who were willing to question the fundamental structures of the American government--or so I thought. In reality they only targeted Bush, not the government in general. Upon electing Obama, the resistance-impulse seems to have vanished... it's just what I was afraid of. All of the bullshit, piled up for generations, all of the handouts, earmarks, lobbyists, it's just a steaming mountain -- but it's all okay 'cause our guy is in charge of it.

Obviously, this is an unsophisticated analysis, far more emotional than rational. But it's a sentiment that I've been meaning to express for a while.

But is this culture-of-complacency a problem? Actually, I'm not sure. Maybe it's time for America to simply mature into a middle-aged empire and rest on its laurels for a thousand years until it collapses from exhaustion. I'm honestly not confident that a bloody revolution would solve anything or improve anyone's conditions... but I wonder how perfectly confident any revolutionaries are? Everybody's heard the famous admonition from Jefferson:
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ... And what country can preserve its liberties, if it's rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
Anyway... is it time for something like that? Or is that, as MSNBC would have it, a cold and frightening thought?

Are we collectively convinced that we're just three or four legislative measures away from ushering in a new golden era? Or is it time for a new defense of Liberty? Is it time to destroy for the sake of the New, or are the voices of Crèvecœur and Lawrence like passionate love-letters written by an 8th grade, discovered years later when the formerly-passionate 8th grader has moved on, found a new girl, married, had children, and found a steady job?

2 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I read an article over at the LA Times with a similar theme last week in regards to Obama's softening stance toward health care. My response to that article went like this:

I agree with the sentiment, but think that it might be a bit displaced. I don't think he has "abandoned the dream." I'm pretty sure it isn't a wavering regard or lack of commitment that is preventing him from fighting for universal healthcare. Don't get me wrong, I hope he is able to encourage congress to push it through, but the power to do so is dispersed throughout the 535 members of Congress (not to mention the 300 million or so people in America). The very fact that we are seeing reasonable articles in favor of "red" medicine in the NYT suggests that we are likely reaching a public tipping point. I hope.

The complexity theorist / rhetorical pragmatist in me suggests that we cannot expect one rock (however large) to completely alter the course of the river--it requires the effort of the whole ecosystem (and time, lots and lots of time).

At the same time, I think you are right regarding academic's general complacency. We do need to remain vocal, and to remind the present administration (and its antagonists) that we voted for Kobain.

Casey said...

But one rock did alter the river in 1776 and in 1793 (in France) and in 1848 all over Europe. My point is just that it didn't take a legislative "movement" to effect very real change in this country in the 1960s... I was hoping the Obama administration would usher in an era of that kind of change.

"We're not gonna take it... "

I mean, you remember hair bands! C'mon, people! I'm still wearing tassels on my shoes in hopes of eventually getting tenure! How screwed up is a culture that leads to that kind of response?