Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Twilight of the Idols

There are two key jokes to this post. The first comes from an old political cartoon. A very old political cartoon. When George Washington was running for president, someone published a cartoon of Washington on a donkey being rope-lead by an aid towards D.C. The caption read "leading an ass to Washington." It passed for satire in the seventeen-hundreds.

The second joke comes from the sixties, as all fairy tales do. The gag was, during the Kennedy administration, to refer to Massachusetts as Machusetts. Why? Because the ass was in Washington. It's not a very good joke, but I sometimes refer to "Machusetts" in passing to test peoples' credulity and to see if there's anyone around these days from the sixties.

Why are those two lousy jokes key? It's like this:

I was at KGB bar last night, a retro-communist nostalgia establishment (no senator, I am not now, nor have I ever been...), and sipping Brooklyn lager with a life-size bust of Lenin (V.I) starring me down, those two jokes elbowed out some space in my mind and called my attention to something. Washington and Kennedy are probably the two most worshiped figures in American history. You could make an argument for Lincoln, MLK, or Roosevelt; or maybe you'd take an athlete or artist- a DiMaggio, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan. I don't know. But certainly Washington and Kennedy are way, way up there. These men have inspired histories, monuments, political movements; we have raised them up as shining examples of our finest traditions and values (despite some minor indiscretions- which we also lionize) and yet these men are not above a little sarcastic quip. That's kind of an impressive thing. I can't imagine V.I. suffered any mischievous raillery at his expense.

I think that our curious nation may be unique in its capacity to subject even its most cherished heroes to the wrath of public opinion (not to mention rule of law). I saw the Lives of Others last week- a political thriller about the control of speech in socialist East Berlin- and I was amazed at the lengths to which the statsi would go to deny a simple freedom that we Americans enjoy almost to excess: the right to criticize our leaders. Really very impressive.

Perhaps America, in its relative youth, has simply never encountered the idea that is so great that it must be upheld, yet so fragile that it must be protected- like socialism was purported to be. Maybe we have just been very lucky in our brief two-hundred-some-year history, and we have never confronted the problems like over-population in China, or famine in India, or furious religious war in the Middle East, and so our political freedoms have come relatively cheap. I generally sympathize with this argument- especially when righteous Americans go around telling cultures much older than ours how they need to shape up.

But that argument aside, I find it pretty swell that for all the modern interest in celebrity idols, our values and practices preclude the idolization of anything that could potentially threaten those values. Or to put it another way: in America, you can call anyone an ass.


Jason said...

your comment on our political freedoms having been bought cheaply seems to forget a few key periods of time that were book-ended by a couple of those "other" leaders you mentioned...namely lincoln(civil war/slavery) and MLK(civil rights)

yes we might have always had the ability of free speech (except during times of war, you can ask mr eugene v debs about that), but i think it is ignorant to disregard the long, continuing struggle for equality in this country

BrooklynDissentator said...

This is one of the problems with blogs. It's not an academic journal. It's not a classroom. It's a message board to post short pieces for the purposes of entertainment and information. It's not a forum that lends itself well to careful, level-headed debate. So things get misinterpreted.

I've heard of the civil rights movement, Jason. And I know about the struggle for equality in this country. And I'm sure that if we sat down and talked about it, I'd make myself clearer on the point you contended, and you wouldn't feel the need to call me ignorant.

But failing, that, I'll try to explain here. My point in saying that our political freedoms have come relatively cheap is that they haven't been tested with either a long history or the array of problems with which other nations' systems have been tested. Yes, we have had our problems, and free speech has prevailed. But I don't take it as obviously true that free speech and American-style democracy is bar-none the best style of government for all nationas in all times. We haven't had the experiences of China or Europe, or anyone. We have lived very prosperously for a little over two hundred years, blessed with good production climate and rich natural resources (and very cheap labor for the first hundred years). I think it's just possible that we've had it better than most nations, and as a result, we haven't had to sacrifice as much as others for our political freedoms.

That's all. I didn't mean to belittle Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement, or the civil war, or anything else Americans have struggled for.

And furthermore, I'm not even strongly committed to this point. I'd really rather just raise it as a possibility. I don't know if America has suffered more than other nations. But I think people generally assume that since democracy works for us, it should work for everyone else. I'd just like to point out that other people have had different experiences from ours, and maybe, just maybe, their lot has been a little harder.

That's not so unreasonable, is it?

Andy D said...

I think some of your points about hardships other nations have had to endure are valid. I do believe our system of government is the best there is out there. I won’t say it is the best that ever will be. I hope that we can improve on it, and make it even better. But as I survey the international landscape, I truly believe ours is the best political system that is still working.

BrooklynDissentator said...

Thanks for your comments Andy. I hope we can improve too.

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