Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An American Myth

I've been told by folks of a certain generation that I don't know what it was like to be raised to believe America was the greatest country in history, that it never did anything wrong, that it was the hero in all things, and that it was superior to any country that ever was or ever will be. That's true. I certainly wasn't raised to believe that about America when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. But I wonder. I'm told all of America in the 50s and 60s was about pushing people to conform to this button-down society. That's why the whole youth rebellion happened. Yet I can't help but look at the books, the movies, even some of the television of the period and notice something entirely different. Oh, there was Ozzie and Harriet, or Father Knows Best. But there was the Twilight Zone, the comedy shows, the movies like Giant or From Here to Eternity, books like To Kill a Mockingbird - all of which were anything but blind devotion to the American Gospel. And they were all popular. If there was an attempt to conform Americans to one way of thinking, apparently there was plenty out there giving a different viewpoint that Americans gobbled up with a spoon.

I thought of this recently because someone hit me with the 'Americans don't know about the bad in our history' spiel, going on to say he was never taught these things when he was in school. Problem is, he appeared to be younger than me. Yet I remember learning all about slavery in elementary school, about how we cheated the American Indians, and the questionable tactics in American expansion. That was in the 1970s. So did I just live in some fluke corner of America? Did it just start the year before I entered school? The more I look at what people were reading and watching, and about how much I heard about America's sins; the more I wonder just how true this 'Americans didn't know anything bad about America, and everything tried to make them conform to button down American values' narrative really is.

Especially when I think of a forum I attended as a minister when an Episcopal priest stood up and said the same thing: "Americans don't know about our history, what America has done wrong. We need to admit to America's sins!" I thought then, what sins are we missing? This is today. The 21st century. All I hear about is the bad that America has done and is doing. And it dawned on me, is it possible that this is but a myth, a myth like 'the good old days' is always said to be? A myth that never was, and still isn't, but no matter how much negative is out there, no matter how much negative is emphasized, folks who believe that myth simply dismiss it and assure us that Americans have yet to fess up and admit to our sins?

As a Catholic, I've discovered that confession is good for the soul. But I also know that, while it's good to get an individual to admit his sins, it's also bad if he doesn't stop. If, upon admitting his sins, he plunges into the other extreme of rejecting forgiveness, or ignoring the good in their lives, it can be just as dangerous. I often wonder if America hasn't gone from one extreme that may never have been, to another extreme that is all too real.

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