Back in college, one of my professors gave me an idea I’ve never forgotten. He spoke of myths that shape and inspire our national consciousness, and how they always relate to a past that is not only gone but may not even have happened. It must have been back in the 70’s, because he referenced the gun-in-the-rack, survivalist twist on the rugged individualism that Bonanza brought into our living rooms once a week.
I’ve been thinking of myths of politics lately for one simple reason. In following the current debate in Washington on the debt ceiling, I’ve come to a conclusion I have never reached before, through good times or bad – until now. Quite simply, I think we are fucked.
Perhaps not over this particular crisis, for I don’t think any politician who wants to get re-elected – all of them, in other words – wants to get stuck with the blame for a national default. But I think this “debate” reveals how utterly disfunctional our system has become. Handwringing over the gummint has probably always been a national pastime – I finally believe it is justified. Still, I prefer laughter and even creative thinking to handwringing, so I have been mulling over what myths I believed about about our leaders in the past, and what might be a better fit now.
Back in the days when my favorite TV show was “Leave it to Beaver,” I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with my parents: a rugged individualist from Montana takes on the system, and proves that right and integrity still can prevail.
Soon after I saw Mr. Smith, for a few brief years, we had Kennedy’s Camelot: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Fast forward six years and there was Kent State and with Crosby, Stills, and Nash singing, “Soldiers are gunning us down.” It’s been a roller coaster ride since then with ups and downs, times of malaise and times of letting the good times roll, but all along, at least for me, there was the faith that we can make things better. Our system may be flawed but it works. There was always someone to believe in, someone like Senator Robert Byrd, a real-life Jimmie Stewart who carried a copy of the Constitution in his pocket.
Senator Byrd is gone now, and so is my faith that we can right ourselves in time to avoid driving off a cliff. What kind of myth fits that? I’ve been mulling it over for several weeks, and it came to me yesterday, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. They aired my favorite Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers, and there it was: my latest take on the current state of our government:
Do you think there’s a kinder way to depict our current crop of elected “servants?” If so, please let me know!