Friday, December 15, 2006

An American is...


The question jumps on me. It pulls at my lounge pants. I brush it away. It comes back, more persistent than ever. "Who? Who? Who?"

I tell it to go play with it's toys. "No! I want to know!"

Sigh. Who would've thought a stray thought could badger me like the Fine young Fool.

I actually blame Peggy Noonan for this one. Why? She meditates on Barak Obama:

The world is difficult now, unlike those days when America enjoyed "the near unanimity forged by the Cold War, and the Soviet threat." Near unanimity? This is rewriting the past in a way that suggests a deep innocence of history, or a slippery approach to the facts.

Sen. Obama spent his short lifetime breathing in the common liberal/leftist wisdom, which he exhales at length. This is not something new--it's something old in a new package. And it is something that wins you what he has, a series of 100% ratings from left-liberal interest groups.

He is, clearly, a warm-blooded political animal, an eager connector, a man of intelligence and a writer whose observations suggest the possibility of an independence of spirit. Also a certain unknowability. Which may account for some of his popularity.

But again, what does he believe? From reading his book, I would say he believes in his destiny. He believes in his charisma. He has the confidence of the anointed. He has faith in the magic of the man who meets his moment.

He also believes in the power of good nature, the need for compromise, and the possibility of comprehensive, multitiered, sensible solutions achieved through good-faith negotiations.

But mostly it seems to be about him, his sense of destiny, and his appreciation of his own particular gifts. Which leaves me thinking Oh dear, we have been here before. It's not as if we haven't already had a few of the destiny boys. It's not as if we don't have a few more in the wings.

But her catch is this:
our political history has been marked the past 10 years by lurches, reactions and swerves, and I wonder if historians will see the era that started in the mid-'90s as The Long Freakout. First the Clinton era left more than half the country appalled--deeply appalled, and ashamed--by its series of political, financial and personal scandals. I doubt the Democratic Party will ever fully understand the damage done in those days. In reaction the Republican Party lurched in its presidential decision toward a relatively untested (five years in the governor's office, before that very little) man whom party professionals chose, essentially, because "He can win" and the base endorsed because he seemed the opposite of Bill Clinton. The 2000 election was a national trauma, and I'm not sure Republicans fully understand what it did to half the Democrats in the country to think the election was stolen, or finagled, or arranged by unseen powers. Then 9/11. Now we have had six years of high drama and deep division, and again a new savior seems to beckon, one who is so clearly Not Bush.

We'll see what Sen. Obama has, what he is, what he becomes. But right now he seems part of a pattern of lurches and swerves--the man from nowhere, of whom little is known, who will bring us out of the mess. His sudden rise and wild popularity seem more symptom than solution. And I wonder if historians will call this chapter in their future histories of the modern era not "A Decision Is Made" but "The Freakout Continues."

We "lurch" because we've lost our vision of who we are. Are we the America we inherited from Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln? Are we the America of FDR and JFK? Are we the America of Eisenhower and Reagan? Are we an American amalgam of them all? Are we something new?

From what I see, we're factions that celebrate each of these parts as though they are--or ought to be--the whole. Or we're among the masses that simply soak in American Idol. Or we're the hard-working, family-living majority that simply try their best for their own.

Meanwhile, moments arrive that offer us the opportunity to more clearly identify our national identity. The Anchoress has found one of those moments:

Intentional snark aside, Hunter gives the film a very good review, even as he plays to those perpetual adolescents in his audience who would sneer at the cross-stitched-proverbs feel of this film, which is the real-life story of one Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith.

Writes Hunter:

The movie is about that moment in a man’s life when even that fragile grip on the American dream is sundered. It all goes away. […]

That’s what makes it all the more painful to watch: The proud man who’d dreamed for so much, humiliated not merely by his failure but by the fear and pain it inflicts on his son (played beautifully by Smith’s own son, Jaden), which he can see graven in the young face every day, knowing that to a young mind the lack of security is killing to heart and mind. There’s no doubt that Chris is filled with rage at the unfairness of it all, that he yearns to blame all his problems on the various larger contexts that all go unstated in the movie.

That may be what he wants to do, but here’s what he does: He shuts up and goes to work.

Wow. Those lines could have been written about George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” another film in which a man’s dreams are subjugated by circumstances and by his own maturity, which dictates that he put aside what he would love to do - repress himself, in modern parlance - for what he “must” or “should” do.

People tend to think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in warm, fuzzy terms - it has that eternal “good guy” James Stewart in it, after all - but really, Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is a study of a fully realized character, and George Bailey is no Dudley Do-Right. Recall his antsy disdain for Bedford Falls as he sits at the dinner table with his father, or the way he furiously kicks open Mary’s front gate when he reluctantly visits her, or the way he grabs her and shakes her saying, “you listen to me, I don’t want any of this…”

Recall that while he might have “saved” Clarence’s life, he didn’t like the pudgy angel very much, and he wasn’t above brawling or harassing a teacher unfairly, or traumatizing the family he loved.

George Bailey was no saint - he was simply a man in full, and that means that to some extent he hated his life as much as he loved it, but he did not fail it. That is part of the the Psalm of the Common Man - what all of us face in one measure or another. In “The Pursuit of Happyness” we see a contemporary George Bailey in Chris Gardner.

He’s no paragon of moral perfection (who could sit through something that suffocating?). Instead, we are aware always that he’s right on the edge of breaking down, that he has a mean temper, that he suppresses his “real” self in order to become a “business” self that all the white folks will like, employing that most loathed of all old-fashioned virtues, repression. In fact, he’s about as far from letting it all hang out as can be: His ethos is, let nothing hang out, and beat them at their own game. And he does that, whether the game is Rubik’s Cube or pushing money market funds.

Hunter’s review recognises that the virtues most commonly disdained by the movers and shakers of pop culture, values considered “conservative” by the sophisticates or “too white” by audiences of color, have worth and meaning. And he ends his review with a challenge to all of those readers who would purse their lips into a “all too cool, all too knowing” sneer. Anticipating them he writes:

You could say: It’s all a bunch of bull. After all, Chris Gardner was clearly an extremely gifted man with a need to succeed deep and pure. Maybe that’s true, and maybe in your case, it’s hopeless, because you lack those gifts. But there’s really only one way to tell, right? Get busy.

Good for Hunter. Good for Chris Gardner. Good for Will Smith for daring to make a picture espousing those values. Good for the nation, too, if people can manage to embrace the movie instead of letting it get buried in the usual blanket of partisan bickering, boycotting and bellicosity (if bellicosity is a word!).
Chris Gardner as George Bailey? As in, the George Bailey--the consumate incarnation of the twentieth-century American? The everyman that postpones his big dreams for the simple needs and duties of his life?

How long has it been since Americans embraced this icon?

Some of us never let him go. Others can't wait to bury him. Yet, here he is again.

An American is... and the question goes on. Unanswered.

But the asking escalates. And I'm not the only one that senses the urgency of the question.


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