James Christie: US Trip
Don McLean was right, the party’s over and the prom is past, but America is in denial.
I’m sitting in a café just opposite the convention center in Austin, Texas, where Wizard World’s comic-con has just taken place.
It’s a good day, if cold (I seem to have brought the Scottish weather with me), but after a longish walk into town a sober comprehension of American society is coming clearer to my mind.
There are two Americas and more: the frontier territory of the past, now mythologized, and the settled nation of the present day.
And within that great present day republic there are many States: Republican America and Democrat America. Rich America with its Way and Dream, and poor America with its ghetto but without care, medical or otherwise. Then there’s mannerly and courteous America by day, but don’t go out at night.
The one nation, indivisible, seems in fact to have multiple personalities and even some schizophrenia. The id, ego and superego locked in conflict without moderation, leading to deadlock, shutdown and potential default.
It’s almost as if the United States (a young country, as I mentioned in my previous article) is actually a bit of an unruly adolescent. A typical teenage timebomb not knowing who he or she is, heading off in six different directions simultaneously and occasionally exploding in meltdown.
But this is a “child” of 313 million wildly divergent people whose fingers are on more nuclear buttons and levers of power than I’d like to think about.
Not as volatile as the Middle East, but maybe not so far from it as we’d like to think.
And perhaps, just perhaps, it all comes down to one day in Dealey Plaza, some fifty years ago.
The past is another country and they did things differently there. In 1963, America was already a global power but cowboys who had driven cattle from the Texas Panhandle to Montana in the 1890s were still living and so was the last Plains Indian war chief. A certain “frontier mentality”, let us say, still held sway. A love of the gun, dislike for big government but patriotism of an intensity Britain has long since lost, coupled with the belief (in some quarters) that the people should be ready to fight at a moment’s notice for the freedom of their great republic, just as they did in George Washington’s day.
Then Oswald shot Kennedy, which should have been the ultimate wake-up call, proving that the law of the gun was dangerously outdated and that (unlike a leopard) the settled nation needed to change its spots.
But it didn’t happen.
One facet of the American identity is the straight-talking and admittedly straight-shooting frontiersman. The pioneers who had, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, “strength, courage, energy, and undaunted and unwavering resolution.”
Like all these things, it is in part myth, but whatever echo of it there was in reality profoundly failed to come up to the mark that November day in Dallas.
Instead of taking it on the chin and facing squarely up to the fact that some nut called Oswald killed a guy called Kennedy, it seems as if the States shattered into a million shaky conspiracy theories, each one crazier than its predecessor, and became victim of its own collective denial.
One lone gunman couldn’t have killed the president just like that. It couldn’t be! There had to have been a conspiracy.
But there wasn’t and he did. As the sordid case of Clinton and Lewinsky showed years later, the White House spooks couldn’t even cover up misbehaviour with a cigar, let alone seamlessly plan and carry out the public execution of a head of state in total secrecy.
Cross-connect that to a growing geek culture of sci-fi fandom centred on fictional superheroes able to save America itself (afraid of muggers at night? Batman’ll get them!; afraid of terrorists/natural disasters/alien invasions? Superman’ll stop ’em!) and it feels like the no-nonsense common sense and “can-do” attitude which for good or bad founded America seems to have taken a permanent vacation.
Supes and Bats caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
What’s the only solution to wilful denial?
A dose of hard common sense!
• Some nut called Oswald killed a guy called Kennedy. Deal with it.
• There is no frontier any more. You have to fix your settled land.
• Sorry to say this (I love comics-conventions and Buffy), but superheroes do not exist.
Ironically, the only solution might indeed seem to be to return to those straight-shooting frontier values, but they are wedded irredeemably to the gun.
A better analogy might be this.
If America really is at that “stroppy adolescent” phase, perhaps it is time for the great republic to reach, not for a fantasy frontier, but towards a real maturity.
James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.
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