Apr/May 2004 Salon

My Fellow Americans

by Stanley Jenkins

I used to think that the greatest irony of America was that freedom has brought so little pleasure (it takes a Puritan to take on a Puritan). At the dawn of the new millennium, we are a restless people. To linger. To touch and to know that you have been felt. Brittany Spears notwithstanding. We are hesitant because life is so refracted.

These days, however, I think that the greatest irony lies in the fact that having become the world's sole superpower, so many Americans seem to feel powerless.

We got the Religious Right with their Christian Jihad to take back the culture after having been victimized by the Truth of Time. And now we got Air America, with Al Franken and the Majority Report and the lately discovered license to be... well... fucking pissed, and so certain, being on the left, of having been made the rube when we were supposed to have been the smart ones—and this time I just won't stand for it—I am a patriot, dammit.

We are engaged in a war of most set-upon. We are locked in a great struggle to see who has been most betrayed.

And I think that this means that the soul of America is sick. And I think it means that the soul of America is learning how to stay alive without maps. Real life is never pretty.

My fellow Americans. We have been given the burden of certain ideals. We can run. We can hide. But come the midnight hour, we just gotta—I mean, just gotta—can I get a witness?—well... admit it.

And come the midnight hour... well... I mean, we gotta—I mean just gotta—can I get a witness?—admit that on the one hand, these are uncharted waters—and on the other, someone's gotta chart a course—and no one these days seems to be stepping up with a chart that makes any sense, or at the very least, one that we could sign off on with the faith of one who understands that he must follow in the absence of being able to lead.

Somewhere in Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell" is a line about being willing to throw ourselves at any god willing to have us.

What strikes me about America at the the dawn of the new millennium is that we seem to have withstood the temptation to give into the first lie that came along, but we are most grievously aware of being in need of a lie. A model. A plan. A myth (In the vacuum, Mr. Gibson's movie rushes in, but his myth isn't big enough (Hollywood Jesus, forgive me)--it seeks only to speak for those who have felt betrayed but do not yet have something to replace the betrayal). America needs a new myth. A myth that remains faithful to the myths that have guided us and nurtured us to the point where we can even face this decision. We need a myth. We need a way of revealing what needs to be true but can never be said directly.

And we are good at it. This is something I think I know to tell you. Americans are good at myth-making. We've had to have been. Because we destroyed so many myths on our way to survival (God bless you Henry David Thoreau! Charlie Chaplin! And Elvis! And Bob Dylan too!). It was a matter of self-preservation. We are the people of the dirty hands. We have—with our own hands—delivered our brothers and sisters into bondage (do not be so quick to believe the lie of the secular eternal present; as one American has taught us, the past isn't even past... it's too late, Dr. King already has had his say). And at the same time we are the people who have lived, in our own every backache from faulty mattresses, the revealed truth that things can be better than they are today. World without end. Drugs for the rich. And life beyond life—if you can afford it.

And we are the people who have contracted—covenanted (pardon my Protestantism) to extend that right to the poorest of the poor. Or at least, in this most pragmatic of nations—extend it to the ones who want to be saved, want to be integrated, reconciled, given a part to play in the greater plan.

And we still believe, at the end of the day, that this is the last, best, hope for humanity. Yes sir, still believe.

My fellow Americans. We need a new myth—one rooted in the old. And I, who am nothing but a man, who at a young age, felt the call of the wild, felt the truth of the clarion call to go west, young man (though I went east)—a young man who has accepted, though not without struggles, his obligation to keep looking beyond his own comfort for the value in all of this seeking—and I—who as one who is no longer merely a young man, have a vested interest in the proceedings, a vested interest in the future—I call upon my fellow Americans to place themselves in the service of a greater ideal—and just—can I get a witness?—find a new myth.

Yes. There is so much energy. And so much hunger. Let us not be confused about our task by the history of our cause's failure. Failure is part of the deal. Let us set our compass upon what we know and what we insist upon being true in our very not-being Europe or Asia—or Fundamentalist Islamic Iran.

America, it is time to create new myths. It is time to reach.


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