vol. 5, #20,
TALES LIKE THESE
And you can't move mountains
With tales like these
I've been thinking about our myths lately. Holidays do that to me, because you can't think of Thanksgiving and Christmas without thinking of Normal Rockwell images. It doesn't matter that my real Thanksgiving is just my son and me all by ourselves, eating a vegetarian meal at two o'clock before he had to go to work, because for me Thanksgiving is still that groaning table, the adorable, well-behaved children and jolly aunts and uncles, the mother carrying the turkey to the table for the father to carve.
Rockwell's images stay with us, I think, because they show Americans at their very best. There's such an ordinariness in what we're doing when he captures us -- shooting marbles, flirting at the soda fountain, collapsing after getting home from vacation -- that it seems real, lifelike. We respond to it with a sense that, yes, that's US.
We're responding partly to the sheer likableness of Rockwell's people. But we're also responding to a story about community. In his small-town world, everybody knows each other, and everybody gets along. The grownups all help teach children the rules of life; neighbors all help each other out. There are no big crimes here, merely the mischief of children who don't know better. The large problems are in the world outside, and Rockwell's men will fight against them; they go willingly to war, and escort the little black girl to the school that doesn't want her there.
This is the same kindly world portrayed in some of our favorite movies and TV shows, where strangers become family who stick together through thick and thin, defend each other against the forces of evil -- it's like Dorothy demanding that the wizard give the scarecrow his brain, the tin man his heart, and the Cowardly lion his courage, like Kermit and his weird friends becoming a family while putting on their show, like the doctors of MASH holding on to their humanity as they stitch people back together and deal with death.
It's a story that even has a lot of historical truth in it. The impulse to community has always run strong in America. You see it in the small utopian communities that have been founded here, from the Shakers through the hippie communes, and in the way we form groups on the spot to assist disaster victims. You see it in the freed slaves who risked their lives and freedom to go back south and bring out other slaves, and in immigrants who helped their later arriving compatriots learn American ways. You see it in the instant communities formed on the wagon trains, and in the founding of places like Hull House. You even see it in Davy Crockett, who by legend moved on when a man built a house within five miles of him because it was getting too crowded, and yet died with 130 other men defending the Alamo.
But it's still only a partial truth, because sometimes the way we build community is by persecuting people who are not like us. The KuKluxKlan is also part of our history, as are the Know Nothings, who cultivated hatred of immigrants, Catholics, Jews and blacks. In Southern Baptist communities teens of different faiths have been taunted and persecuted. Sometimes men cement their friendship or prove their manhood by beating up a gay man, ot dragging a black man to his death.
But the Norman Rockwell image is countered by an equally powerful image, the Marlboro Man, who embodies our other great myth, the daring lone man, who clears a wilderness, builds something from nothing, risks everything to turn an idea into reality, fights for the right against overwhelming forces. Our history is rich with men who dared greatly, starting with our founding fathers who knew "we must all hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately." Men like these mapped the country, built our railroads and bridges and skyscapers, invented our machines. His modern epitome is Steve Jobs, building an empire in his garage.
Our literature and movies are filled with this mythic man. He is Natty Bumppo, Ahab, the Lone Ranger, Shane, Rambo. He is the anarchic Cat in the Hat, and Huck Finn lighting out for the territory. Emerson, in his essay on "Self Reliance" said, "I shun father and mother, and wife and brother, when my genius calls me" (though I'm willing to bet he expected dinner to be there on the table when he was ready to rejoin his family).
This myth is about perfect freedom. The recuiting slogan says it all: "Be all that you can be."
The problem with being all that you can be is that you forget how many people helped you do it; the problem with the myth of perfect freedom is that it is always at odds with community. If you marry, you give up sexual freedom; if you have children, you give up the right to walk away; if you build friendships and trust, you give up the right to stand on the sidelines. And the things that you think you have a right to do -- dumping your plant's sewage in the river, driving all your competitors out of business with your monopoly power -- may injure the people around you.
If you choose perfect freedom, you are choosing loneliness.
Our history has been marked by the conflict between our impulse toward perfect freedom and our impulse toward community. Right now, the demand for radical freedom is winning; having seen the heavy hand of government, many of us have decided against it. Who can we root for when Bill Gates is sued by government? When a Tyrannosaurus fights a Tyrannosaurus, do we care about anything except not being underneath when one of them falls?
But now we are seeing the rise of global capitalism, a force at war with human values, and both of our myths are being called into service. In real life and in our books and movies, we are seeing the rise of the lone hacker, downloading secret Brown & Williamson documents onto the internet, the lone lawyer defeating corporate wrongdoers. Kermit the frog faces down the wicked owner of a frogleg empire and his armed minions.
And his friends stand with him, even though all of them are shaking in their cowboy boots.
Just as millions of us are standing together against power. We band together to fight off the encroachment of yet another WalMart, or the building of a Disney theme park near the sacred ground of Gettysburg. We work together to fight corporate pollution, to get workplace daycare for our kids, to vote out of office the folks who ignore our central cities and give our tax dollars to developers.
The Marlboro Man and Norman Rockwell: You can't move mountains with tales like these, because each is incomplete, each vision requires the other. We need our daring loners to dream bigger than we can, and build a future for us. But we need community to make that future worth living in, a place built to human scale that we can raise our kids in.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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