Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#29, March 3, 1999


by Marylaine Block

We Americans are such a hard-headed practical sort. We tell our kids to study accounting, engineering, computer science, because there will always be jobs for them. We ruthlessly discourage daydreams, or any hint they might want to be poets or artists, because there's no practical use for words and pictures.

How strange that is. You see, ours is the only nation actually founded on words, and what implausible words they are: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." The way we know America is through the words and images created by our impractical dreamers.

Our greatest presidents had the power of words -- they reassured us our sacrifices meant that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth," that we had "nothing to fear but fear itself," and that America was still the "shining city on the hill."

Who has more power in America, our ordinary, plodding politicians, or the talk show hosts and comedians and cartoonists who make fun of them? Can Dan Quayle or Bill Clinton ever escape the indelible images made of them by Jay Leno, Tom Toles and Phil Hartman?

Who teaches boys how to be manly? Tom Clancy and Norman Mailer, John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. Who teaches little girls how to be women? Soap opera writers and romance novelists. Who teaches men and women how to treat each other? The writers of the screwball comedies of the 30's, the sitcoms of the 90's. Who teaches children how to behave? The folks who write the scripts and songs for Sesame Street.

Who sets the very rhythms we move to? Our rock stars, hiphop performers, and country music singers. The sharp edgy pace of modern life seems as much driven by the jump cuts of ads and music videos as by the need to keep competing to keep our jobs.

Who generates our sense of how the world works? Gary Larson's portrayals of the deep weirdness beneath the surface permeate our understanding of life. He has hundreds of imitators now because everybody now understands the world is a place where if the bluebird of happiness doesn't visit you, you might at least get a visit from the Chicken of Depression.

Who tells us what to value in our culture? The people who write our ads. They show us always competing, and better yet, winning. They tell of lonely heroes in pristine wilderness, men who proudly defy all the rules, regular guys together enjoying a beer, a campfire, and each other's company.

Who do we go to for advice about our day to day decisions? Ann Landers and Judge Judy. Who talks to us about genuine moral evil? Stephen King.

If we raise kids to become little cogs in big corporations, we won't generate people who build empires inside their garage. If we teach them to play it safe, we may produce bankers who will tell the next Jerry Yang that the internet is not a sound business investment. If we tell them to go for security and the pension, we make them worry about their old age before they've had a chance to finish being kids -- which is to say, before they've had a chance to follow their maddest dreams.

America has never been a place for folks who play it safe. Mad dreams and inventions are what this country is all about. Not knowing what our limits are is the way we make sure we exceed them. So, if your kids want to study something useless, let them. There's no way we can guess how the things they can do well might pay off.

I got a useless degree in English and history, and another useless degree in American studies. I read about our history, and pay attention to what we do. What good has all that done me?

It gave me a career as a writer, and a chance to tell America who we are, and how we got to be that way. That wasn't so mad a dream, now, was it?

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing