Exceptional Mythology Needs Dose of Reality

By Rob Patterson

One large yet unspoken plank underlying the GOP platform in this critical election year is the notion of American exceptionalism – the idea that America and Americans are better than the rest of the world, even, some believe, blessed by God.

It’s also a specter that haunts the Democratic Party as well, and a poisonous notion that must be purged from the national consciousness in order for this nation to thrive in the shifting geopolitics of the 21st Century. American exceptionalism had its part in this nation’s growth. And in the post World War II boom of the 1950s its myth almost seemed real until reality started to intervene in the 1960s. It still persists in the mind of too many Americans, especially on the right wing.

The surest way to explode that myth is to learn the truth of American history. And nowhere does the mythology of American exceptionalism infect our history more deeply than in the Old West.

From manifest destiny to a completely false sense of cultural and moral superiority over Native Americans to the noble cowboy and the lone lawman standing tall for justice, it was where the idea and its human embodiment became ingrained in the national mythology.

A few years back a friend from a conservative Republican family told me: “John Wayne is a hero in our home.” My response was to point out that John Wayne was an actor whose life wasn’t distinguished by any notable heroism. But that family’s esteem if not worship for what he represented shows just how deeply ingrained our false history has become and remains.

It’s no surprise at all how much the right wing wishes to defund if not destroy PBS, especially after watching segments that corrected the record on giant cultural icons of the Old West: “Custer’s Last Stand,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Jesse James” and “Annie Oakley.” After all, the truth will truly free one from the myths of exceptionalism.

General George Armstrong Custer presents the most offensive example of revisionist history in service of exceptionalism. A vain and reckless glory seeker, his legendary heroic last stand at the Battle of the Big Horn was actually the result of arrogance and poor tactics. The history of the American military and Native Americans in the West almost always finds genuine admirable qualities on the part of the latter and a lack of them with the former.

Similarly, the Wyatt Earp of legend, film and TV who stands tall for justice and order is a conflation that ignores the true Earp’s questionable and self-serving actions within a lifelong quest for fortune. In his defense, he’s hardly much different than most anyone else in the West of his day, and certainly showed a certain bold courage in his actions, compromised as they were. Some see Jesse James from the persistent myth perpetrated by his post-Civil War Confederate sympathizers as a Robin Hood figure. But no, he was merely a robber even if his Southern pro-slavery views and acts during wartime established him as a thief. Of course, in that era, the railroads he robbed were guilty of far greater plunder.

Annie Oakley presents the most ironic case, spinning false tales of Old West adventures to hype her stage show. Yet behind the myth, she was a woman of strong ethical values, a genuine proto-feminist, and in her later years a generous philanthropist – in short, an admirable American. And she was indeed one heck of a sharpshooter. Indeed, the line about “when the legend becomes fact print the legend” from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” sums up much of what America was led to believe about the Old West in the 20th Century.

The truth reveals human stories much more complex, nuanced and ambiguous, and ultimately how American heroes of the era by and large were as flawed as anyone else in the world. But as long as too many citizens keep faith with such mythology suffused with the falsities of exceptionalism, it seems likely that the sort of demagoguery propounded by all of the GOP presidential contenders and the right wing’s loudest commentators will continue to win over followers. The media of the 19th century helped create such myths, and modern media like films and television continued to propagate them. Which should make right thinking Americans that much more grateful for a show like “American Experience” and public television as sources of truth and determined to support and protect them.

Populist Picks

It’s the season for the most American sport: baseball. And three documentary films about what was once our national pastime – I now have to wonder if that remains true – look at important aspects of how it intertwines with our national history and character.

“Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush” – As the only major league team associated not with a city but only one of its boroughs, the legendary Dodgers of 1947 to 1957 symbolize much about how the game and our society interrelate. The Dodgers made history when they became the first ball club to integrate when Jackie Robinson joined in 1947. Before the era explored in this film they were also perpetual underdogs, known as “Dem Bums” for their failings, but finally rose to capture league and national championships. And their home park Ebbets Field was a stadium located in the heart of Brooklyn. The Dodgers were very much a part of the borough until their need for a bigger facility prompted their owner to relocate the team to Los Angeles after New York City power broker denied the Dodgers a location to build a new park. This excellent two-part HBO film captures both the glory of the team’s achievements and the heartbreak of Brooklyn’s loss in a compelling tale of how sports and a community once shared a genuine unity.

“Fenway Park: An Icon at 100” – This PBS/Nat Geo doc isn’t just about a ballpark, though one of its many fascinating aspects is the behind the scenes look at how such a facility functions. Much like the Dodgers and Brooklyn once were, Boston and the Red Sox are all but joined at the hip. And the oldest baseball stadium in the nation is the glue that melds a city’s culture with its sports franchise. Like Ebbets Field once, Fenway is woven physically, culturally and spiritually into its community. Narrated by Boston native Matt Damon, the film tells the history of the team and field and takes us there for game day here in the 21st Century. And in addition to the gratifying survival into the modern age, there’s the icing on the cake of the BoSox finally winning a World Series again after 86 years in 2004.

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” – One might not readily associate Judaism with the sport. But the PBS film shows how it served as an agent of integration into American life for immigrant. And looks at such noted players as Hank Greenberg and Moe Berg, both of whom helped mitigate separatism and anti-Semitism by their abilities at the most American of sports and served the nation: Greenberg in the Army Air Force in World War II and Berg, in a fascinating and unique life story, as a spy with the OSS and CIA. They are two examples of how the sport served as a great social equalizer for Jews in an earlier time, part of the many skeins that did make baseball a metaphor for the national experience.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment and political writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.By Rob Patterson

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2012


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