Thursday, July 4, 2013

America: The Andy Kaufman Of Nations

America is not a nation founded on an idea. America is a nation founded on the idea that America is a nation founded on an idea.

A simpler way to say this: America is a nation founded on a prank.

A prank that went way, way too far.

More than two hundred years ago, a group of some of the richest, most powerful people gathered in Philadelphia to address a little spat over taxes that they were having with another, similar group of people with almost identical privileges. And in the course of these very human events, as this thoroughly unlikeable group was compiling a list of grievances, they happened to make some ridiculous claims: About how all men are created equal, and that they have rights - inalienable rights, mind you. And that states derive their power from citizens and not the other way around.

They didn't mean it. Not really. How could they - the kind of people they were - how could they have meant any of that?

Of course it was a joke. You can almost hear them snickering malevolently as they wrote those words. Would the Crown, would the English, would anyone at all actually be stupid enough to take them seriously?

The rest of American history is a story of that prank unfolding like an elaborate Andy Kaufman bit. No one in the audience believes what's happening, but the performers refuse to break character. And the only way to keep it going is to follow these stupid, ridiculous statements to their logical conclusion. All men are created equal? Yes. Even if they're our enemies? Our slaves? Our outsiders? What if they're women? What if they're the kind of people who've been denied respect by us? Denied rights for so long it seems like just to acknowledge the injustice would be cultural suicide?

Yes and yes. The humor comes from the performers stumbling around, trying to do the impossible and failing miserably, trying to hide their failings and failing at that, but never stopping until they've torn down everything on the stage. Everything they counted on. The basis for all their power and influence and comfort. The humor comes from the fact that anyone can use this formula to attack us... to demand their rights, to demand justice.  The only proper response is to let them.

Here's Malcolm X in a 1964 speech, trying to get Americans to break character:

“Liberty or death” was what brought about the freedom of whites in this country from the English. They didn’t care about the odds... [T]hese 13 little, scrawny states, tired of taxation without representation, tired of being exploited and oppressed and degraded, told that big British Empire “Liberty or death.”

And here you have 22 million Afro-American black people today catching more hell than Patrick Henry ever saw. And I’m here to tell you, in case you don’t know it, that you got a new generation of black people in this country who don’t care anything whatsoever about odds.


See? The prank concocted by those slave-owners is so dangerous it could destroy everything they've built and put something in its place no one can predict. And many of us are determined to let it do just that as long as there are doubters in the audience.

Today, we don't celebrate our country. We celebrate the joke at the heart of it, which has always subverted everything people have tried to make of that country. And that prank, by its logic, comes to include people all over the world. People who like us, people who hate us, and everyone in between.

Someday, I think everyone will be in on the joke. And then it will come true.

7 comments:

  1. The problem with America-haters such as yourself is this mystical imagining that with the signing of the Declaration Of Independence, or even before as the ideas behind it were being formulated to put to paper, in a blinding flash people were supposed to have received total enlightenment with regards to universal human rights, something that was absent in almost every other corner of the planet. How does that work, exactly? Yes it took a while to apply that equality to women, minorities, those of different religions, sexual orientation, etc., and it's still in some facets a work in progress. But 1776 is what got the ball rolling, and at least in the first couple of centuries we outstripped other nations in our promotion of human rights and became a model for others to follow. It's true some of that has "appeared" to slow down the last two decades because we're being asked to consider all kinds of "rights" that were never considered before. For instance, it wasn't that long ago, relatively speaking to the history of our country, that homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric disorder by the medical community. Prior to 1973 abortion was considered a form of murder by the majority in this country. A person couldn't even admit being a atheist without being ostracized from their community. Yet somehow you believe hearts and minds are supposed to be instantly changed from what culture and mythos have ingrained for centuries, if not millenia. Are you seriously implying that, because some of the Founders were wealthy landowners, we would have been just as well off or better staying under the control of the Crown? Do you really abhor the so-called "one percenters" that much that your anathema extends all the way to the mouldy corpses of the Colonial era? I know this dystopian view of American history is all in vogue among the fashionable Left today, but it's severly lacking in what we in the real world like to quaintly refer to as "perspective".

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    Replies
    1. You start by equating criticism with hatred of America, and then you keep going further into error.

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    2. "Prior to 1973 abortion was considered a form of murder by the majority in this country. A person couldn't even admit being a atheist without being ostracized from their community.'

      LOL....that's ludicrous......

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    3. Dude, your sarcasm detector needs to be recalibrated.

      Delete
  2. The United States is a collective idea. Look at a satellite photo - no neat border. I like your thesis, however facetious. I consider it more a kind of wishful thinking. The founders were educated enough to know what justice looked like, pragmatic enough to know they couldn't get there immediately, and blinded by their prejudices enough to think that they were further along than they were.

    It's analogous to what some general said about the use of armored vehicles. Their purpose is to drive ahead far enough that they get in trouble so the rest of the army has to go forward and rescue them. The founders threw out these ideals that they themselves couldn't fulfill, so generations after them had to scramble to avoid looking like hypocrites. We've been playing catch-up ever since.

    And, in response to your previous commenter, yes, a lot of the wealthy in 1776 would have been a lot better off if we had stayed with the crown. They knew it, and became known as "Tories." As far as historians can calculate, loyalists amounted to about 1/3 of the population.

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  3. Here’s another ‘perspective’.

    I’ve been an American citizen for about five years (having lived in the Sates now for about 12 years, after marring an American lady). My ‘other’ country is Canada, a country that a fair number of Americans have emigrated to because they think it’s better there than here in the States. I also have a relative who moved back to Italy after his retirement because he (and his wife) thought life is better back there. I might also state that I have traveled to quite a few countries and lived in one European one for a few years.

    Having said this, I don’t see America as a ‘joke’ or a ‘prank,’ even in a metaphorical sense, that has been played out to what the country is today. And even though I admit that I don’t know a lot about American History (but, yes, I do know that Jefferson had slaves and sired children with at least one of them, and things of that nature) I’m really proud to be an American. When I go back to Canada to visit family, after the visit I’m always happy to cross back over the border, and I always say, “God bless America” every time on my return. This is not to say that I am totally naive and ignorant about the problematic issues and even dangers living here in the States, but all the same, I love America and its founding story legacy that I am reminded about every fourth of July.

    I am pleased that you set the record straight by saying, “You start by equating criticism with hatred of America, and then you keep going further into error,” because that would be sad if you really felt some kind of hatred for your country. But sure, there are things to criticize and even fear living in this country, but by and large, it’s a great country and one of the best in the entire world.

    And you can’t beat the weather here in southern California!

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  4. We are often the harshest critics of that which we love the most, and unthinking patriotism is just lazy obedience to what 'someone else said some time somewhere'.

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