Friday, 5 April 2019

America, A Land Without Tragedy

In February the right of centre Australian magazine Quadrant published a great article entitled The Meaning of Elvis. An article that asks the question, why is Elvis still famous? But in trying to answer that question it put a piece into a jigsaw I had been working on for decades. When I was growing up I wondered by American movies were so happy, even sad movies often had happy endings. As I grew older I learnt about Americas "Can Do" attitude, as they said in WWII, the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer. That self belief sent Americans to the moon.

In the 1990's I was watching an episode of Star trek: Voyager, the one with the female captain. The first three seasons are terrible, but the last four are amazing. I remember one double episode in particular Year of Hell and Year of Hell: Part II in which "Voyager comes across a Krenim timeship that is wiping whole species from existence by changing the existing timeline." It really is the year of hell, in the end the captain kamikaze's Voyager into the timeship, which puts everything back to the way it was. But as I was watching this I thought this is a tragedy, Star Trek is making a tragedy!

Okay in the end it had a happy ending, but it was so well done that the happy ending was a surprise and a little disappointing.

America invented the happy ending and it became an enduring staple of American entertainment. But the entertainment industry was itself influenced by the wider American culture. In the article mentioned above there is this sentence, "In hit movie after hit movie, Presley played the archetypal young American: good-looking, happy and charming, enjoying life and simple adventures in a world where all great issues have been resolved and tragedy banished." In a world where all great issues have been resolved and tragedy banished.

You hear this kind of thinking throughout American history and you certainly hear it today when Americans talk about their history.

How could slavery have existed in a land without tragedy?

How could 600,000 people die in a civil war in a land without tragedy?

How could the Indians have suffered so greatly in a land without tragedy?

You hear people proclaim that their ancestors arrived in America to escape tragedy, as if tragedy cannot touch them in America. As if tragedy is a foreign idea that has never flowered in the New World.

It certainly explains why Vietnam was so inexplicable to so many Americans. It also explains why so many Americans cannot escape the grip of conspiracy thinking. If America is a land without tragedy then how come tragic things keep happening?

Why was President Kennedy assassinated?

How could September 11 happen?

How do mass shootings take place?

America is supposed to have escaped from all that, it is supposed to be on a better road.  To have escaped tragedy and to believe that you are the master of your own fortune and that you are not hostage to human fear or failure is a very Liberal thing to think. But America has always been the country that Liberalism built. America has always been a land of dreams, but dreams have a dual nature, both sweet and terrible. It has been a sweet dream to believe that America is a land without tragedy, but dreams are not reality.

We are all going to see a lot of tragedy, sadly.

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