Monday, July 14, 2014

America: The Movie

           On July 3, the family rolled into Missoula and settled into the middle of middle American vacation culture, a KOA Campground.   Everyone’s needs are met.  A little grass, a few trees, cable television, reliable wifi, clean bathrooms and showers, efficient laundry facilities, putt-putt, swimming pool, hot tub, buffet breakfast each morning, and ice cream social at night.  People in tents, people in cabins, people in the full range of travel trailers from pop-ups, bumper pull, 5th-wheel, and luxury bus.  KOA is more expensive than our usual choices, but every so often, we need to splurge and calm everyone’s anxieties and frustrations.   The staff was extremely cheerful and helpful, and omnipresent.  So many 60-plus aged people in yellow shirts walking around, driving around in golf carts, I felt there was a machine in the back office producing these folks.  Or maybe it was more like Agent Smith in The Matrix.  Yellow shirts just replicate wherever needed at that moment.
Getting Ready to Celebrate
            Don’t get me wrong.  We stayed there five nights.  I was very happy there.  The boys were happy, and Knightsmama was happy.   Our joy began the instant we stopped at the registration desk, and the staff asked, “Would you be needing a ride to the Fourth of July celebration? We will have a couple of busses available to help people get to the fireworks.”
            “Sure.” I said.  “How much would it cost?”
            “Nothing.  It’s free.  We are just trying to keep an accurate count.”
            “Where do I sign?  There’s four of us.”
I love Fourth of July Celebrations.  I tend to dislike crowds, except on a few particular occasions.  Fourth of July is one of those occasions.  I love sitting among a bunch of folks—on blankets eating picnic dinners or in lawn chairs guzzling water to stay cool, it doesn’t much matter.  I prefer the wicker basket, crisp gingham table cloth, chilled white wine, fried chicken, German potato salad, and a symphony playing Gershwin and Broadway standards.  But I’ll enjoy danged near anything.  Usually, though, the only problem is getting there and getting home.  I hate sitting in traffic.  I love my fellow citizens, but there are just so many of us, with motors running.
            In Missoula, the Fourth of July celebration occurs in the parking lot in the mall, which is sort of close to the Clark River winding through town.  Two rented school busses dropped off the KOAers.  The yellow busses had “Hellgate” painted on the sides.  For some reason I thought about Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.  Perfect, all of us mortal muggles about to duplicate the journeys of Odysseus and Dante.  No fear.  We just went to the mall. 
Where Are We Going?
            When we arrived, the Missoula City Band, a kind of pops symphonic band of maybe 50 citizens, was playing off in the corner of the parking lot.  The Boy Scouts had set up a couple of trailers along the edge selling hot dogs, popcorn, cotton candy, sodas, and water.  They were also passing out flags.  When I purchased some popcorn, I nabbed a couple of Old Glories on a Stick.  It was about 9:00 when we arrived and the parking lot was filling up.  We found an open section about fifty yards from the stage, set up our chairs, and enjoyed the music as the sun settled behind the Montana mountains.  It gets dark late here, so we got to hear a lot of music, by what I am guessing is volunteer band.  That is not a veiled criticism.  The Missoula City Symphonic Band, including musicians of all ages it appeared, was tight and peppy. There was some speechifying and thank you’s, the inevitable television news hosts fulfilling their roles as civic representatives, and the band conductor with bad jokes.  But I greatly enjoyed the music.  We got to hear “America, the Beautiful”; The Armed Forces Anthems (appropriate veterans standing while their anthem played, receiving applause from the audience in gratitude for their service); Stars and Stripes Forever; He's a Grand Ole Flag; My Old Kentucky Home; When the Saints Come Marching in; Alexander's Rag Time Band; The Entertainer; and more.  I had smuggled in a couple of cans of Big Sky Moose Drool Brown Ale, so I sat backed, sipped, waved my little flag, and soaked in a sweet evening celebrating the founding of this nation.  And then, the band stopped, and the fireworks began and blasted away for a good long while.  It was a great show.  A terrific evening.  Sentimental as all get out, I suppose, but, really, can we be cynical about all this?  I love my fellow Americans!
So, having said all this, let’s be clear.  I am a corny, patriotism-loving American.  I think we are a great nation.  I think the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution are exceptional documents.  I honor the honor and talents of the men and women who serve in the armed forces.  But I am also a liberal academic.  I do not watch Fox News.  I watch MSNBC, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. 
And today, July 12, when the family began discussing movies that our boys might want to see in Bozeman, on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, and Knightsmama read out loud that America:  The Movie was playing, oh, I just had to go to Bozeman and see that movie while the boys watched their movies.  22 Jumpstreet for Dr. J. and How to Tame a Dragon II for Captain Crunch.  (Knightsmama got her bangs trimmed.)
America:  The Movie is a new political film written by Dinesh D’Souza, another academic who has become over the years one of the leading voices of the Conservative Movement in the United States.  Over the years, I had seen his name on books and heard references on this or that television discussion.   In ordinary times, I would not seek out his work, but I had an open mind, generally, toward him.  For some reason I thought he was one of the more intelligent of the conservative pundits—like William Buckley, George Will, or David Brooks—and not one of the agitating entertainers, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, or Sean Hannity. 
Peace, America
I am on this long trip, living with restricted time and access to information, so forgive me for quoting Wikipedia.  D’Souza has said that his brand of conservative belief is “’conserving the principles of the American Revolution’” and is a blend of classical liberalism and ancient virtue, in particular, ‘the belief that there are moral standards in the universe and that living up to them is the best way to have a full and happy life’”  I agree with that.  I really do, and could have phrased my values in very similar terms.  “He also argues against what he calls the modern liberal belief that ‘human nature is intrinsically good’, and thus that ‘the great conflicts in the world...arise out of terrible misunderstandings that can be corrected through ongoing conversation and through the mediation of the United Nations.’” Well, according to D’Souza, I am not a Liberal, because I do not believe people are intrinsically good.  I have no idea what they are intrinsically.  I know that some people turn out to be mean and cruel, and some people turn out to be kind and loving.  Often these contradictory behaviors are displayed in the same person, but in different times and places.   
My point is that I showed up at America: The Movie.  I am not a fan of D’Souza, but in me lives a strain of conservative thought that predates the current Conservative Movement. 
First, just let me say that the movie is a mess.  It is really three movies in one.  It is a “what if,” an argument against a liberal interpretation of American history, and a political campaign film.  None of these are connected in any cogent manner.  Each is a mini-film contained in the larger film.  The movie begins with the first theme portrayed in historical re-enactments, asking the simple question, “What if there were no America?”  It foregrounds the question by having General George Washington lead a charge into battle and being shot.  All of a sudden, the force and energy depart from the American Revolution.  Sad music.  Downcast looks.  Lady Liberty crumbles, as does Mount Rushmore.  So in the middle of our CGI despair no one bothers to notice that the movie ignores at least two questions:  “Why would George be so stupid to lead a charge and make himself vulnerable? “ And “With so many Founding Fathers why would the death of George Washington so quickly end the revolution?”  Did everything that “America:  The Reality” really depend of one man?   But no matter.  Here I am quibbling over the presentation, not the substance.  The substance—what would the U.S. be (and thus what would we, the audience, be) if the U.S. had lost the revolution?—I think can be answered by looking at Canada and Australia, and the home country, Great Britain?  We would not be the complicated—United through Diversity—country we are now.  Maybe we would be what the Tea Party and Right Wing wish we could be.  A country run by Conservative White People.  
But the real answer is impossible to postulate and any attempt is simply fantasy.  Thus it is a stupid question for substantive political discussion.  It is the stuff of an easy Freshman Composition or Freshman American History course created merely to sus out if students had read their assignments.  It’s on the level of “If you were to direct a movie of The Adventures of Lewis and Clark, which actors would you chose to portray the main characters, and why.” 
            The second part of the movie, the longest, is an interesting argument with one portion of the Liberal Left.  At its core, I believe, it is a worthwhile argument to engage in.  For some time now, there has existed in the United States a fight over who will tell our history and what that history will be.  Are we the good and great nation that is the beacon of freedom and prosperity for the world?  Or are we a nation created and built upon a great deal of greed, cruelty, and theft.  I could present the debate this way:  Are we the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire?  Luke Skywalker or Darth Vadar?  Do we use The Force for good or evil? 
            Good, Conservative Republicans, of course, believe they are part of the Rebel Alliance fighting for freedom, equality, and the American Way.  Good, Liberal Democrats also believe they are fighting for freedom and equality, but they recognize that in our four hundred year history, we immigrants to this continent have made some gigantic mistakes.  Several times in America: The Movie, D’Souza identifies what really angers Conservatives about the Left.  The Left attempts to shame good, old typical Americans.  The Left has the audacity to say that we good citizens have what we have because of some misdeeds by previous and current Americans.  And because, in the minds of good Americans, there is no difference between us and George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan (I think these are the main heroes), Texans in the Alamo, Union Soldiers, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.  “Criticize the actions of previous Americans and you criticize me”—or so this seems to be the thinking.  (I wonder what Southern Tea Partiers think of this?  No where is the “Southern Way of Life” defended. And Lincoln is praised repeatedly.)
            D’Souza identifies five arguments that the Left makes to force us to feel shame about ourselves as Americans.  1.  The “genocide” of Native Americans.  2. The “theft” of New Mexico, Arizona, California from Mexico.  3.  The slavery of Africans.  4.  Our imperialist behaviors. 5.  The cruelty of Capitalism.   Personally, I think all these are very interesting areas of discussion.   In my travels through the U.S. this year, I have forced myself to confront many of these issues.  At this very moment, I am in Montana visiting many sites associated with Lewis and Clark.  In two days I will visit the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and a day or two later, I will visit the site of Wounded Knee.  On this journey, we have visited Plimouth Plantation, Minute Man Statue, Independence Hall, Seneca Falls, Newport, Stonewall Inn, Mount Vernon, Harper’s Ferry, Vietnam War Memorial, Dealey Plaza, a mission in Santa Fe, Mesa Verde, Hoover Dam, Alcatraz, and Fort Clatsop.  You cannot tell me our history is not complicated. 
Lewis and Clark Pointing the Way
for Americans into Indian Territory
            I watched this movie and witnessed the tricks with which D’Souza slyly slips out of the ropes of history.  I should say that the kind of arguments he makes are impossible to make clearly and substantively in a movie.  This is the stuff of books, many books, and scholarly articles.  Movies, as a visual medium, are inherently emotional.  If not, they are boring and people won’t pay to cover the multi-million dollar cost of making the movie.   The arguments D’Souza wants to build cannot be constructed in the five to ten minutes he allots to each one.  So, the person paying attention (and not watching just to feel his or her emotions tweaked) gives up, sits back, and lets the simplicity wash over.  Really, should Native Americans feel better about their lot because disease killed more of their ancestors than bullets?  Should we absolve everyone in the Mexican War because today some Mexican-Americans in the Southwest would rather be Mexican-Americans than Mexican-Mexicans?  Should  African Americans forgive their ancestors’ enslavement because some slave owners were Black and many whites were indentured servants?  Should we ignore the fact that the U.S. has been involved in many ignoble coups d’états and wars such as Vietnam and Iraq because, well, we should not hurt the feelings of our soldiers by telling them that they fought in something fraudulent and perhaps illegal.  Should we not criticize capitalism because, well, I can’t make a hamburger at home as cheaply as a fast food restaurant and because I want an Iphone with all the goodies?  These, in essence, are D’Souza’s refutations. 
            But his real argument is:  aren’t you good Americans, hard working and all, tired of a bunch of liberal academics and general lazy bastards telling you that your peace and comfort has come at a price to others.  Mr. Montana rancher, aren’t you angry that someone points out that the land you own once was home to the ancestors of the Native Americans now on a reservation?  Mr. Welder, you celebrate capitalism, don’t you, even though you are un-employed because your employer moved his shop to Mexico?  That’s capitalism, remember, rah, rah.  African American business woman, now that you are a success you have forgotten, haven’t you, that it took three generations out of slavery for your family to become middle class?
            The last third of the movie transitions from our history lesson and begins an out and out attack on the Left and the Democratic Party and, drumroll, The Sixties.  Remember The Sixties.  The community organizer Saul Alinsky is identified as the source of all this evil unleashed upon us good Americans.  If you don’t know him, he wrote a book, Rules for Radicals, which supposedly became the Bible for all those troublemakers who have wanted to make you feel guilty for being a “have.”   But that is just supporting material.  I can’t help but believe that the real reason for this movie was to begin the campaign for 2016.  We all know that Obama is bad, right?  So now we have to show that Hillary is going to be worse.  Otherwise, why dramatize Hillary Clinton as a high school student meeting a left-leaning Methodist Preacher?  Why have Rand Paul discoursing on the dangers of the current state surveillance?  
            You know, I could go on.  I have gone on, and even cut many words from this blog.  (Difficult to believe, I know.)  So I will make two last points.  I think D’Souza is correct in saying that Academia is primarily Left leaning.  It might be an interesting discussion to figure out why.  Part of the answer might be that education and facts have an effect on one’s thinking.  Another part might be that for various reasons, a certain kind of person, one who is not an American Go-Getter, began finding the comforts and joys of talking about ideas appealing.  Whatever.  I also think, after watching my teachers and colleagues for over forty years, that often my Liberal friends have shamed, called stupid, and otherwise rudely treated their Conservative and Christian students.  Some teachers possessed real missionary political agendas.  And the result of their missionary zeal was the same as all such efforts.  Some students were converted, and some grew tired of the oppression and now they are voting Republican.  
            My second last point is History is a Bitch.  This is where I think I separate myself from both my Liberal and Conservative friends.  History doesn’t always take you where you want to go.  D’Souza and his ilk want to point out that the Sixties were the beginnings of everything bad.  But before that there were the fifties (Conservatives blacklisted innocent Liberals).  Before that the thirties (Some Liberal over-reach?), and so on.  Where does history stop? 
O'er the Land of the Free
And the Home of the Brave
If one is going to “fix” the present, by returning to a moment in the past, somebody gets screwed.  Liberal friends, the same holds true for Native American history.  It wasn’t like there was a moment when everything was perfect and everyone agreed on where boundaries should exist.  And I am sorry, but it wasn’t like Africans or the Aztecs lived sweet lives without cruelty and war.   At what point do I get to stop feeling guilty and trying to right the wrongs of my ancestors?  At what point must I stop complaining about being on the losing side of some past conflict?  While I disagree with D’Souza and believe that the facts show that each of his five dreaded points are historically true,  I don’t know what, today, we are supposed to do about it.  Give back all lands to Native Americans?  Return Arizona to Mexico?  Shoot, we can’t adequately repay our veterans for their service, today. How are we supposed to make reparations to each person who has found an ancestor wronged by the American political and economic machine?  
            This is the thing.  D’Souza never says what Obama and Clinton and all the dreadful Liberals want to do to us because they believe we are all guilty of something.  I certainly don’t know either.  But I don’t think that white washing history is the start.  D’Souza says that Conservatives don’t believe that people are inherently good; then, why are they insulted when someone points out that our ancestors weren’t perfect? 
            Oh.  By the way.  Don’t go see America: The Movie.  I recommend America: The Nation.  


Soundtrack.  Jesse Colin Young:  "Get Together."

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