I was with two young girls tonight (a high school senior; I work part-time in a bookstore, and most of the other part-time employees are teenagers; I’m the “adult” who closes the place), and the talk turned to “outspoken” celebrities. One girl was American, through and through; the other British. The American was greatly offended by the opinions of two celebrities; she said they could influence too many people, and so shouldn’t express opinions that weren’t staunchly supportive of the U.S. (meaning, of course, the current President). (The British girl was quite astonished by this attitude.)
These are opinions the American girl has picked up at home. I recognize them as the ideas I grew up with, and around. Perfectly sound, decent people who consider any loud dissent about politics (“loud” being anything expressed beyond a private conversation) to be tantamount to treason. Not indecent, not improper, but positively dangerous. Religion is often accused of fostering such an attitude, but I think that’s altogether too simple. I think it’s human nature; it’s just more particularly and peculiarly expressed by Americans, because they have no “center” to their belief system.
My reasoning, in a nutshell, runs like this: consider a tent, like an old circus tent. Without a center pole, nothing keeps the tent up, no matter how well staked the sides are. Remove, or break, the pole, the tent collapses. In a belief system, where does the pole come from? Either from some outsides source; or from the participants in the idea of the tent (or the nation; or the church denomination). If the source is outside of the group, and forms the group, the pole does the work, and the group is free to associate under the tent as they please.
However, if the source for the belief system comes from the group itself, then any change in that source threatens the life of the group. Either everyone stands on everyone else’s shoulders and holds the tent up, or the whole structure collapses around the group, and they are left groping under the heavy canvas.
In any national system where identity comes from a long common history, that history is the “tent pole.” (In a church, the identity comes either from the denomination, especially episcopally structured churches, or from the congregation; outside the group, or the group itself). In America, without any common history except as “Americans,” the idea of what is “American” has to shrink to a handful of dried concepts, and the tent pole depends on each and everyone one of us “staying in line.” The identity comes solely from the group, and every member of the group is obligated to uphold (i.e., conform to) the agreed upon identity. Which is necessarily vague and non-specific and so, vulnerable. But if one person steps out, the tent pole will collapse; and so will the tent.
This is, by the way, the weakness of the system, and I think it’s irreparable. The original voters were white male landowners, a class as guaranteed as any can be to have such similar interests at heart as to always agree on what is best for the nation. That didn’t last, of course, and it couldn’t. Now there are too many disparate interests, and the pressure to conform is not something relegated to the 1950’s. In fact, having discovered a national identity during World War II (we barely had one as a nation before that; just as we barely thought of individuals as individuals, and not components of a group, before Romanticism), crushing conformity was inevitable. The 1960’s came about because of the shelter of the 1950’s, not in spite of it, or even in response to it. The hippies, after all, were almost all white, middle class or better, children. Having enjoyed their fun, they quickly reverted to their parents.
Which leaves us with a question: which way out?
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