American Po(m)p and Circumstance
If there are really, truly two types of people in the world—people who pay attention to politics and those who don't—which of these do you consider yourself to be?
For most of my life, I would have been the latter, raised with such a decided disinterest in the electoral system and tenants of American democracy that I'm pretty sure I failed the social studies class clarifying the three branches of the US government. It wasn't until I moved to Germany and found myself teaching the distinctive shape of our democracy that I understood how it worked. And it wasn't until I left my home that I grasped the extent to which I had been absorbing the mythologies of the place where I grew up.
Although my family appeared to be decidedly apolitical, there were hints all around us of how politics were an integral part of our lives. I got my first glimpse of politics American-style when Ronald Reagan flew into my hometown for a photo op at the local factory; his helicopters landed in the parking lot, my mom stood behind him while he gave a televised speech, but from behind metal barriers, I never saw the man. His policies impacted my life in myriad ways: from the economics that never trickled-down to the school lessons lost to duck-and-cover drills, the United States of the 80s were wrapped in a Reaganism that touched nearly every aspect of my life. A family member became a US citizen because of hostilities abroad; we only bought American-made cars and US-grown food, loyal to the industrial class and family farmers that weaved the fabric of my hometown. We made fun of the padded-shouldered sushi eaters in Fatal Attraction, cursed when the Germans bought up another factory. Bruce Springsteen told us on the radio what it was like to be born in the USA, "Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery" with nowhere to run and nowhere to go.
We sung this anthem with pride, even as it criticized the endless wars that had taken my uncles, my father's friends, the fathers of my classmates. As if we might have ever known anything but what it was like to have been born in the USA or even to have been anywhere else or known anything different. When an uncle returned from a trip to the Soviet Union with tales of black market Levi's, jeans too expensive even for us in the States to own, I immediately felt envious. As much as I was told to feel privileged because of where I came from, even if it was a Springsteen-style dead man's town, I had never before been given the capacity to compare it with anything else. Illicit denim seemed so chic, so otherworldly. What else was so different about the world out there, beyond the cornfields and the waves of grain that we sang about in music class?
I could be forgiven for not caring more about politics back then, for being angry as a pre-teen that the Iran-Contra Affair interrupted my Days of Our Lives broadcast for weeks one summer; after all, children are oblivious to politics as long as things are going well, as they should be. But were things going well? It wasn't until after I arrived at graduate school that I understood the weight of my experiences—how the political had shaped my personal, to riff on Angela Davis. Of course, my move to graduate school came on the heels of 9/11; it felt impossible afterward to not be political, even if that meant holding divergent views from others in my family. But it wasn't until the wars began to recruit the students I was teaching that everything that I had soaked in as a kid grew clearer: the patriotism, the nationalism, the militant mythologizing about what it means to be an American. (And yes, I know, America is more than just the United States but if you're someone who says that, you're someone far removed from the domestication of that label in modern times.)
If I hadn't left the US, I wouldn't have understood the depths of this nation branding nor how fully interwoven into American pop culture it is. Though contemporary art by artists like Jasper Johns laid flag-waving patriotism bare in the post-war era while working to refute the Soviet-fulled notion that the US was a "culturally barren wasteland," that isn't the sort of culture I'm referring to; that was propaganda intended for an international audience. Instead, I grew up on a steady diet of Russian-invasion movies like Red Dawn and Harold Ramis comedies about bumbling no-goods who avert nuclear war like Spies Like Us. On television, the deeply Georgian rebel brothers, The Dukes of Hazzard, whose Dodge Charger was painted with a Confederate Flag on the roof and named, affectionately, the General Lee, played in rotation with CHIPS, the fictionalized true stories of the California Highway Patrol.
The xenophobia, the glorification of the military, and the dichotomous good versus evil narratives void of nuance impacted even the movies we watched that had been set in outer space. And it's carried on ever since, seen not only as reruns on TNN but taken further in explosive new blockbusters that make light of war and torture, with stories about storming Normandy or finding gold in the Iraqi desert. Watching these, we might believe we are all heroes in the stories of our lives. And if our lives are more mundane than what is on the screen? If the only hobby left for some is doing target practice in the wild or on PS3s, it's no wonder that things escalated in the Capitol as they did in early January. As Slavoj Žižek wrote in The Desert of the Real, “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire - it tells you how to desire.” And if what it tells you to desire is Daisy Duke and a touch of war, that is what you go after.
For four years I've watched as the pop culture relics of my childhood took on new meaning, were twisted and co-opted until they became meaningless: a hunter's camouflage turned military uniform, an 80s disco tune turned riot anthem as we hear, "Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?" With cultural products, it is less the artist's intent that matters and more the meaning that is created by the listener, the viewer, the reader, the audience. Art exists as a dialogue so while we as artists can create a product, it is the consumption of that art that gives it greater meaning. Even as the makers of that art denounce any affiliation, in an unimaginative world even the most superficial song about a woman waiting on a phone call can, through twisted interpretation, take on ominous undertones. What previously might have felt like banal reflections on daily life gain depths as they accompany a movement like the one that ultimately ushered out the first reality television president in a violent way.
There was nothing so unoriginal as these insurrectionists and yet even the old guard drew on similar pop culture moments as they heralded a triumphant return to power at the inauguration. Lady Gaga brought the dove holding an olive branch to the Capitol steps while slowing down the National Anthem. Bon Jovi performed a pared-down Beatles tune from an isolated ocean pier at sunset. John Legend remade Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" with the Lincoln Memorial lit up in the background. Katy Perry asked if we had ever felt "Like a house of cards / one blow from caving in" while propping up the Washington Memorial thanks to a well-considered camera angle. Could the symbolism be any more obvious? Is that necessarily a bad thing?
The pomp and circumstance of the inauguration was uniquely, thoroughly American in its symbolism (even if it was, as pointed out in numerous tweets by Europeans, all a bit over the top—though nothing as bizarre I imagine as watching your future Prime Minister ziplining into the Olympics while waving a Union Jack or revisiting the force of the French military every Bastille Day with parades that make the long walk from the Capitol to the White House look barebones in comparison). From the Capitol backdrop adorned in alternating original Betsy Ross 13 colonies flag and the 50-starred banner to the family photos of the new Vice President at the Lincoln Memorial, the visuals relied on an understanding of the country's mythology as they told their own stories.
Creatively directed in a manner fit for a Hollywood movie not unlike those that have shaped so many of our lives, soundtrack included, the inauguration was a throwback to old American mythologies. Yet this year’s felt more inclusive even for a cynical non-patriot like me, with not only references to the original Native inhabitants and descendants of former slaves but also representatives of those groups speaking and present. Watching the inauguration, I felt wrapped in that nostalgic embrace of childhood mythologies—hey, I know that song! I've been to that place! All the same, I found myself shrinking at the overwrought displays of power and unrepentant flag-waving. We were, finally, getting a ceremony to honor the dead. But their memories, their personas, were replaced by the Stars and Stripes, each flag exactly as the rest unlike the individuals they were representing. Had everything, always, been so red white and blue?
My child, born abroad, did not recognize the traditional American hymns, has never heard of the rockets' red glare or the bombs bursting in air. She did not grasp the greater meaning of having a (white, progressive) country-western star sing Amazing Grace, a song we've come more recently to associate with gospel. Nor of the greater meaning of Bruce Springsteen picking up a guitar that day; she did not recognize the downtrodden streets of the heartland in his Born in the USA video, did not cop to the way that the factory workers were portrayed in that video matched those in the video tweeted out by the White House immediately after the handover took place at 12:14. Nearly forty years have passed and we are stuck on the same page in the US, idealizing our jobs, isolating in our communities, sending our sons off to war.
But it's clear we're not the same as we were in the 80s. After these last few years, this last year, this last month, we won't be the same. So although we were finally able to gather around our screens to watch millions of dollars of fireworks burst in the skies above the Washington Monument to make up for those we missed on Independence Day, we are nearly a half-million fewer people, and we are millions of people going hungry, and we are trillions of dollars indebted. At the very least, though, for a few hours, we watched great narratives unfold on tv. Let’s all be hopeful that we can move past those tv narratives, away from these mythologies in our minds and in our culture and embrace our shared humanity by electing politicians that lead through inclusive, progressive policies. By doing the work, as AOC had done that day when she skipped the festivities to join a producer workers’ union on strike for higher wages. Optics are one thing, and they are moving, but action is another and that is really what we, at this moment, need.
Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!