Monday, August 19, 2013

What's Wrong With America (in 1200 words or less)

After living the UK for a year and a half, I find I still encounter a barrage of questions about being American. Recently, most of these questions stem from a cultural perspective, rather than political, what with such news tidbits as the Paula Deen incident floating around, the George Zimmerman verdict, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (finally, some might say) arriving on British TV. I think the core most of the enquiries I get are "Why?"

  • Why are people like that? (like what?)
  • Why is this funny? (is it?)
Now before I go proliferating incorrect stereotypes, let me just say that Europeans don't make fun of Americans by and large; nobody in Europe truly "hates" America, including the French. It's just that America tends to have the biggest mouth of the moment, and most of the world, being older, more historical and possessing eons more generations of culture, simply wonders why. 
As a writer, I tend to take a matter's temperature by the words used around it, from headlines to the way people describe incidents in interviews, and I think one of the biggest problems with the American culture is in the motivation that drives it, that compels it to want things, idealise these things, and believe they can and should have these things; when they don't, all hell breaks loose and on the popular scale, everybody is just miserable. 

I think this situation can best be summed up in two words that, as of 2013, have been so subverted, we see them on a daily basis and it just feeds the hearts of Americans the kool-aid that keeps them hooked. These two words are "hero" and "Christian."
Hero is a word we see every single day in virtually every American-based news outlet. There are big heroes, little heroes, national heroes and local heroes, but regardless of their geographical significance, these people are called such because of an incident where they allegedly showed exceptional bravery and balked in the face of the cowardice "all of us readers" would, no doubt, have succumbed to. But it wasn't so long ago when a "hero" was something much grander, that one aspired to, rather than label oneself in one's Facebook status, or allow to be pinned by their local newspaper. Superman was a hero, a mythical creature that represented courage and honor.
The funny thing is, the term "hero" has its roots in ancient Greek, as the term used to describe a demigod, a semi-divine child that was the product of a god and a mortal, who just sat back and did their demigod thing, collecting praise and genuflection all day long. 
Which isn't too far from how heroes are described today. 
Now everybody can be a hero--wait for it--as long as someone else says they are. In order for one to wear the symbolic badge of heroism, one must first be given that term by another individual with an influential tongue. So before you go earning your hero badge by saving that cat stuck in a tree or telling that boy the dangers of hanging out with men who wear salmon coloured pants, make sure you're in good with the headline writer of your local paper. 
I'm sure there are even some who would call George Zimmerman a hero. I mean, did you hear he put his life on the line by emerging from hiding to rescue some guy from an overturned truck?
And then there's Christian, by far my favourite--both the reason and the excuse for so much. How often do we hear "It's because I'm a Christian!" or "I can't do that because I'm Christian." The reason and the excuse.
What is a Christian? Traditionally, it's an abstract term used to describe people who, in theory, subscribe and attempt to imitate the teachings of Jesus Christ, who go to church apparently because they want to, who donate 10% of their income to their parish because they want to, and who help people left and right because they want to, out of the goodness of their heart.
Yeah, maybe that was the case when Jesus was still alive, but with the crucifixion went the "because they want to" because after he died, it was all about the guilt. They "follow" Jesus because they feel like they have to, the power of guilt compels them, and they quote Jesus and the Bible on a daily basis, yet that live their everyday lives and political careers denying masses of people their basic human right to love. Who are told by their saviour to deny no one, but turn a blind eye to every homeless person that crosses their path. Condemns abortion because that would make them baby-killers, but happily condemning a man to the electric chair because the other 11 people are convinced he's guilty. 
Let's check in with middle-American correspondent Marguerite Perrin on the state of who is and who is not a Christian in that lovely stretch of states we call the Bible Belt, shall we? Marguerite, take it away:

Thank you, Marguerite. "Because she's not a Christian," she says, so she must be evil, right? Yet last I checked, Jesus, the dude with the "Christ" affixed to the latter part of his name who inspired this illustrious title, hung out with all kinds of riff raff, even those thought to be "evil." I mean, according to some, he even married one of them, that whore Mary Magdalene, after chilling with the lepers and tax collectors and other menaces of society. But I could see how easy it is to overlook such silly details like that, especially seeing as how they can obstruct one's quest to be a hero!
So how does it all add up to constitute one of the things that's wrong with America? Here's how.
It's ironic that a generation in which the most advanced technology known to man is readily available to the mere commoner is also severely in need of a lexiconic upgrade.

Both "hero" and "Christian" have evolved from words with real meaning, symbolism and and a grand brand in our minds, to something subversive and idealised, something we feel we can have and say we follow, yet that never feels like we've attained it because we're only after it as a way to quell our fears of being individual. We are born into societal oppression: some cope, living quiet lives and finding fulfilment in everyday things, while others focus every cell in their body to somehow standing out, getting noticed for their individuality. Yet deep down, we all know we are individuals, and want to be seen as such. So we take one of two routes: we either aim to be heroes, making folly after folly along the way and never really feel like the Superman we visualise ourselves to be, or we join the pack of sheep, calling ourselves "Christian" (among many other names) and condemn others who dare to be different, who dare to stand outside of the flock and embrace their individuality, out of our own bitterness. And both paths lead to perpetual unfulfilment. The void in our hearts never gets filled, and the misery passes down through generation after generation.

And that, my dear friends, is only the beginning. 


Brandon Yachna said...

You know Bryan, after hearing Marge's belching of "Christian Warriorism", I now know why she is missing her front teeth. :)

Nick said...

YES! The word 'hero' is bandied around so often it's lost its true meaning.