The death this year of John McCain, George H W Bush, and his wife Barbara has seen the revival of America’s national myth. It is peculiar, and almost poetic, that such a resurgence could be felt at a time of such revulsion with public institutions.
We can mourn these figures for who they were; as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, as public servants, as soldiers, as leaders, and as men and women of principle. However, at this moment in American history, as America eulogizes these individuals, we set the mythic lives of these figures- in all their republican virtue- against the backdrop of modern America’s shattered social-institutional framework. It is, of course, a deeply symbolic moment in the life of a nation.
In Bush and McCain, we see the fraying of America’s living links to its former greatness. Both Bush and McCain emerged from an ancestral line which traced the contours of American history. The earliest in their lineages arriving as English and Dutch settlers, escaping religious persecution in the old world. Subsequent patricians served in America’s wars, sought fortunes on the frontier, and elevated themselves to high political office.
They continued this with service in Vietnam and World War II. American patrician culture is dying out – it is institutions; the most visible of which was the Episcopalian religion and moderate republicanism – currently have a near negligible impact on national public life against a past in which they stood at the apex of America’s social hierarchy.
One could argue that the American establishment brought this upon themselves. At the conclusion of the cold war, neoliberal economics and an increasingly ambitious and expansionist foreign policy broke down static traditional social structures and shattered public trust in the establishment. The extension of American power beyond its capability- and the hollowing out of government that happened with neoliberalism, paved the way for the intensely reactionary and anti-establishment political forces of the present day.
American patricians were ultimately a flawed class, with mild-mannered virtues and an unshakeable sense of destiny masking political complacency about their own survival, and the survival of a social-institutional framework moulded in the image of civic virtue.
All great legends suffer from factual complexity. However, a political community needs its legends; symbols need to exist to construct a common fidelity to public institutions. The decline of the WASP establishment and the patrician civic virtue that it represented might be seen to be a microcosm of the decline of mythology in public discourse.
The educated have been taught to react against claims of historical greatness; to deconstruct and criticize these myths, often from the standpoint of mythology as a tool to perpetuate existing hierarchies, and therefore oppress people who possess various group identities.
In the past decade, all national mythologies have undergone a thorough re-examination, and in most cases wholly torn down from their sanctuaries. In Australia, we have come to regard our history and our establishment with such typically Australian cynicism that it scarcely exists for us.
The history of the federation is known primarily for sending generations of high school students to sleep, and one could scarcely imagine the kind of civic pageantry that we are likely to see this week occurring following the death of any of our political leaders.
On occasions such as the end of great American life, against the backdrop of a truly awful American political clime, when myth and reality uncomfortably cross-germinate- we are entitled to ask ourselves whether a political community is better off without it.
The public reaction to the deaths of the Bushes and McCains, from both sides of the aisle and in all corners of public debate, suggests instead that there is a deep yearning for a revival in the national mythology. At a primal level, all the critical theory in the world cannot compensate for the fact that mythology creates a sense of purpose and civic virtue for a political community.
Such narratives confer meaning upon political life, without which we sit in our current situation – suspended in a kind of political void – where the only actions are purposeless reactions. With that in mind, we should stop and remember these great American lives and seek to personify their great American virtues.
Terence Duggan is a media consultant and Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney.
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