We hear a lot of comparisons being made lately between today’s financial crisis and the Great Depression, and between the New Deal and the current federal stimulus package. But there are other parallels we might draw between the events of today and 1929.
Writings by Donald Linebaugh and other historical preservationists tell how historical and cultural tourism enjoyed a surge of popularity during the Great Depression. The CCC and WPA focused significant portions of their stimulus budgets on the rehabilitation of historical sites and parks, and the placement of signage and memorials at culturally significant locations.
Linebaugh writes that depression-era interest in our national identity was driven by the nature and enormity of the changes our nation was experiencing then. Many of the verities underpinning our American mythology were being brought into doubt. Perhaps the same can be said about today. Whatever one thinks about biotechnology, or same-sex marriage, or a black president, there’s no denying we are in a time of great change. Is it possible that our national mythology no longer fits us in the face of this change, leaving us in need of new, cogent symbols of who we are as a people? Consider a few examples:
1. Our archetypal citizen-soldier is a white male wearing breeches and a tri-corner hat. He carries a flintlock and rides a horse. Today’s soldiers wear digital cameras on their helmets and microphones on the chests. They are female and male, and all colors and races. They ride Strykers and Hummers instead of horses.
2. We teach our children about American pluck and ingenuity using Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell as examples. But these gray patriarchs are symbols of a bygone era of individual endeavor. Today, the frontiers of discovery are pushed forward by teams of highly-trained professionals in sophisticated laboratories.
3. We represent our democracy with Norman Rockwellian scenes of pious laborers casting ballots in a school gymnasium, but we all understand that politics in America has become a vast, monied, ethically questionable, lobbyist-infested mega-business.
One could go on but the point is made, and the question is begged. Where might we look for new symbols, and a new mythology to sustain us in this time of trials? We can begin by recognizing that literal truth, since it is unlikely to survive a mythologizing process anyway, is not essential. We are at liberty to invent our heroes so long as they stand for something real and true.
Public obsession is not a valid criterion. We do not need a mythology of hybrid cars and wall-sized television screens. Politicians are out, because for every admirer of one, someone else loathes him as much. We may dismiss out of hand looking within the entertainment industry, or among our disgraced industrialists and financiers. And as for our over-paid professional athletes, we won’t even go there.
There is no shortage of modern Americans worthy of our admiration, but it is not enough for a mythological symbol to be someone we admire, however deeply. What we need now are archetypal persons whose deeds, real or imagined, capture the essence of what kind of people we want to be. What are those deeds, and what are the qualities that, when we look inwardly, we most want to find in ourselves?
We continue the rhetoric of American inventiveness, resourcefulness and perseverance. Yet it is not rhetoric because we have proven these qualities in ourselves time and again, though we are at a growing loss for words to express them. Our school-taught stories deflect off our youth’s modern sensibilities. Our politicians’ strains grow more shrill in the vacuum. What we need now are new mythologies about America, and men and women who can articulate them in modern terms we can cherish.
Who will these modern myth-tellers be? Who will they say we are? What myths will they tell about this generation of Americans, and what kind of audience will we be when they do?
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.