Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Mythos

John F. Kennedy was assassinated when I was 18 months old. I was six when his brother Robert was killed. I have no memory of the first incident and only a very hazy recollection of the second; mainly that something bad had happened. In the couple of days since the death of Teddy Kennedy, I have been reading and hearing a great deal about the “end of an era”. It has me thinking about the concept of the American Mythos and the appetite of the crowd.

We are a young country, as those things are counted. We have never had a king. Well, maybe some who thought themselves king-like, but never any official king. The fact is that culturally, our foundations were laid by those who had never known anything but monarchy, and even though they fought valiantly to be free from that particular yoke and succeeded, there remains in the American character a fascination with royalty, nobility, whatever one chooses to call it. We are fascinated with the perceived glamour; we just don’t want to be slaves. In some ways, we’re a bit schizophrenic too. Two opposing states of being comprise our most powerfully compelling myths: the self-sufficient loner, and the glamorous surrounded by entourage fabulously wealthy_____ fill in the blank (captain of industry, athlete, actor, musician, etc). Add to this our love of the Horatio Alger sort of rags-to-riches dream, and we have quite a mix. Just don’t fail to live up to what we expect, even if you don’t know what those expectations are.

The character of Jack in Titanic, we liked because he represented some of the things we like to think best in ourselves: resourcefulness, independence, pride without conceit, making a way in the world on his own terms. The flip side is the never-ending fascination and criticism with every move that Brangelina or Britney Spears make. Or, heaven forbid, the Octomom. We raise up heroes onto pedestals only to rush to rip them from those heights with a glee and eagerness that is dizzying. We like our heroes to be human, because we can relate and share in our own way some of their glory, know that success. We just don’t want them to be too human, too like us, because then we see reality, our own failings reflected, and the mirror turns ugly.

I think that Teddy Kennedy spent the last 25 or so years of his life trying to overcome his mistakes. I don’t know if he succeeded, time will have to judge that. It might be because of when I was born, but I was never caught up in the Kennedy myth. I recognize that they were, and to an extent still are, the closest thing we have had to our own home-grown royalty, and so have been accorded the fascination and the adoration as well as the speculation, and the burden of living up to what expectations have been placed on them by the very culture that anointed them. I can say that I’m glad I’m not one of them. I wouldn’t have it in me to stand it.

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