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Maha Atal ’08: Eternal beginners

Friday, December 1, 2006

In his review of a new translation of Vergil’s “Aeneid,” David Barber suggests that the “Aeneid” is a particularly relevant book for American audiences because it’s about a superpower experiencing the contradiction between its own ideals of democratic individualism and its less-than-democratic behavior abroad.

Putting his interpretation of Vergil aside, I wonder if Barber is off the mark about America. The “Aeneid” is a founding myth, a story that takes nationalistic pride in the past. Vergil’s Romans are the descendants of refugees from extinct Troy.

As Americans, it seems to me, we take our nationalistic pride in anything but the past. We elevate the opportunity our society provides to go from rags to riches, to move as far from our origins as we can.

Our myths emphasize starting over. The mythological version of the Founding Fathers is of innovators breaking radically from every preceding model. That Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had examples from English political theory and Athenian democracy to draw from is something we’d rather not dwell on. Nor do we admit when our innovations have become old – at age 230, America is older than most modern states, yet we continue to talk of ourselves as being a young nation.

Holidays honoring innovators – Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln – are markers on our calendars. Holidays in honor of less “revolutionary” heroes, like Veterans Day, we allow to pass by almost unnoticed. In more tradition-oriented countries – Britain for example – the nation comes out en masse for Armistice Day. For the British, men who fought to defend the status quo, to protect the nation as she was, are heroes. In America, heroism falls on those who sought to break the rules.

But a culture obsessed with change is one that finds it hard to have a fixed national mythology. If the process of change is the goal, it follows that ideals and identities must be subject to constant transformation.

One of the more striking differences I’ve observed between Britain and America is that the British mythological past, even the recent past, is described in terms of eternal national characteristics. Once a myth is created here, it sticks.

Recently, some American friends and I were complaining about our struggle to find a truly hot shower. One of my friends asked my history tutor how he coped with these inconveniences. He replied, “Oh it’s not that bad. It was worse during the Blitz.”

My tutor is too young to have lived through the Blitz of World War II. What he meant was that the British of the Blitz era, his parents and grandparents, were just like the British of today. They have always been stoic; they have always simply “muddled through,” as the wartime phrase goes. What it means to be British, he suggested, is to display specific habits that hold true over time.

But there is a restlessness in what it means to be American, and it defines the way we look at history. Other cultures look to the past for models to fulfill in the present. We look to the past to reject its values.

As such, our mythologized past goes back to our parents. The examples set by parents are the model against which we react, and it is this reaction against the past that characterizes our nation. American national myths are the myths of generations.

For our parents, for example, defiance of authority (state and familial), though associated in rhetoric with “American” liberties and rights, had a lot to do with rejecting a model of institutional stability set in the 1950’s.

On the political left, this was a rejection of institutionalized racism and sexism in the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. On the right, this was a reinvention of conservatism from the 1950’s institutional stability and ideological homogeneity of Barry Goldwater and Joseph McCarthy to the libertarian, trickle-down, business-friendly conservatism of the late 20th century.

For many of us, the events of our parents’ generation, Vietnam or Watergate, symbolize the corruption of a past era. They also symbolize the failure of youth activism to put an end to such injustices.

We, Generation Y, are both skeptical of authority and cynical about any grassroots efforts to make change. Our apathy, our claim that the right not to care is a citizen’s privilege, is a double rejection of our parents’ value systems and the world they grew up in. It is also a re-definition of citizenship, of Americaness, in generational terms.

Which brings us back to Barber’s claim that America is like Rome. Vergil’s major moment of generational turnover is when Aeneas’ father Anchises dies and hands over stewardship of the Roman race to his son. He shows Aeneas the unborn souls of future Roman leaders, and describes their spreading of “Roman” law and order across the Mediterranean world. This is the climactic scene in a story about founding a new race, yet it centers on maintaining national values across generations.

Not only is Rome’s model of national mythology thus a poor point of comparison for our own, but the suggestion that we should look back to a preceding superpower for examples, seems out of sync with the American obsession with being new. To suggest that America is a second Rome, or a second anything, is not only inaccurate, but also manifestly un-American.

Maha Atal ’08 is really just afraid that she’s turning into her mother.

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