This week because of an acute pain in my knee I’ve been taking the subway rather than cycling to work and this has allowed me to witness and partake in that peculiar and-all so-normal human circus that is the morning and evening NYC subway commute. As it happened, all week I’ve sat in cars festooned with ads for Ken Burn’s latest documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. For a couple of days something troubled me about the ads but, as is sometimes the case when something is staring you in the face, I could not for the life of me see what it was.
I could not see it because it was too obvious: obscured by their transparency were the words “America’s Best Idea. “ I do not mean to build mountains out of mole hills nor to nit pick. Nor in any way do I wish to disparage the works of Burns whose enormous films The Civil War, Baseball, The West, Jazz, I have thoroughly enjoyed and will doubtless enjoy again. Are they conventional ? Yes, but they are no less important for being so. They have informed millions – and that is no little thing. (And yes, the works have long ago become formulaic, and yes, Burns the man has more corporate backing than most members of the US Senate but at least he brings something worthwhile into the world.)
What troubles me is the conceit that National Parks are somehow America’s best idea. What troubles me is the dynamic of the misuse of language. What troubles me is that these words will be read or heard by millions of Americans, some of whom might come to believe they are true. What troubles me is that any misuse of language is potentially very, very dangerous as it can have and has had very definite and very negative political and even spiritual consequences. Find any tyranny and you will find misused language.
Are the parks a great idea on every conceivable level? Of course, they are. Are they treasures to be protected and revered? Who would argue otherwise? ( Other than a Ronald Reagan — blessed be his name ! — and the men who created him.) But are the parks really America’s best idea or even anything close to it?
Let us consider. A better idea than freedom of speech? A better idea than the Bill of Rights? A better idea than the separation of church and state? A better idea than the right of every child in the nation to receive a free public education? A better idea than universal healthcare? A better idea than one man one vote ? A better idea than government of the people, by the people, and for the people ?
Well, you get the point.
It will not do, I do not think, to dismiss such language as mere rhetoric or advertising or wishful thinking. This work will be seen and heard by millions and as such, whatever the author’s intentions, these words constitute a very powerful and seductive political statement, all the more powerful and all the more seductive because of their sheer incoherence. They are the kind of words that seep unexamined into one’s consciousness and become by sheer repetition to be regarded as true. Recall the manner in which the words “9/11 changed everything” — words that became a mantra on the very day they speak have — were used to justify change any manner of things. Recall the manner in which the Bush administration repeated the lie that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the horror of that day and upwards of 60 % of Americans bought into it as late as two years ago. Witness the creation and consequent acceptance of so called “free speech zones” in which American citizens who wish to practice their first amendment rights at certain political events are penned in like wild animals as far away from the event they are protesting as possible. Witness the mass insanity of those who are running around howling about “Obamacare” and bureaucratic “death panels” created to decide who lives and who dies under the Godless government controlled health care – like, for example, Medicare.
The key in all these situations is a misuse of language and what we need recognize is that misused language has a dynamic that takes on a life of its own. There are those, I suspect, who honestly believe that our National Parks are indeed somehow the best idea to be hatched and implemented in the great and troubled and glorious and bloody history of this land. But I also suspect such people have either never tasted the fear of unemployment or poverty or racism, have never known, except abstractly, want or oppression or have long forgotten what it feels like. Either that or they have fallen to the place, championed by so many of our New Age brethren where a worship of nature – an oak tree, an antelope, a raging river — is somehow seen as a loftier spiritual state than the struggle and the beauty of human empathy and compassion. Well, it is certainly easier in that Nature doesn’t ask much of you. And it certainly fits in more neatly, oh so neatly with our increasingly post-partisan, non ideological every more Darwinian reality.