Not America’s Best Idea

September 18, 2009

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.

6 Responses to “Not America’s Best Idea”

  1. Eric Ferrara Says:

    Well, this is what happens when you ride the subway…

    Anyway, if this is “America’s best idea,” then where is Burns to go from here?

    -“Civil/labor/women’s Rights: Almost as good as the parks department idea”

    -“Electricity: Pretty cool”

    -“Government Subsidized Social Service & Housing: A bump in the road”


  2. susan Says:

    your automatically generated
    possibly related posts give an
    example of what are words generate.
    google’s search engine does the same.
    we are barraged with ads, slogans, blinking
    neon bus ad, revolving bus shelter displays.
    yes Americas best idea is Burns new documentary. a sales pitch. I doubt the weary traveler will take the language anymore to heart than doctor zismar or the domestic abuse
    hotline, and most will never get to see the beauty
    of the larger parks. they are too busy making
    a living and can’t afford the travel fare or gear.
    I appreciate the pictures though!

  3. Nonet Dapul Says:

    I wish I have your passion to be roused by perceived dangers. I am essentially a transplanted Filipino in America and I envy the American mentality that you can do something in the face of what you consider evil, i.e., write a blog. I recently read that global warning caused by neighboring giants will cause the loss of coastal areas in the Philippines in a massive scale in the next 30 to 50 years! Since we are an archipelago, everyone I know and related to live in coastal areas! Yet I have done nothing
    to fight that.

  4. Phil Monahan Says:

    The title of the series comes from a quotation from Wallace Stegner, who called the national parks “the best idea we ever had.” And, while I agree that misuse of language is dangerous in many circumstances, I find it a little hard to believe that subway riders are developing political philosophy based on the signs in the trains. Were that true, Armando Vargas–“victima de hemorrhoids”–might be a city councilman today.

  5. Betsy Molter Says:

    I think Ken’s just setting the stage for his next doc. It’s either going to be “America’s Worst Idea” or “America’s Bestest Idea”.

  6. Marty Babits Says:

    Thanks you Patrick! The national park system, splendid as the vast expanse of nature that it preserves, is truly awesome. Transcendental. Its boundaries separate it from the rest of our society, in which the sanctity of nature carries a sorrowfully low station. Democracy is what allows our parks to represent so much more than the raw beauty of nature. They represent our will – against the onslaught of commercial interests – to treasure the natural. Democracy is the spirit that encompasses our prerogative to treasure life itself; and the park system is a reflection and harmonization of that theme. Ourt ability to make choices about what is and is not most important to us – as human beings – makes any and everything that is vibrant, shine. That goes for parks, communities, and for our very lives.

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