52 years ago the American people watched the inauguration ceremony of a President promising both peace and healing. This was a time when 300 American servicemen were dying each week on the battlefields of Vietnam. The War in Vietnam was deeply unpopular with all sections of society.
However the situation at home was not much better, the process of complete racial segregation was proving to be incredibly painful. Healing seemed a vague prospect. Prejudices remained entrenched in the Southern states. The incumbent President, Richard Nixon sought conciliation through appeasement in an almost vain hope that he could appeal to their better natures. Meanwhile a new generation of African-Americans were seeking meaningful change in their lives by challenging oppression and persecution, often violently. These were the sons and daughters of the migrants who moved from the Southern states to seek new opportunities on the West coast, particularly in towns like Oakland in California.
These were not seamless transitions, employment opportunities were low and living standards were dire. Black people endured frequent police harrassment and brutality. America was a tinderbox. It needed a distinct personality to quell the fire that could consume the country entirely. However Nixon as a person was dour and prone to bouts of paranoia that lead to his undoing. There are striking parallels to the events of today, but it is time to consider the inherent nature of the USA and its origins in this entire story.
The United States of America as a national entity is founded upon a myth. The myth began from its earliest inception as a place for freedom and opportunity, and this appealed to Europeans who were fleeing economic and personal adversity. However before European colonisation it was a country populated by a people who had a totally different belief and culture. Unlike the people who usurped them the Native Americans believed that the land could never be owned by any living human being. In their eyes it was sacred “Mother Earth”.
In the modern age this myth has widened and America has been reimagined as a beacon of prosperity. It`s rise on the world`s stage seems impressive and it would be churlish to find fault in its success. Nevertheless in countries with an older history and tradition such idealism rings hollow, particularly countries like Britain. Many British people find American customs vaguely comical, especially bombastic ceremonies like Presidential inaugurations.
These occasions appear jarring to British audiences. Even in the twenty-first century America is a nation that is striving to find a unique identity in the world. In the eyes of its detractors it is a contrived and superficial place.
This is something that is potent in the 1961 novel “Stranger In A Strange Land” by the American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein.
The book tells the story of “a man from Mars”. The main protagonist is member of the human species but was born on Mars and became fully assimilated into Martian society. He is captured by a visiting space ship from Earth and brought back to his ancestral planet. It soon becomes clear that although he is biologically human, he is still culturally Martian. The book reads like an allegory of early American history when the European settlers deliberately subverted the values of the indigenous inhabitants.
Heinlein became a countercultural icon in his lifetime, as he had modern and progressive ideas of gender and race. Inevitably he also became a “folk devil” for more conservative elements in American society. There were those who associated him with the crimes of the Manson family who were reputedly admirers of his work. In the twenty first century a similar pattern has emerged. Fringe elements on our culture, in the shape of internet conspirators have been elided with dissenting voices and in turn blamed for the scenes of insurrection in Washington. Conclusively it must be said that a nation built upon myth has a fragile and uncertain future.