(Photograph- the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Paradise, Nevada USA, in the aftermath of the mass shooting that occurred on October 1, 2017-taken from the Paul Auster Essay- Bloodbath Nation. Photographic credit to Spencer Ostrander).
The United States of America was built and moulded by a powerful myth, that wealth and success could be acquired through individual determination alone. Its entire establishment was made in a deliberate departure from European civilisation. This older, more traditional civilisation was created through a combination of heredity and religious benevolence. In contrast, the USA distanced itself from these rigid traditions and attempted to forge a modern and forward thinking nation freed from the shackles of monarchical and theocratic power.
However a myth isn’t the same as a lie, and all nations have foundation myths. These myths have positive as well as negative consequences, especially when it relates to the future health and wellbeing of a people. There is one element of truth attached to the legendary history of the USA. It is undeniable that this land of liberty allowed the poor and oppressed people of every nation a chance to succeed. Some people were lucky and made their fortune, but many others struggled and continue to struggle.
There is a darker truth to the history and it is beyond doubt. The Native Americans suffered during the first wave of European colonisation. It was hard to tolerate an alien culture and a people who differed so much in terms of moral and societal values. The most noticeable difference was the notion that men could “own” land and exploit it for their personal gains. This is an entirely European concept as Native culture perpetuates the notion that the land exists entirely separately from men, and it is impossible to “own” Mother Earth.
However this almost insatiable desire to succeed and progress was the reason that the USA became the pinnacle of scientific, technological and cultural achievement. Now in the twenty-first century there are questions about whether this postcolonial nation built upon a semblance of artifice can continue to survive. It is no coincidence that the culture war started in America because the dreams of the frontiers men are beginning to founder, and questions surrounding the acquisition and inheritance of this precious land are being asked again.
The question whether a price should be paid for the vanity of the European settlers was initially evoked by the American author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut acknowledged that American culture could be vulgar and boastful and hubris could ultimately be its downfall. In 1952 he published “Player Piano” a dystopian, satirical novel replete with black humour.
It is a savage illustration of the gloating nature of American businessmen, and almost a warning to readers of the future that a country that is solely focused upon capital can become a soulless and dispiriting place. The novel is indeed prophetic as it depicts America as a giant factory where automation has replaced human labour, and the only work left to human beings is the development and repair of the machines.
Some of the characters grow disillusioned by their lives and drop out of society. Vonnegut deliberately subverts the legend of American civilization in a narrative twist; these characters appropriate Native American culture and revert to a simpler, poorer but more spiritually rewarding existence.
Five years after the publication of “Player Piano”, another subversive writer created her own interpretation of America’s foundation myth. The Russian born author Ayn Rand published “Atlas Shrugged”. This is a masterful novel and a robust defence of America’s capitalist system.
Rand created the legendary character of John Galt, the personification of American ambition and zeal. Rand directs her opprobrium to the enemies of capital, the bureaucrats and the politicians. These characters hinder progress with punitive regulations and taxes. Instead she reserves her admiration for the courageous individuals who seek to change society through imagination and innovation. This also includes engineers and musicians. Ultimately Galt is the hero in the book because he fights and wins to succeed.
In Rand’s view the ego is not a negative nor a destructive force, it is a noble indication of our uniqueness. Reading the novel it is obvious that every human being has an ego because every one of us has a view of our own self worth and value. Rand helped to put a human face on the capitalist system and this in itself was ingenious and poetic.
Her narrative belies the notion that capitalism is dehumanising because this is the only system that liberates individuals from state power. Vonnegut distrusted the engineers and the businessmen and looked towards the state as a benevolent power, in the same way his German ancestors would have trusted the Church pastors. Rand saw an all encompassing state as a stifling force that inhibited the intellect, as she endured Soviet oppression before seeking asylum in the free world.
Both perspectives have their validity and it is worth remembering that we are neither irrational animals driven by herd instinct, nor are we machines programmed by big corporate interests. It is impossible to find a balance in a politically polarised world, this is lamentable. However we should still pay our respects to the brave people who sought the dream for life, liberty and happiness because the USA, and even the world would not be the same without their legacy.