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Keith Rankin: American Themes

Keith Rankin, 8 November 2001

American Themes

There are two enduring themes in American story-telling: the good confederation versus the evil empire, and the little guy (underdog) versus the big guy (overdog). (Microsoft was the overdog that Americans most loved to hate in the 1990s.) In neither story is there a middle ground. Either you are with the force or you are against it. In one variation, the overdog is a facet of nature - tornado, flood, meteoroid, dinosaur - that must be overcome if America is to survive.

Americans recognise this characteristic of theirs. So they make films like Cats and Dogs - ostensibly children's films - as a way of both satirising and retelling the evil empire story. I was rather alarmed at the sight of cats sending cluster bombs to their dog foes. (Somehow, Hairy MacLairy from Donaldson's Dairy could not have come from America; there it would have been Hairy MacHine Gun from Talahatchee Penitentiary.)

In the movies, the good confederation always prevails of course, as does the little guy. What we don't see in Disney movies is the struggle of the good big empire versus the little evil empire. No, we turn to CNN for that. Good America versus wicked Afghanistan! Seems about as far fetched as Cats versus Dogs. And don't we just sense that the pious American Goliath - the champion of the Onward Christian Soldiers, recently stung by a well-aimed slingshot - is just plain thick.

There are two complications to the American story: its obvious subjectivity, and the failure to appreciate that most real stories have more than two sides. So history is rewritten by Hollywood to fit the need by American consumers to hear the kind of stories that they understand.

I watched Braveheart again - after my comments a few weeks ago. Having searched the Internet for stories about William Wallace, Braveheart's Scottish terrorist hero, I was taken by the way the movie had obviously struck a chord with American filmgoers. I was also amused by the story of an American couple who visited York because the movie showed Wallace "sacking" that capital of the north of England. They were dismayed to find that, in real life, York had not been touched by Wallace. The American way is, having won an audience's sympathy, to exaggerate the misdeeds as well as the deeds of its heroes. So a couple of raids across the border at Peebles became the rape and pillage of England's second city.

Certainly I felt quite sure that Braveheart 101 must have been part of the core syllabus at Osama bin Laden's colleges of terrorist education. (Having said that, I suspect that the date of Wallace's victory over his English Goliath [11 September] and that the portrayed destination of Wallace's raid on England [Old York] are coincidences.)

Why did we feel that Wallace was a good guy? Although Wallace, in reality, was 2 metres tall, he represented the good little guy (Scotland) in its struggle for "freedom" from the rule of the big guy (England). To add American spice, we see that Wallace (portrayed as a poor commoner) had to contend with a Scottish upper class who were more than ready to defer to the scheming Sassenach king.

Was Edward I really a wicked king? Braveheart portrayed him reinstituting an allegedly traditional practice - prima nocte - the right of a lord to impregnate his subjects on their wedding nights. This story was a complete fabrication. Prima nocte was invented for no purpose other than to define who was good and who was bad. Wanting simplicity in our storylines, we, the audiences, took the bait. No doubt Osama bin Laden similarly economised with the truth in order to hard sell his message to his Egyptian, Algerian and Iraqi disciples.

Another interesting point is that Wallace, in Braveheart, was portrayed as (i) being very poor, (ii) as witnessing the fatal aftermath of an English pogrom on a neighbouring family, and (iii) as having had his father killed by the English. In reality Wallace was about 18 before there was any English incursion into Scotland.

From a minor landed family in the south of Scotland, Wallace's boyhood sounds not unlike that of a boy in New Zealand in the 1960s. Brought up in leafy Ellerslie, Wallace often stayed with his uncle in Riccarton. Scotland in the 1270s was going through one of its golden ages. The weather was hot, peace reigned, the Scottish economy was stronger than the English and had closer ties with Norway and France. Life for a middle class boy was good.

Scotland's golden weather came to an end - literally and figuratively - in the 1290s. The hot-tempered young Wallace murdered an Englishman, and became an outlaw. He became Scotland's Robin Hood. His reputation grew. To the Scots he was a guerrilla leader. To the English, he became the classic bogeyman.

Braveheart shows just how easy it is to romanticise terrorism. It also shows how easy it is for terrorists to win the hearts and minds of people. All they have to do it to tell a good story.

Terrorists generally come from the middle classes. Osama bin Laden, William Wallace and Mohammed Atta were no exceptions.

Middle class Germans bought the stories their leaders sold to them last century. Middle class Serbs bought the stories of national victimhood that their folk historians sold to them last decade. The European world was riven by terrorism circa 100 years ago as middle class anarchists blew up and assassinated their enemies, and each other. (The only thing I remember about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, which I read as a fifth form English text, was the anarchist at the door.)

Today, middle class Americans will buy any story that sounds like an American story; a story in which either the evil empire is destroyed or the little guy punches well above his weight.

Terrorism works by creating a state of fear. We, and especially Americans, are now scared. It worked. We fight terrorism by choosing not to be scared. We fight terrorism by behaving in a way that renders terrorism pointless. And we fight terrorism by outgrowing the simplistic national myths of good and evil that still seem important to many of the world's people. The United States of America remains the world's greatest mythmaker.


PS George Bush junior promises to wage war on the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Centre, and on those Governments which harbour them. What if Osama bin Laden is no more than the "executive producer" of the September attacks, and if the real perpetrators are mostly Egyptians resident in Egypt and in the west (eg Germany)? If so, will the government of USA wage war on the pro-American governments of Egypt and Germany? Not likely. Interestingly, the real objective of bin Laden's disciples appears to be the destruction of pro-western governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. To push the theme further, might there be a connection between the attacks on New York and the apparent suicide of the Egyptair flight out of New York a year or two ago?


© 2001 Keith Rankin

keithr@pl.net

http://pl.net/~keithr/


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