Monday, June 9, 2008

Dreaming Up America

I walked over to the Seattle Public Library after work and found that author Russell Banks was about to start reading from his new book, "Dreaming Up America." Banks is primarily known as a writer of fiction, and I've enjoyed the books I've read by him, including Affliction, Cloudsplitter and Rule Of The Bone. He has a great talent for creating distinctive voices (the main characters in those books include a perpetually drunk snowplow driver, abolitionist John Brown and a 14-year old mall rat) and has always been unabashed about his lived-through-the-1960's liberal politics. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Banks' writing has been the profound portraits he creates of deeply flawed people and their attempts to make sense of the desperate situations they find themselves in.

Even knowing all that about Banks, I was impressed with the way he used his perpetual themes in crafting a book length essay about American history. Banks read four lengthy excerpts from his new book over the course of an hour, exposing and dissecting three versions of the American dream. In the oldest version of that dream, Spanish mercenaries dreamt of "El Dorado," the "City of Gold," an untold prosperity based on exploiting the rich resources of the New World. Ponce DeLeon and his conquistadors came seeking a Fountain of Youth, or the promise of escape from one's old life amidst the impossible promise of perpetual re-invention. And finally, the New England colonists sought religious and political freedom in a pastoral "city on the hill," which they imagined to be a beacon of purity in a vast continent ripe for pillage.
These values, in conflict from the very beginning, became ever more corrupted as Americans forged a national culture based on the unholy tripartite marriage of capitalism, delusion and spiritual purity. The result has been a belligerent nationalism coupled with a foreign policy that is blatantly self-serving while claiming to promote universal ideals. The most modern manifestation has been a destructive empire, led by an imperial president acting aggressive abroad and repressive at home, all in the name of progress.

Banks' intriguing analysis and persuasive vision captivated the assembled crowd. As the talk finished, and Banks opened the floor for questions, he was prompted to share his thoughts on the current election campaign, which led to a long string of impressive observations on the state of the American Presidency. "McCain presents himself as the warrior wounded in service to his country, returning home with painfully acquired wisdom and experience to lead his nation. Obama is the fiercely intelligent young outsider, raising himself from obscurity to offer bold new perspectives. Both of those narratives are powerful and universally understood. But I think McCain will win. Americans expect a great deal from their president - he is treated like a King and a Pope, in addition to being a Chief Executive, and I don't think most Americans are prepared to see a black man in that role." After the wealth of wise commentary, the crowd at the Seattle Library were clearly shaken by this conclusion. The entire audience mumbled nervously. "I don't think there's any good reason for it. It's not even necessarily racism. I just think it makes people feel weird and uncomfortable, and it takes a great deal of courage to overcome that."

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