I put my back toward the screen, then spun and let the momentum carry the panel through the screen and window with a ripping crash. The glass splashed out in the moon, like a bright cold water baptizing the sleeping earth, and I put my hand on the sill and vaulted after the panel, Into the moonlight. -Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
As my children arrange their Halloween costumes and Obama and McCain are mediated all around me I reflect on what is 'America'. Throughout my younger years I was as cynical and critical as many left-leaning Australians. I was raised both on Sesame Street and the "overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here" jokes of my grandparents generation who lived through the crises and tensions of World War II in Australia. My parents were involved in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. When I went to university I read The Eagle and the Lotus; Western Intervention in Vietnam 1847-1968 by Jim Cairns. The book made a deep impression on me. Since then I have lived a dual life when it comes to the USA. On the one hand I have watched in horror with news reports from Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the past decades the many locations where United States military intervention was used. I even marched in the streets when Kuwait ("No Blood for Oil") was invaded in 1991.
At the same time I have consumed more American culture than probably many American's have. I have read authors from Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne to the beat writers and on to Brett Easton Ellis, Alice Walker and many more. I have listened to, and bought music from many many American musicians as well as tracked miles and even once sold my clothes (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion 1994) in order to attend concerts by them. I could go on about my addiction to American television and films but I don't need to (we all live with it). I have never set foot in America, but I have been raised on its myths and ideologies all me life.
It is this divided quality to the products of American cultures, politics and society which I pondered when I saw the 30 minute 'infomercial' (such a horrible word) put out by the Obama campaign:
The mythologies at play in the infomercial American Stories, American Solutions, reminded me of the myths that were central in the so-called beat generation. The video which opens this post is taken from the Chuck Workman documentary The Source, the central figures which were associated with the beat generation. Neal Cassady even worked at a tire retread plant for many years, like the first of the 'ordinary folk' Obama introduces us to in the infomercial. Both Cassady and Jack Kerouac were poets concerned with 'the dignity of work', a phrase Obama uses in the film. Both were fierce nationalists, unlike the other more anarchistic members of post-war avant garde in the USA who associated with them. The 'common sense mid western way' which one character in the informercial describes as suiting Obama, is a good summary of Ken Kesey, who was born in Colorado and grew up in Oregon. Kesey believed "a man has the right to be as big as he feels it in him to be." I think this can be related to the central myth of the Obama campaign as indicated by the infomercial. The achievement of status and wealth should be measured not so much by magnitude but by community, specifically American middle class community.
Maybe it comes down to that the generation controlling so much of the wealth in the USA today (born post-1940) is the same generation forty years ago that followed the advice and art of the 'beat generation' artists, writers and musicians, spawning the mythology and legacies of the 1960s. In opposition to this the McCain campaign is perhaps representing values that were challenged by the mythology and legacies of the 1960s. But both are concerned with how the 'American Dream' can be realized. As were the 'crazy coots' represented in The Source. "The story of America" is a narrative that does not go away but is recycled in various forms. The control of the narrative of America seems to be in the hands of the Obama campaign at the moment. A story which we outside the USA meet so often, react to, embrace, reject or are even murdered in the name of.