Rehabing our "Fat Elvis" Image

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy… I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might…

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.

I’m asking you for your good and for your nation’s security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel… I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy-secure nation. ((Source: Wikipedia))

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered these fateful words for which he was ridiculed for decades. It wasn’t until recently that his heartfelt honesty has been viewed both as prophetic and meant as a reassuring balm on the soul of a struggling nation.

Taj Mahal Palace and Tower HotelNow I’m not trying to claim he was the best President ever or anything, though it seems clear to me, in retrospect, that he did the best he could under the various circumstances that assailed his Presidency, both from within the White House and from without the U.S. borders. It’s just that the recent events at the Taj Hotel, combined with the upcoming inauguration of a man who, to me, is the most exciting President since Jimmy Carter, have created a connection in my mind with the turbulence of the times.

Reading those words of Jimmy Carter’s, it seems to me we have come full circle:

  1. dependence on non-renewal forms of energy has created a crisis that may be reaching a tipping point, whereby high prices and shortages may force us to find and, most importantly, implement alternative sources of energy; interestingly, during his tenure and in response to the oil crisis of the time, President Carter led by example, installing solar panels on the White House, wearing what became his trademark cardigans to stay warm without raising the thermostat, and having controls installed in government and commercial buildings to set limits on heating and cooling systems ((Source: Wikipedia))
  2. acts of terrorism continue to plague the world, most recently at the Taj Hotel in India, that affect peoples from around the world (at last count: three Germans, three Israelis, two Canadians, and one each from USA, Britain, Japan, Australia, Italy, China and Thailand, and more than 100 Indians and other natives of the region) ((Source: The Hindu))
  3. the culture of material attachment Carter mentioned in his so-called “malaise” speech, quoted above, has also come full circle: skyrocketing home foreclosures, plummeting stocks, devaluation of the American dollar are forcing people, all over the world but particularly in the United States, to re-evaluate their “longing for meaning”.
  4. massive job cuts from some of the country’s biggest employers are making an already difficult situation much, much worse.

In short, the “chickens have come to roost”.

It’s time to shoo them away, firmly if compassionately.

The local arts, entertainement & News paper, the Flagpole (colorbearer of Athens), had this to say in a feature article titled “The American Image and How to Fix It” published in it’s Nov. 26, 2008 issue:

In most truly meaningful ways, many of the people I have met from all around the world look at America as an empire slowly tumbling, but the reign of American persuasion in their day-to-day lives is unavoidable. America has officially entered its 1970s fat Elvis stage before a global Vegas. We are swollen, oversized, overexposed, shiny, bright and immensely popular, but sad to look at and well past our prime. People still love us as America continues to dwindle into nothing more than a place that was once “The King,” but more out of nostalgia than real worth.
[…]
The greatest sign of strength is coping with adversity, so if we wish to maintain our position internationally, we have to prove ourselves deserving of it. ((Source: The Flagpole, November 26th, 2008, Aaron Burns))

Street Theater at Hartlepool Maritime Festival - Fat ElvisFat Elvis? Egadz! That’s a sorry state of affairs! Nonetheless, it is possible for us to recover, because we are a nation built on ideas. Our strength lies in our unwillingness to admit defeat, our innate capacity to imagine a different future and make those imagining come true, our long-standing policy of doing what is “right”, no matter the cost to our individual selves. That is the stuff true Americanism is made of.

The recent turn out of young voters at the Presidential election was a clear indicator that the shiny brightness of today’s youth hasn’t completely lost it’s luster. The 20-somethings are willing to step up for “change we can believe in”. They got behind the idea of increased national service proposed early on by our new President-elect. Their connection to the rest of the world, an uncontested and undeniable reality in today’s “wired” world, means they understand at a less abstract level than generations past what it means to be a part of the world. Therefore are they, I would hope and think, willing to put in the effort to put America back on the map in a positive light. They understood, on the whole, Barack Obama’s words in Berlin:

I come to Berlin […] as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.
[…]
The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.

I only hope that no one, young or old, expects one man to do it all on his own. Like leaders before him, he will need a wholly competent team behind him, working on his behalf. More importantly, he will need the backing of the American people, and those other “citizens of the world” who can influence their own governments’ policies and actions. Like the youth of the 60’s, perhaps today’s young adults and pre-adults can put together meaningful efforts against global warming, war, genocide and rape, unsustainable energy use, and other ills that affect people on a more global scale. I hope they will literally go out into the world and get a world education. When they do, I hope they will forever erase the image of the “The Ugly American” and replace it with something better, something more admirable, something more truly American.

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