America, Please Stop Creating Myths About Your Presidents
Recently (in real time) and eons ago (by the pace of news stories about President Trump), there was a clamor about what Trump's role in Disney's Hall Of Presidents would be. Trump had to be added to it, but it looks like he won't speak. That's thanks to the controversy surrounding him, a lack of cooperation from the Trump administration, and the fact that the average child's understanding of America would not be enhanced by rambling comments on female genitalia and how mean the media is.
What went unmentioned in every report is how weird it is that America has attractions in its biggest and most famous amusement parks where animatronic presidents give 23-minute lectures on how great they and all their ideas are. Disney calls it "patriotic." Even the waiting room is "awe-inspiring."
The weirdness went unmentioned because, to Americans, it isn't weird -- the veneration of your leaders to the point where they perform robotic theatrics that would be at home in BioShock is just something that happens in America. But to a non-American, like myself, the whole display is ... odd. I've seen the show, and it's neat, but it's also what it would look like if American history could masturbate. Some of those robots represent men who owned (and in some cases raped) slaves or prolonged war for personal gain or were infamously corrupt. And if you're thinking "Well, that's just history," can you imagine, say, a German Hall Of Chancellors? A Canadian Hall Of Prime Ministers? How about a North Korean Hall Of Supreme Leaders?
No, I'm not suggesting that North Korea and the United States are one and the same, because I'm not a 14-year-old who just discovered weed and Infowars. But America's attitude toward its presidents resembles how dictatorships revere their leaders, not how other democracies treat theirs. I'll demonstrate in the same way I approach romantic disputes: with movie posters.
There's an entire genre where the American president is an attractive badass who starts gunning down terrorists or aliens the moment his country needs him to. In one movie, the president's home is referred to as the home of the Gods. If we weren't already familiar with the genre, a strong and sexy leader killing all his enemies to inspire his people would sound like a movie Kim Jong-il demanded be made by the filmmakers he kidnapped. Even in the many movies that feature an evil congressman or senator, the president is beyond reproach.
Other western democracies don't have an equivalent of this. Benedict Cumberbatch isn't going to shoot all the terrorists who have occupied 10 Downing Street. There are no Canadian films about a ripped Will Arnett saving 24 Sussex Drive from aliens. In London Has Fallen, the American president kicks some ass while the assassination of the British PM triggers the plot and the leaders of Canada, Germany, Italy, France, and Japan are unceremoniously blown up by terrorists. The American President is a mythical figure who destroys anyone who dares to fuck with him, while the leaders of other countries are expendable plot devices barely worthy of mention unless it's to fuel President Aaron Eckhart's righteous vengeance.
London Has Fallen is an extremely stupid movie that inadvertently sums up how America sees itself and its president -- as the action-movie hero who needs to save the world. London's Metropolitan Police, who in real life just stopped a terror attack within minutes, are tricked by the terrorists, slaughtered, then pulled back to wait for America to save their own city. It's a powerful fantasy, except in reality the guy currently playing the lead role is more fit to star in Paul Blart: Mall Cop than Independence Day, and Americans are struggling to wrap their heads around that.
In my time visiting America, absorbing American news and pop culture, talking to my American friends and colleagues, and pretending to be a cute American teen in online games to extort virtual money and items from lonely Chinese boys, there are two common beliefs I've seen everywhere. The first is that the modern American government is a necessary evil that cannot be trusted. Even Americans who support, say, an increased government role in healthcare, love to grumble about other aspects of the government. Extreme advocates of "big" government in America would be boring moderates in Europe.
The second belief is that George Washington and the other Founding Fathers were unimpeachable heroes who forged a great country from the crucible of war. Look at all the cities and parks and monuments named after Washington. Your nation's capital is named after him, and then, just to get the point across, you also built a giant dick in his name in the middle of his city. America is obsessed with its own origin story -- you wrote a three-hour, historically questionable musical about one of your Founding Fathers and promptly declared it one of the best musicals ever made. Look at the songs, the books, and the giant heads carved out of a goddamn mountain. Look at the monument you built to one of your most important presidents, and compare it to the monument Canada built for one of its most important prime ministers.
It's hard to simultaneously distrust your government and revere the men who created it, so idolizing the office of the president is the compromise. The government may be corrupt and flawed, but the president is an inspirational figure worthy of respect. Even a president who's hated while in office gets absolved by time. George W. Bush, who was loathed by liberals, is starting to be looked back on as a man who meant well and could be worked with on the big issues. Conservatives felt the same way about Bill Clinton during the Obama years. And every mistake a modern president makes, every flaw a modern president has, is compared unfavorably to the Founding Fathers. Americans worship the office of president even as they distrust what it represents.
Trump took that compromise and tore it apart. His actions and attitude are so far removed from the role of president as Americans understood it that no one really seems to be sure what it means anymore. Not coincidentally, the Americans I know are confused about what their country stands for and where it's going. The president is not a dictator, and his power to get things done is often quite limited. For all of the times he's made the news, Trump has done little of substance. But he is a symbol, and Americans have been watching the most important symbol of their country morph like an alien is about to burst of its chest.
Go ahead and try to imagine what the Trump Monument would look like.
America is built on mythology as much as fact -- not many people have studied the Revolutionary War in exacting detail, but everyone half-remembers something from elementary school about overthrowing the evil British oppressors who forced cruel taxes on their forefathers. That's what America is, in its own legend. It's a country that kicks ass and takes in huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but right now it's the unemployed guy at the bar grumbling about how he used to have everything until he caught a few bad breaks.
Every country needs myths to function, but most countries do not have origin stories that interesting. Canada was formed out of economic convenience and fear of American aggression. If I challenged the average Canadian to name our Fathers Of Confederation, everyone would name our first prime minister, then people would start to panic and ask if Labatt Blue was a real guy, then they'd throw something at me and run away. I couldn't do much better. Most Canadians could probably name more American presidents than our own leaders, if only thanks to cultural osmosis. Americans talk about their presidents like that guy who just got really into vaping and wants to make damn sure that you know it.
We don't build elaborate monuments to our leaders and founders. There are no big-budget movies celebrating all the paperwork they signed. If someone wrote a musical about George-Etienne Cartier, it would play one showing to an empty house. Modern prime ministers are not slavishly compared to the first few, and no one is terribly concerned if a politician is following the spirit of what another politician wrote down centuries ago. Our leaders are just ... people. Important people who deserve to be remembered and studied, but people who are allowed to fade into history like pogs or, God willing, Hamilton. So we have our shifts in power, but we don't have people screaming at each other on social media and panicking about the state of their country when we do.
You can judge for yourself whether that approach is better or worse. But the problem with having idols is that they eventually let you down. And when you idolize an office -- when you build giant statues that proclaim its holders to be larger than life, when you film power fantasies that look like stories dictators would want told about themselves -- you are setting yourself up for disappointment. If you constantly declare that American presidents are the greatest people in the world, some not-very-great people are going to want the honor. And then you end up with a president who gives your nation an existential crisis that you helped create.
Though, to be honest, I'm kind of looking forward to a martial arts movie with Trump as the main character.
For more check out The 5 Most Badass Presidents of All-Time and The 4 Most Impressively Weird Sex Lives of U.S. Presidents.
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