America is a land that continually sings the praises of what one person, who bucks the system and chooses to be a rebel, can do. "The power of one" isa motto fraught with all kinds of meanings and implications, but it sings the power of one. One person can change the course of history is one of our more popular bromides.
But we can set aside today's event for a moment even as we keep it in mind. Americans are proud that one person can "change everything" but that is a self-help feel-good mantra. That is a pious bromide that can willfully ignore that history may suggest to us that the power of one person to "change everything" isn't very particular about what the change is or how it comes about.
The motto of "the power of one" doesn't specify what the one chooses. This weekend I watched The Last Days of Disco, a film in which a guy stops to think about "to thine own self be true" and muses that the advice seems to presuppose that thine own self must be pretty good. B But what if thine own self is not so good? What if you discover thine own self is actually pretty bad, and that you don't need to just turn over a new leaf but several new leaves?
When Americans sign the praises of the power of one, the one who can "change everything" have we stopped to consider what the outworking of that looks like? Let's take an Edward Snowden. The power of one worked itself out in, well, we know the basics of what he did, right? He leaked a lot of information. If even folk heroes are known by their capacity to destroy with a few deft strokes how shocking should it be that our villains can destroy dozens of lives with a few trigger pulls? It's the 20th anniversary of Independence Day this year. America saves the entire planet by figuring out a way to destroy the alien invasion.
This year Star Trek will hit its 50th anniversary and while I grew up loving the original series there's something about the upbeat condescendingly chauvinistic blue state secularist optimism that I can't quite get behind. What seemed like a necessary tonic in the midst of the Cold War could have atrophied into an exceptionalist sense of entitlement and self-regarding bloat. I haven't been able to stick with the Star Trek franchise since Roddenberry died and the older I get the more I've felt as though Star Trek is a franchise that only made artistic sense in the context of the Cold War. The optimism that if the rest of the galaxy was just more like the most progressive and generous vision of the United States the world would be inherently just is inseparable from the franchise.
It seems easier to make headlines through destruction than creation and this seems to be true of folk heroes and villains. Now is not a day where the arts may have anything "true" to speak to us if all people in the arts fall back upon is "the power of one person to change everything". That's a bankrupt notion and it's easy to see how bankrupt it is if we consider how many times the power of one person to "change everything" doesn't change everything. And should it? When we share these bromides we are not celebrating each other but celebrating ourselves, celebrating a not quite exemplary form of American narcissism in which we collectively imagine that whatever we do may save or end the world by, damn it, it's going to be us that does it.
Taking refuge in declaring that we have the rights and liberties to completely ruin and destroy the lives of others isn't what we think we do in times like this. But what if that is, actually, what we do? What if reserving the right to use pre-emptive lethal force to secure our sense of purpose and happiness is a characteristic of both the left and the right in the United States. For some it might be a pre-emptive war in the Middle East and for others it might be abortion but what if they both betray a foundational American exceptionalism in which we decide who should be killed so our business-as-usual isn't disturbed?
Shouldn't we stop for a moment on a day when someone has murdered so many people to consider the troubling reality that that mass murder isn't in conflict with some of the most beloved mantras of American self-actualization? It's in conflict with our affirmation that human beings have beauty, worth and dignity and should have life, liberty and pursuit of happiness ... that's the formal foundational civic religion. But "be true to yourself", "find your own path", our informal civic religion ... the history of America is too full of folk heroes who were murderers and thieves for us to be able to avoid the awkward fact that in our folk history there seem to be at least as many people who became legends for who and how many people they killed than for the things they built.