"Good Grief,” cried Candy, in a very odd voice, 'it’s Daddy!” -- Terry Southern, Candy
When George H W Bush was president I thought, that's it, the last of the Great White Fathers. Sure enough, three presidencies later we had Barack Obama. Though two white white men sat in the Oval Office before my president was black, neither one had the gravitas associated with Greatwhitefatherhood, like the Stone Dudes at Mount Rushmore, where I visited last month. As for the current one . . .
Let's face it, that gravitas is bound to not just race but class. The history of the Founding Fathers is a story of powerful white men. In the America I come from, more lip service is paid to what we today call diversity, but it's lip only. In the end, Great White Fathers have ruled and in many cases still do, even if, as in my own native country, they've strutted around in guerrilla fatigues instead of Brooks Brothers suits.
Of course, that's not the only history, even in this America. The Fathers signing the Declaration is one tableau. Ellis Island is another. And what are we to make of the scrappy and beleaguered Irish immigrants, fair of skin yet mistreated? Africans, immigrants against their wishes, and mistreated beyond the limits of a nominally Christian nation. And let's not forget those who were here first, whose occupation and oppression ranks with slavery as one of the nation's original sins, as it is in every country of the hemisphere.
Indians had their day at the Little Bighorn, a battleground I visited on this trek West. In Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, by the time the Indians have surrounded Custer and his men, there has been enough white brutality on the screen that one cannot help root for the soldiers' slaughter that is coming. Custer is the Bad White Father who, by extension, tarnishes those big heads at Mount Rushmore -- just read Jefferson's disdain for the Indians in the very words of the Declaration.
And today? Plenty of unfinished business in the land of the free. Not the business of making it great again, a nasty business that goes against the grain of its greatness. But a reparation. A recognition of historical sins that are hard to acknowledge in a culture of let's-move-on. Sure, I never killed an Indian. I never owned a black slave. But I grew up white in my corner of the Americas and then white-sort-of in a corner to the north, and I live in history. We all do; otherwise, why visit Mount Rushmore to look at those Great White Fathers? Why walk on the blood-soaked ground of the Little Bighorn?
A French intellectual whose name I don't recall once said that we turn toward ideology to escape "the terrible burden of history." As modernity makes the globe smaller, that burden becomes inescapable. No ideology can help, though knownothingness does offer as much relief as a meaningless ritual does to an obsessive-compulsive: one nanosecond before anxiety kicks in again. It may be that human consciousness cannot withstand the burden that the original Great White Fathers, in all their contradictions, tried to tame with the tools of the Enlightenment in their Declaration and Constitution.
Perhaps the current Father is right in his childish rants. It's unfair, this American democracy. Too much combative media, too many combative legislators, too many combative citizens, all of them firmly planted on the groundwork of the Founding Fathers to remind us constantly of that terrible burden of being American, a burden the current Father will not share. If only we would all follow the edicts of his tweets, if only we stopped suspecting he's a huckster, if only we stopped looking rationally at what transpired and, instead, just moved on. Beyond history. It's going to be beautiful. Believe me.