America, the soap opera

By Craige McMillan

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall …

Somehow, in just 200 years, America has gone from a nation of citizen philosophers to a national soap opera. Madam Toogood is caught on videotape beating her young daughter in a parking lot, and the nation is hooked. Over and over, the media plays the film loop, taunting us. Concern is etched in the features of the news anchor as she asks us the questions: What could this mother have been thinking? Has she ever done this before?

And the questions we’ve all been trained to ask ourselves: What happens next? Where is this story going? Who will enter the plot after the commercials and claim their 15 minutes of fame? So we ask, and the media answers with more questions: Who will prosecute her; who will defend her? Let’s talk to them both. What will happen to the victim? How about the perpetrator? Is it all fair? Doesn’t everybody do it at one time or another? Aren’t the mother and the daughter both really victims, while America – which is to say all the rest of us who are watching this soap opera – aren’t we really at fault?

The media stirs the pot, and the nation becomes a pulsating, seething mass of contradictory opinions. “Lock her up – throw away the key!” “Forgive her, she’s clearly sorry – hasn’t she suffered enough?” “Protect her daughter, we can’t let the child go back there!” “Don’t punish the daughter by separating her from her mother!” Bring out the eye drops and handkerchiefs – let’s start the hand-wringing in earnest!

Look at this mother’s tears of contrition! Is she really sorry, or is it an act? And who, if we haven’t done this to our children – hasn’t wanted to? In the end, isn’t this evidence that what we really need are more counseling services, more social services, more child-protective services, more probation services and work-release programs, and of course more taxes to pay for it all? How can we even think about cutting taxes and letting innocent children suffer? How can we ever contemplate putting mothers in jail and separating them from their children, especially when it’s our fault they behave as they do? What kind of a country is this, anyway?

What kind of country indeed? If we had the continuity of history to guide us, we would know that there are good parents, and bad parents – and they’re not always the same people. There are people with hot tempers who respond in violence, others have the patience of Job and are destined for sainthood. Some children are fortunate in the households they grow up in, others are not. Most of us had our share of pain growing up and, if not, life is quite willing to provide further opportunities as we grow older.

There is little that you or I can do to change any of it. Society must continue to reward and punish, because growing up is a lifelong process. Those who learned more of life’s lessons as children are indeed fortunate – the tuition costs less. Those who did not will keep upping the ante until they cause serious harm and their actions can no longer be ignored. They will pay an inflated price for their belated education. It’s not fair … it’s just the way things are.

With America splintered into hundreds of ethnic enclaves, the melting pot has been pushed to the back of the stove and grown cold. Each of us does what is right in our own eyes. The Muslim father who kills his daughter to prevent her from marrying a Christian is doing Allah’s will in his culture, but here, he is a murderer. The Christian preacher beating the drum for converts is a hero in middle America – he is subject to arrest and prosecution in Israel, execution in the Muslim world. Abortion is murder, or a woman’s hardest-won right to control her body. Gun control is the road to peace, or it’s the end of freedom.

As we flounder in a sea of deadly media undercurrents, each pulling us toward its own agenda, we struggle to get our footing. Glued to the television screen, we stare at the news anchor, pleading for the truth. The face smiles back at us and, like an Enron accountant, answers with a question: “Truth? Yes, of course, the truth. What would you like it to be today?”

We are descended from a nation of citizen philosophers – farmers – who read the best books the world had to offer and educated themselves through the long, cold winters. They learned from the past. Events did not occur in a vacuum. The Christian heritage, whether it was believed or not, gave common ground with one’s neighbor. We taught the same rules to our children, because it seemed that had helped us to live productive lives and build an extraordinary nation. We were successes and failures, rich and poor, young and old, but we were all Americans and the world took note of it.

Today our cities are enclaves of “little China, little Vietnam, little Croatia, little India and little Mexico. We don’t agree on where we’ve been, where we are or where we’re going. Our shared history is gone – the American Dream a thousand different cultural traditions from “back home,” and we all “got our rights.” Today a simple nursery rhyme holds more truth than we can bear.