Culture Rover

#145 - Inconvenient Environmental Truth, Convenient Historical Myths

Al Gore's recent appearance on Capital Hill coincided with Culture Rover finally viewing An Inconvenient Truth.

The film is moving so long as it focuses on the failure of Americans and the U.S. government to confront the science about the carbon emissions crisis. However, at the crucial moment when Gore turns to what we need to do, everything falls to pieces.

The problem is that Gore relies on the hoariest, old, most distorted myths of American history, treating the Revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Great Depression, World War II, and the moon landing as one long, arcing narrative of American triumph.

These are shaky foundations for profound social change. When studied more closely, each event raises unsettling and troubling details: the ways in which American independence was grounded in Southern slavery; the fact that Lincoln's abolition of slavery was forced by African-American freedmen who followed the Union Army in the South, becoming unwanted contraband until Lincoln had to transform them out of their status as property (and look what happened to those freedmen and women after emancipation anyway -- Jim Crow segregation and systematic terror!); the many conservative oppositions to FDR's New Deal in the 1930s; the horrors of using the nuclear bomb to end World War II; and the Cold War context of the space race that led to the moon landing.

I am not arguing that American history as Gore recounts it is simply one big fantasy. Far from it. There are many good lessons to draw from the American past. But treating these lessons as triumphant, uncomplicated models to follow when we address contemporary challenges leaves us devoid of a richer historical grounding.

We need a sense of our shortcomings as a nation and the knowledge that despite these shortcomings, there is still hope. In fact, by becoming aware of the complexities of the American past, we might stand a fighting chance of developing a better future.

That's what makes this crucial moment in An Inconvenient Truth so frustrating. The convenient historical myths that Gore asks us to rely upon for inspiration simply do not generate much energy. Until we stop recycling a simplistic, unproblematic past that runs on myths, the engine of change will continue to sputter and spew toxic fumes. Only the less efficient, more frustrating truths of American history, ironically, will prove sustainable in the long run.

4 April 2007

Back to #144

Go to #146