I’ve just realized that the sixth book on my list of books that have influenced my way of thinking is one that I’ve already reviewed on this blog: Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days. So rather than write a whole book report on it, I will just describe its influence.
When I first read Lake Wobegon Days I was living in Europe and had noticed that perfectly friendly foreigners start acting all weird when they realize you are American. Italians start apologizing for themselves, Germans insist that they are not all Nazi’s, and Frenchmen come out with stuff like “Hamburgers and hot-dogs! It is all you know! It is all you are!”
Everyone had an argument with me that I did not even know had been going on. It is the curse of being an American abroad: you walk into a room and you create an inferiority complex all around you.
(This arrangement will not go on forever: American confidence is pretty low right now, our finances are a mess, sooner or later we will no longer be able to afford this whole super-power thing, and other citizens of other countries will not feel the need to compare themselves to us.)
Lake Wobgon Days was a great comfort to me then because it reminded me of home: not home as my friends imagined it, but home as I remembered it, accepting of course the differences between the Midwest and New England. (Did you know that here in New England we have a restaurant chain called Friendly’s? We go because it sounds exotic. “Hmm… Friendly’s“, we say “is that Italian or something?”)
But what stayed with me was the mixture of sadness and love, of wanting to belong and wanting to escape, and, most of all, the realization that it is possible to both love and criticize. I believe that Keillor can only write about and tease rural Minnesotans the way he does because he loves them. In fact, I now wonder if we can really understand and criticize something if we do not love it first.
Love and criticism: if we cannot apply that to our country, to what can we apply it?
Around the same time I had the misfortune of seeing a Tom Cruise movie that was a remake of Dances with Wolves (or prequel to Avatar) but with Samurai swords and ninjas. You know the one I mean. Most of my friends loved it, and I must admit the ninja stuff was cool, but I found it annoying, and not just because of Tom Cruise’s crappy acting.
You got me there, Tom.
The movie was criticism of my homeland, which I’m OK with, but without love. All the scenes in America were darkly lit, all the scenes in Japan were beautiful. The good guy was an American who wanted to be Japanese, the bad guys were the Americans and those Japanese who wanted to adopt American ways.
To make matters worse, the movie had a fascist outlook on life. (Yes, I said FASCIST.) Paternalistic Samurai fiefdoms were presented as the apex of human civilization, while Japanese peasants who seemed to think modernity would improve their lives a bit by getting the Samurai off their backs were slaughtered with glee.
The movie felt like it was written by some American college kid who spent a semester in Japan, learned a little Karate, and thinks he knows all about Japan and America. The truth is he knows nothing about either. If he really knew Japan he might mention that the peasants had real complaints against the Samurai class or that the Samurai had a taste for boy concubines, and if he loved Japan he could get away with those criticisms. But he doesn’t love Japan, he just hates America. He uses a Japan that exists only in his own head to criticize an America that he does not really know.
They say that only the lover truly sees. Well, maybe only the lover can truly see (and accept) flaws. Maybe only the lover knows when and how to criticize the thing he loves.