Friday, September 4, 2009

When We Were All Americans

We were talking about politics and the environment via e-mail recently when a friend's use of the phrase "anti-Americanism" brought me up short. Short of applying it to the 9/11 terrorists, I'm not sure what the words mean. All one has to do look at today's partisan bickering--viz the hysteria about President Obama's address to schoolchildren--to understand one man's anti-Americanism is another man's patriotism.

The other day, checking my e-mail and surfing the Internet while my wife and son were away touring the Gettysburg battlefield, I turned on the television and found a 1942 movie, Seven Miles from Alcatraz, on Turner Classic Movies. The picture's about two convicts who escape to a lighthouse where a Nazi sympathizer plans to take several German spies to a submarine waiting off-shore.

At one point early in the picture, one of the cons declares himself a man without a country with no stake in the war, making his point so emphatically I knew--though I wasn't able to watch the whole thing--he'd have changed his mind by the time the movie was over.

Of course, the movie represents a different, more innocent era. When one one of the cons leers at Anne, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, observing that five years is a long time to be without a woman, we know it's just talk.

I'm not the only one who's been thinking about World War II and what it is to be an American.

In a recent Sightings column, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal concludes that "the success of [Quenten Tarantino's movie] 'Inglourious Basterds' suggests that most Americans, no matter how they feel about waterboarding, gay marriage or health-care reform, pine in their secret hearts for a lost world in which everyone can agree on at least one thing: Nazis are no damn good."

I think Teachout's right, in the sense that World War II was the last time the vast majority of Americans agreed about the nation's mission. Still, I prefer homefront pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and Since You Went Away, believing that they more accurately depict that lost world and the awareness that the fact we were all in it together made it necessary to transcend our differences to ensure our survival.

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