Every nation has a history, and every nation’s history has an era that defines that nation; when the people of that nation think of themselves, that era, that moment of glory is how they identify themselves as a member of that nation. For England, the national glory was during the era of Empire…Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, Francis Drake, India, the Raj…for France, it is Napoleon and when the Arabs think of their ages of glory, it is the Bedouin lifestyle that forms their self-image.
For the United States, the dominant national image was formed during our Westward expansion; when foreigners think of this country, they think of cowboys and Indians…and most of us, today, who grew up during the 1950’s and 1960’s remember cowboy shows…Wyatt Earp, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Dodge City…this image of the brave settler, the noble Marshall, the fierce, noble savage Indian Warrior was a major part of the nation’s psyche for almost a hundred years. Children at the turn of the 20th century snuck behind the barn to read the latest ‘dime novels’ about Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane.
The unique aspect of the American mythos is its emphasis on goodness. The British Empire had its dark side, Napoleon was a butcher and the Arab Bedouin image is one of lying and deceit, but the American cowboy image was based on honesty, trust and faithfulness. Americans have always seen themselves as good people, moreso than most other cultures. In fact, Americans have often been reviled by the more ‘sophisticated’ Europeans for their naivety, To us it is our strength, to Europe it is our weakness.
One of the most popular American television shows in the 1950’s was “Father Knows Best,” starring Robert Young, Jane Wyman, Elinor Donahue, Billy Grey and Lauren Chapin. This was a show about an idealized 1950 American family; the father was all-knowing, the mother was the perfect housekeeper and the children, while sometimes naughty, tried their best to be good. This television show was an outgrowth of this ‘good’ self-image that Americans believed truly reflected their society. It defined the ideal family for millions of Americans of the time, forming an ideal for which a good part of America strived.
Of course, there were problems with this image. If black people appeared in this show, they were uneducated and stupid. One rarely, if ever, saw a woman professional, and one rarely, if ever, saw anyone who was poor, hungry or needy….this was the major complaint made about the show and, by inference, the image the United States as the 1950’s ended and the children who had grown up under the umbrella of “Father Knows Best” became teenagers and then college students, during the 1960’s. These children began to see a different United States than was presented by Robert Young, and their disillusionment erupted into a massive call for changes in American society, to bring that entire society, not just white middle-class America, in line with the ideal represented by that television show.
So…here we are, 50 years later, and we have, indeed, managed to destroy that image created by ‘Father Knows Best.’ No longer, on the college campuses, are we taught about the basic goodness of the American people…in fact, our college professors, those same children of the 1960’s who were disillusioned by their rude awakening into the real world, now teach new generations that the United States is, indeed, evil. The divorce rate is high, and rising, children raised in a ‘traditional’ two-parent household are actually a small percentage of all children being raised in this country, and we are considering broadening the definition of marriage to include homosexuals and other ‘alternative’ forms of relationships.
Was the United States ever as good as portrayed on “Father Knows Best?” Of course not. The incidence of spousal abuse, child abuse and childhood indifference was probably as high at that time as it is now; we just know more about it, now. At that time, no one talked about it.
Is the United States as evil as portrayed on many college campuses today? Of course we are not. We, as a nation composed of mortal human beings, have done bad things in our past; we have kept African slaves, we did attempt genocide against the American Indian, our treatment of other ethnic groups was not sterling, and we denied women, for many years, their full potential. In the context of the 16th-19th century, our record on all of the above was little different than the record of other ‘civilized nations, no worse, no better…the difference is, we have learned, and tried to make amends. There are few, if any, nations with our record of public service, volunteerism and help for those with whom we have come in contact. We are, basically, a good nation, one that strives, even without thinking about it, to meet the standards set by the Anderson family in “Father Knows Best.”
It is time we stopped beating ourselves up. Not only are we a good people, but, also, a major part of the rest of the world (outside Europe, which still has not forgiven us for becoming more important than they are) looks to our goodness as a guide for how a nation should conduct itself. We ARE the example of how a modern democracy should function, and we should start thinking and acting like an example.The world depends on us for many things, and we cannot let THEM down by having doubts about ourselves.
In that light, I call upon Americans to think of “Father Knows Best,” again, in light of our present day reality. The reality of that show was not a bad reality. The wife prided herself on being a good wife, the father was a kind and patient father, and the children looked up to their parents and took council from them. Our pendulum has swung far too far; our present-day teenagers are worried about sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and alcohol are rampant in the schools, and we are discussing the dissolution of the institution of marriage. Enough already!
Programs and movements are not the answer; individuals have to look up and take stock of their belief system. People must learn to ‘do the right thing’. If your gut tells you that what you are doing is wrong, then don’t do it. Don’t drive your cars too fast, don’t be mean to other people, don’t disobey the law…do your best to be an example of how a good person should lead their lives…lead by example, NOT because you want to go to heaven, or want to please others, but because being good is the right thing to do. It makes you feel better, and makes others feel better.
Be a good person. If we all tried our hardest to be good people, our nation would be a better place.