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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jekyll and Hyde Americas

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Dr. Jekyll created a concoction which allowed him to separate himself into two personas: the noble and respectable Dr. Jekyll and the depraved Mr. Hyde. His intent was to separate the personas so that the respectable Dr. could indulge in his secret vices without damaging his respectable reputation. Mr. Hyde, however, soon took over and threatened with dangerous violence to destroy the good doctor.

Though Stevenson wrote the story to illustrate the struggle between the good that I know and the evil that I desire anyway, (" was as an ordinary secret sinner that I at last fell before the assaults of temptation”) it has some allegorical application to our country. The United States of America is both the good doctor and the depraved Hyde and it is unclear which of the two personas will emerge from the struggle as the victor.

The America we’re taught about in school – whether home or public – is the noble respectable America: founded on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, Freedom for all, power from the people to the state and not the other way around,  democracy as established under the Constitution – which some have suggested came almost directly from the mouth of God. This America is a beautiful America. This America is the beautiful lady symbolized by the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island (her full name is Liberty Enlightening the World).

The New Colossus – by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beaconed hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The un-bridged harbor that twin cities frame
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This is a beautiful noble America – open and inviting to all, a mother to the poor, a shelter to the victimized, and an aide to the oppressed. She comes to the rescue of those who are threatened and in danger. This is the America where all (and women) are created equal. Where people are free to speak, assemble, worship, and protest. This is the noble America that the Pilgrims and the Puritans set out to establish.

“Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us, soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdraw his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” - John Winthrop

It was envisioned that America would become a sort of Zion to which all the nations would stream in order to find Truth, Justice, and Righteousness – the American way. This is an America that I could love, an America that strives to be a physical incarnation of that spiritual Zion, an America that is free and generous and just.

But just as Jekyll had his Hyde, Lady Liberty has a darker persona as well. This American Woman isn’t so lovely. She has a 200+ year history of oppression and greed and lies. 

She’s tattooed on one arm with the words “Manifest Destiny.” Beneath her feet are the Indian nations she displaced in order to make way for her westward expansion, Japanese civilians burned and radiated by two atomic blasts, and an ever growing pile of aborted fetuses. She wears the finest clothes: supple leather shoes, embroidered silk gowns, and rings and bracelets of gold studded with numerous precious stones. Her purse is full and bursting with cash and credit cards, but she stoops to take the few meager pennies from the starving masses surrounding her.

Her other arm is tattooed with the motto of the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s novel 1984, “WAR IS PEACE!” She carries a loaded M-16 rifle and is not afraid to use it (Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan….Syria?) or to sell it to her violent death-squad lovers in El Salvador, Chile, China, Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Iran… She’s even trained many of them to be excellent marksmen and torturers in her School of the Americas. 

The two Americas - Jekyll and Hyde – are mutually exclusive, though not separate. They co-exist in a continual struggle for dominance. It has, however, been the strategy of the darker Hyde-esque America to Hide behind a mask of the noble America, disguising her cruelty and oppression in noble sounding rhetoric such as, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of those who threaten it!” But behind that masquerade is still the creeping American evil.

There seem to be two Americas. “America… Love it or Leave it!” But, which one? Which America are we defending? Which one are we criticizing? Which one do we love and which one do we leave? Which persona will we allow to win the struggle?

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