Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

God bless history teachers, Colin Powell, and the ghost of Americana

Courtesy Creative Commons
Courtesy Creative Commons

I had Mr. McAllen in mind when I started thinking about “Neo-Americana.” He was my middle school social studies teacher, and he bled red, white, and blue. He took great pride in teaching American history and talking about “real work,” emphasizing Gen Z’s misguided direction. He had a real “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” perspective. I don’t agree with (or remember) much of what Mr. McAllen said, but I remember his conviction that America is the greatest nation on Earth because of the liberties it grants. I wanted to talk about how young Americans have let those liberties go for the sake of effortless Instagram posting and performative activism. So I did.

Colin Powell first emerged as a victim of the American war machine. After watching his fellow comrades and commanders die over the course of his two combat tours in Vietnam, Powell was determined to make a change. So, he used his experience with senseless U.S. wars and did what every brave American should: posted Instagram infographics.

He didn’t actually, of course. Though, what he did was perhaps more detrimental to his own morals. He pitched himself to Americans as a bold, unaffiliated moral compass under the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations. Once he was ineffective in the Clinton administration’s overreaching deployment of American soldiers across the globe, he felt powerless. So he sparred for a bit, ultimately being pushed aside. Seeking power again, Colin Powell became Republican-affiliated a few years later, helping George Bush clinch the American presidential election of 2000, and giving one of the most infamous American speeches in United States history. In Powell’s speech to the United Nations, he knowingly spread misinformation which led to the American invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The invasion went against everything Powell initially stood for as it sent hundreds of American troops to their deaths like pawns on a chessboard.

I dislike Colin Powell. His speech, which he admits to doubting heavily before it was given, led to the death of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Though, I have recently reassessed my judgment of him. Because he’s everywhere now.

This is the beginning of the piece I was writing. I was going to say that the modern, spineless posting of Instagram infographics and endless content production mimics the spineless actions of Colin Powell. I was going to say that we have become a generation which, like Powell, says they represent certain ideas online but replace action with posting for politically fueled dopamine.

I was demonstrably incorrect.

On the morning of March 22, 2024, 13 students protesting for Palestinian liberation were arrested outside of a building that they paid to upkeep, manage, and fill with content. They did this at an institution, Emerson College, which holds the Instagram bio “Where independent minds give voice to daring ideas.” So, these “independent minds” got together and decided on a daring idea: to protest the administration which they thought did not best represent their interests on the cause of Palestinian liberation. They organized online, using social media to its peak potential.

Young people are pitched the idea that they will go to a college where their expression and individuality is a key priority of the college. They are told that if they believe in something they should stand for it. They are told that they are part of a community where they alone have the ability to shape their futures. Yet when they do so much as block the building that they pay for—as they don’t believe in the man who wants to represent them—they are not listened to but arrested. Open, democratic dialogue is an expectation of both sides, and when it is denied to students in the form of cowardly online surveys and ignorance, it is denied conversely to those chosen to represent them. The difference is one side gets arrested, the other does not.

The young folks who endlessly post on social media are confronted by an unfortunate reality when brave folks actually stand for their causes in the real world: that many American values are old myths of Americana. Neo-American protest can no longer coexist with certain core American values: that everyone deserves to be listened to, that one has a right to respond to the institution they place their money and spirit behind, that those willing to risk their life for their liberty should be paid attention to.

Though, were those ever true American values? Americana is built on contradictions: freedom for all except the unfree, the Wild West that was never really wild, “authentic” country music made by stolen instruments, stolen rhythms, stolen rhymes. Neo-Americana is the twisted grandchild of those lies that persist for the sake of worldwide economic domination. Americana is a ghost; it lived through cowboys, it lived through Colin Powell, it lived through middle school American history courses, and now it lives through us. So, what then is the truth that has kept the machine of American ideation churning?

I think it could only be love for the fantasy we’ve collectively created and fallen for. Love for justice and liberty. Love for myths and legends. Love for admitting when we are wrong and growing from it. Love for cookie-cutter suburbs and towering skyscrapers alike. Love for “anyone can make it here” and “land of the free, home of the brave.” Love for Walt Whitman’s “America” and Katherine Lee Bates’ “America The Beautiful.” Love for columns built to look ancient and cities built to look futuristic. Love for the tall grass in untamed fields, where flowers bloom and dragonflies dance. Love for the dense concrete jungles where the edge of every tower is carefully etched into existence. Love for our neighbors and, often more so, for ourselves. Love for our God, wherever He lies. Love for Hollywood and our beautiful, glimmering, endless screens. Love for horses running free and a medium-rare burger. Love for real, hard work and a cold beer at night. Love for the stars at night in the places where we can still see them.  Love for the constitution, with all its words and scribbles. Love for independence and the hatred of overbearing authorities. Love for protest…

…when it’s convenient, of course. It’s easy to get lost in the fantasy. Every protest is an act of love for what something could potentially be. Every student arrested in protest loves Emerson College for what it could be: a beacon of liberty, as they see it. They envisioned their love, they believed in their love, they enacted their love, and they were punished for their love. Much like the rest of neo-Americana, the student protesters’ ideals of true justice were incompatible with the harsh reality of private authority. Like anyone in love, we chase our desires, and, as it has historically been set in America, this gets us in trouble. All the young folks post because it’s scary to recognize how little power we really hold when we actually stand behind what we say, what we want, and the expression we think we hold. Colin Powell went to Vietnam and came back a changed man, determined to uphold the fantasy of real American justice for soldiers. The reality of American life outside of the neo-Americana fantasy devoured him whole.

        I showed up in Mr. McAllen’s class and fell in love with the fantasy of a land where justice lives and breathes. Where our forefathers deeply believed every word they wrote and said. Where presidents don’t hide behind endless barriers and the police aren’t weaponized. I thought we were a cowardly generation, but we are just another iteration of the last, no different from the ghosts who stood behind what they believed. Regardless, I love my American fantasies: my own personal neo-Americana of liberty, justice, and beyond. I am forever bound to the ideals I hold—the ones I was taught to believe—and I’ll keep chasing them, and chasing them, and chasing them.

God bless America: you know we need it.

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