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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (V)

Dr. Deneen begins his essay, "Awaking From The American Dream..." by referring again to the "restlessness" of American man, and the wonderment of observers at the time, at the conceit that family and ethnic ties could and should be uprooted in order to forge a new identity. We recall Deneen's contention that the individual in the liberal conception is completely fabricated, at least in terms of the individual being the foundational starting point of society.

Deneen intends to trace the implications of liberal individualism through 3 films, dating from the 1940s through 1990s. The three films are It's A Wonderful Life, Avalon, and American Beauty.

It's A Wonderful Life is perhaps the most beloved movie in American history. There is no need to recount it here. Deneen, however, wants us to re-examine a few things. George Bailey himself displays a marked disdain for his hometown of Bedford Falls. Deneen well documents Bailey's restlessness. His character is an obvious contrast for Potter, but he aims to build his own subdivision, Bailey Park. Deneen asserts that although the film presents his motives and ends positively, it's not likely that the solidarity that rescues George at the climax would persist in the new suburbs. He argues that the smaller, less individualistic arrangement of Bedford Falls creates what we might call a culture of solidarity. Indeed, what exactly is George trying to escape from? More ominously, the viewer eventually realizes that Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. It's doubtful that a stronger denial of tradition and memory could be articulated.

Avalon tells the story of two generations of the Polish Krchinsky family in Baltimore. The younger generation grows restless of city life and tight quarters, and also throws off family traditions, casting aside their name and customs to be good Americans. Even as the older generations learn to drive, get more stuff, and move to the suburbs, it's hard to argue that the situation has improved.

American Beauty is a dark tale of 1990s suburban life. It has the feel of a midlife crisis film, also, since the main character Lester Burnham is around that age. Lester has an awful job, his family despises him, and he has no reason to live. Illicit sex (or the hope of it) is the fulcrum of Lester's "awakening," and even as Lester realizes his folly in the moment of his death, Deneen points out that the resolution is just a different form of the same individualist escapism Lester allegedly hates and rebels against.

Avalon is the film that closely tracks with what Deneen is arguing, but the elements in each film he highlights show us the basic outline of both our American philosophy, as well as its problematic aspects, with respect to our anthropology. We must consider the end or ends we are trying to achieve. Any "progress," whether economic or technical, that contravenes this anthropology ought not to be held up as praiseworthy.

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