Monday, August 24, 2015

Garrison Keillor's America vis-à-vis the Dark Vision of Donald Trump

Saturday night my wife and I attended a stirring program at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City, featuring Garrison Keillor and members of the cast from his long-running radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. It will likely be the last live performance we will witness. Keillor has announced his retirement after a 41-year run. 

Over that time, which began the year our oldest son was born, we have listened to hundreds of his weekly programs, acquired numerous tapes and CDs, attended several live performances, and  in 2006 enjoyed a memorable cruise to Alaska which featured Keillor and his entire cast as the entertainment for the week. (In fact, that was the year I started this blog and here is a link to my post about APHC and that cruise, way back when.)

Keillor is an American original, a genuine folk humorist blessed with a musical capacity that bridges the genres and mixes it lightly with a comedic sense, impeccable timing, and self-deprecating charm. He is a storyteller par excellence. Sometimes when he starts one of his classic tales from Lake Wobegon, the mythical Midwestern town at the heart of his artfully created world, you wonder if the story will find its way back to an ending that is worthy of its telling. But usually, by hook or crook, he traverses the landscape he has imagined and lands adroitly on a moral point that is centered in the America he loves. And we love it too.

There will be a plethora of reviews, tributes, and retrospectives by the time Keillor hangs up his red shoes for the last time. Far be it for me to presume to assess his place in American culture, confident though I am that it will be notable indeed.

But there were some other stirrings in my soul the other night as I began to have a clearer sense of the kind of America Garrison Keillor paints for us each time he sits down on his stool in front of a microphone and begins to spin through skits, songs, and stories, a world that his audience recognizes in its heart, and yearns for in its head.

Unfortunately, my joy in the moment was tempered by an inner dissonance. I found myself contrasting Keillor's America with the one being bandied about in American society these days, led by an egocentric billionaire for whom money is the sole measure of value, force the pathway to security, and ridicule the commerce of diplomacy.  

His is a dark vision. It appeals to our baser selves. It is all prose and no poetry. It is a world without boundaries for those with their own helicopter, their name emblazoned on its side. It is a vision where every humiliating affront is declared as "just boys being boys." It is a vision composed of walls and armies and demagoguery. It is a society where building casinos is likened to building cathedrals. It is a dark and make-believe world that is being created and fueled by fear and empowered by hate. And this traveling salvation show is driven by one who declares there is nothing in his life for which he needs to ask forgiveness.

This is a dark and terrifying vision of America. 

But there is a better way.

Garrison Keillor also skewers American life and all its foibles. He makes fun of his religious upbringing and the strait-laced virtues of small town Lutheranism. Then he leads the audience in singing "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord." No malice here.

He would make fun of the notion of building a gigantic wall to keep “illegals” out, then put a perspective to it by returning us to old, familiar campfire songs like: “So wide you can’t get around it, so tall you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, you gotta go inna the door.” (That’s the way I learned it, anyway.) Somehow, this wall would so much more powerful in its symbolism if it wasn’t accompanied by the list of building supplies to be picked up at Home Depot.

Garrison Keillor lampoons bureaucrats in Washington, DC, with the best of them. His satire is incisive and just as penetrating, but it is not filled with personal loathing, as if every federal worker was stupid and on the dole. There is a difference between criticizing and demonizing.

If one vision of America is centered in personality and ego, Keillor's is self-effacing, his hair windblown but not intentionally so, his wardrobe often unfashionably askew, his ego undoubtedly fluffed by audience adulation but without illusions as to how important that really is.

Garrison Keillor's patriotism is inclusive. His concert tour lifts up the beauty of America, "from sea to shining sea." His audience is not a bunch of different people; it is one people under a canopy of heaven, singing songs we all know, laughing at ourselves, and celebrating the vast community that is America. The other vision is about "just us, not them." It appeals to an American exceptionalism that has winners and losers, and a puppeteer determining which victors get which spoils.

I am not an innocent drawn to quixotic causes, but I am a dreamer. I have been blessed to see a lot of this world, to experience its beauty and its brokenness. I have seen the worst and the best of people. I have seen the world changed by the simplest of persons, and I believe that leadership is a sacred gift proffered to us so as to help us be about good work in the world.

Leaders unite, they do not divide. Leaders respect, they do not ridicule. Leaders sing hymns, not their own song.

Garrison Keillor is not running for president, but his vision of America laughs, cries, and sings its way into our hearts. Sing along, lest we all get swept away into the darkness.

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