Monday, May 7, 2012

Lest We Forget: Vain Hubris Can Be Disastrous - The Hindenburg Showed Us How.

American exceptionalism has been in the news so much lately that you'd think it was an inbred trait of America.

It is. Only it was called by other names in the past: "Manifest Destiny" and "American Colonialism." The concept of America as the Number One nation in the world, it seems has always been with us, but there have been times when our swelled heads have been deflated - pride going before the fall, so to speak.

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, an epic tragedy in many ways to many people, but perhaps the biggest setback to a prideful National Socialist Party and its homeland, Germany.

It was May, 1937, and Germany was still riding a high from 1936 - hosting the Summer Olympics and re-occupying the Rhineland (against the Treaty of Versailles) in its first real aggressive act since WWI. True, it was fighting some bad vibes from other countries (especially the U.S. and even the Vatican), but it also saw the unifying of Germany and Japan against Communist Russia in the Anti-Comintern Pact. Germany as a power in the air had been established for a long while, with the flying of zeppelins as proof of Germany's technological superiority.

There was hubris tinged with irony in the disaster: it was first proposed that the massive zeppelins be filled with helium, a non-flammable substance, but because America - the biggest producer of helium gas during the 20s and 30s - had a military embargo against Germany banning the import of helium, Germany was forced to use flammable hydrogen as the primary lift gas for zeppelins. For years, the zeppelins filled with hydrogen had operated without a problem, giving Germany the feeling that it had mastered the art of lighter-than-air flying. The Hindenburg was, in a sense, the Titanic of zeppelins, drawing onlookers wherever it went - and especially where it landed. It had, in fact, flown 34 successful transatlantic trips in 1936.

The film of the disaster will remain in history's memory forever: not until 9/11 had anyone ever seen instant flaming destruction on such a scale.

Not until 9/11 - perhaps the other wake up call to a nation's hubris. Yes, it may seem a stretch to compare the two, but bear with this concept: whether natural or man-made, disasters can bring countries of great import to to their knees. More than humbling, disasters can be a reality check, a jolt back into perspective. The problem with that jolt, however, is how we react to it: if we react with more hubris (the cowboy diplomacy of George Bush?), we may be worse off than before.

American exceptionalism, as said before, has always been with us. We are the shining City On a Hill "exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries." (wikipedia). "Exempt" may too mild a word for a country that has considered a capitalist, boot-straps, take-charge energy to be the be-all and end-all of everything good for a nation and its inhabitants. Exceptionalism has created, if you will, a blindness to America's history of its ills and lack of morality. We have today some Americans who have flatly stated that African-Americans were better off under slavery. We have political forces teeming to obliterate the hard-won labor movement. The Christian Right backs only corporations and politicians who subscribe to a Puritan ethic, mindless in that ethic's war on humanity. The OWS movement is considered an outright war on capitalism. The singing duo Garfunkel and Oates have been roundly criticized for coming out with a parody, We-Are-The-World video entitled Save The Rich (see below). American exceptionalism is in full force.

So when is going to be America's next Hindenburg? It's next 9/11? When are we going to jolted back into the reality that we have a long way to go to be as perfect as we think we are? When it happens, let's hope that we will have the integrity and leadership to accept the reality check and go on from there.