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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Never Forget the Ultimate Sacrifices

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, largely recognized as the beginning of summer in earnest. The purpose of the federal holiday itself is to remember and honor the sacrifices of Americans who lost their lives fighting on behalf of us. By definition, a "memorial" is something that "preserves remembrance." Support Our Troops bumper stickers, charities to help wounded warriors and military families, and Memorial Day observances all serve as a sort of preserving of remembrance of those sacrifices. At the present moment though, an extremely small percentage of the public is currently undertaking the sacrifice of war. The mass media barely, if ever, focuses much attention on the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan, where over 2,000 American troops have been killed. In last year's presidential campaign, the war was rarely referenced in the foreign policy debate and the Republican nominee notably failed to mention it in his convention address. Consequently, the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, has been widely referred to as America's "forgotten war." For many, the conflict is out of sight, out of mind. For decades, the same was said of another conflict. The Korean War has also widely been dubbed our "forgotten war" despite the sobering reality that over 36,000 Americans died in the conflict. If we really have forgotten about the losses in Korea, an area of the world as relevant as ever now, and in Afghanistan, a country whose future is pivotal to our interests in the Middle East, shame on us.

Memorial Day ought to serve as an important reminder that we should never forget. The sacrifices made in our name in these wars deserve more than merely remembrances so the least we could do as citizens is to commemorate them. The acts of valor on our behalf in these foreign theaters represent the best of the human spirit. The altruistic heroism that our troops displayed in these conflicts is worthy of a great nation. Few individuals exhibited such exceptionality as valiantly as Emil Kapaun and Robert Miller, veterans of our so-called 'forgotten wars.' Kapaun and Miller served in Korea and Afghanistan, respectively. The courage of character demonstrated by both of these individuals is remarkable. In Korea, Kapaun heroically helped save the lives of fellow soldiers wounded in an onslaught of attacks from 20,000 Chinese soldiers and though he survived the initial attacks, he ultimately died in his confinement as a POW. In Afghanistan, Miller put himself literally at the forefront of a fight against insurgents along the country's dangerous border with Pakistan and consequently saved his commander's life while sacrificing his own as he fired at enemy forces. These men paid the ultimate sacrifice for the country they loved so dearly. In the end, their bravery did not go unnoticed. President Obama posthumously awarded both Miller and Kapaun the prestigious Medal of Honor, in 2010 and 2013, respectively.

When we celebrate an important holiday this weekend, we'll inevitably be enjoying the time spent with family, the burgers on the grill, and the (hopefully) sunny summer weather. However, we should also at least pause to remember Americans like Miller and Kapaun. Though they are the veterans of conflicts unfortunately dubbed "forgotten wars," their sacrifices, and those of millions of other Americans killed in combat, should never be forgotten. For the sake of our liberty and prosperity, they chose to promote good, to fight for their country against forces that wished to do it harm, and to give their lives for a cause greater than themselves. At the very least, we owe them our remembrance on Memorial Day. At best, we owe them an undying commitment to continually perfect the nation they loved so much they gave their lives for it.

Here are the links to the White House ceremonies where President Obama awarded Emil Kapaun and Robert Miller the Medal of Honor; in these videos, the President describes Kapaun and Miller's stories in detail:

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Jay Gatsby and the Glorification of Perfection

(NOTE: This is an essay I wrote for my AP American Seminar class in high school - Wyoming Seminary - in September 2009 during my junior year).

Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have embraced the notion that our country is inherently the most faultless nation in the world. Such thinking is defined as American exceptionalism. The economic prosperity and military might that our nation has enjoyed has created this culture in which Americans expect excellence from their leaders and government, admiring seemingly impeccable Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, forgetting their shortcomings in office. Indeed, this notion of perpetually seeking the best is reflected in the idea of the American Dream, which inspires individuals to be the absolute best they can be. Having been raised to believe in American exceptionalism, our society embraces the belief we are a near-perfect nation; thus, we glorify ideals that represent flawlessness and strive for perfection, as reflected in The Great Gatsby. This admiration of flawlessness is seen as Jay Gatsby seeks perfection in Daisy Buchanan and as he goes to great lengths to portray himself as unblemished.
            Nowhere is this adoration of flawlessness more evident than in Jay Gatsby himself, the protagonist of the novel. Gatsby subscribes to the view that perfection can be sought and must be attained. After all, the novel describes Gatsby as an individual who “believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” and that “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther” if that light is unattainable. This depiction of Gatsby paints him as a man who possesses a great deal of confidence in the existence of an “orgastic” future that defines a utopian world. The thought that Gatsby would subscribe to the belief that the bright future, represented by the green light, is achievable, no matter how short an individual falls of that goal day after day, reveals his glorification of perfection. It is clear that the auspicious future and life that Gatsby sought was, from his perspective, reflected in Daisy. Nick recounts after Gatsby’s death that “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock…and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it…[but] it was already behind him." Gatsby believed wholeheartedly that life with Daisy symbolized the fulfillment of true happiness and success for him. Indeed, the instance in which this quality of seeking perfection in Gatsby’s life is, in fact, most prominent is in his affection for Daisy Buchanan.
Given the incredible wealth Jay Gatsby enjoys, his insistent love for Daisy illustrates that he perceives even his own affluent life as imperfect still. Although Gatsby resides in a house which is described by Nick Carraway as a “place [that] looks like the World Fair," he clearly believes Daisy Buchanan is a missing piece of the puzzle in his quest for perfection. The fact that Gatsby can recall that it was precisely “five years next November” that he had last met Daisy indicates the fervent obsession he has had with her. As a result, the behavior and language used by Gatsby regarding Daisy signifies his adulation of her as a supposed human representation of perfection, believing her to be flawless. In fact, upon first meeting Daisy after a five year hiatus, Gatsby’s reserved nature and treatment of her as if she were a godly figure causes him to “act like a little boy” in her presence. He even remarks to her that he is “sorry about the clock” in his house and nervously asks Nick at one point, “where are you going?" Such conduct leads Nick to conclude that Gatsby is clearly in a nervous state, exposing his sense of inferiority to Daisy, someone whom he sees as so flawless that he pressures himself to impress her.
Therefore, throughout much of the novel, Mr. Gatsby makes it his duty to satisfy the needs of Daisy, serve her, believe in her beauty, and treat her as the embodiment of perfection. Gatsby’s joyous reactions to the warmest moments of his relationship with Daisy display this longing for her. After “every vestige of embarrassment was gone” in Mr. Gatsby’s first encounter with Daisy after five years, Gatsby “literally glowed” and “without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room." This ecstasy in being able to form a meaningful conversation with Daisy before night’s end is seen by Nick in broader terms. Nick examines the “colossal vitality of [Gatsby’s] illusion” and how “he had thrown himself into it with a creative passion” and that “no amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart." The bliss of Gatsby in this instance is thus portrayed by Nick in the aforementioned passages as part of Gatsby’s larger vision of a flawless life and future that he seeks in his heart. He believes in this illusion that that life can be attained through Daisy. The “illusion” of perfection that he strives to make reality is seen by Gatsby as achievable by claiming Daisy, a woman whose “fluctuating, feverish warmth” of voice is perceived by Nick as appealing to Gatsby. Indeed, Nick testifies that the “deathless song” of her voice “held [Gatsby] most."
Perhaps it should not be a surprise to the reader that the flawlessness Gatsby yearns for in life impedes him from accepting the flawed reality of life and the flawed nature of Daisy. When confronted with Daisy’s marriage with Tom Buchanan and the complications it represents in Gatsby’s affair with Daisy, Gatsby insists that “[Daisy] loves me” and accepts the self-depicted version of reality that “both of us loved each other all that time” and that “she only married [Tom] because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me." These statements exhibit Jay Gatsby’s unwillingness to be content with imperfection in his relationship with Daisy Buchanan and his life. Upon Daisy’s concession that “it wouldn’t be true” to say that she “never loved Tom," Gatsby willfully ignores such words, claiming that “[Tom is] not going to take care her of anymore." The fact that Daisy’s love for Jay Gatsby conflicted with her marriage with Tom Buchanan is a fact and imperfection that Gatsby despises to admit given how much he values Daisy as the key to everlasting flawlessness.
Jay Gatsby’s glorifying of perfection and seeking of flawlessness is not only reflected in his love for Daisy Buchanan but also in the manner in which he presents himself. Throughout American history, leaders who have exhibited seeming perfection in their work and lives have been revered in our society and history. However, selective memories of these individuals have obstructed an honest view of these figures. In Tear Down This Myth, Will Bunch explores how this has affected Americans’ perceptions of Ronald Reagan. He asserts that while a fairly controversial figure in his tenure, Reagan has come to be revered as the savior of conservatism and one of America’s most effective Presidents, both of which are debatable.  Instead, Americans ignore the faults and shortcomings of his presidency. Similarly, Americans never want to hear the souring aspects of a supposedly upbeat story, something Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware of and thus he took to great lengths to obscure his use of a wheelchair. In the novel, Gatsby seeks to emulate such an image of perfection, mindful of the public admiration that it inspires, while downplaying his shortcomings. For instance, the common usage of the term “old sport” by Gatsby as a means of informally trading barbs with Nick represents an attempt at charisma. An effort at displaying intelligence is seen in Gatsby enjoying taking pride in supposed intellectual bravados, insisting that the books in his library “are real” and that he is an “Oxford man” and his frequent ballyhooing of his “hydroplane” and service in World War I shows his desire to be well-regarded as a selfless servant of his country. In fact, Gatsby chooses to ignore and wishes the masses would ignore the fact he had not truly read those books and that his Oxford education is at best dubious. It is evident in these cases that Jay Gatsby is well aware of the flawlessness admired in individuals in America and that he not only seeks to be that perfection but to flaunt it as well.
Striving for perfection is dangerous. On the one hand, this attitude on the part of an individual allows him or her to be the best they can be, never succumb to failure, and believe in the American Dream of working hard and overcoming obstacles to achieve success. In fact, the conventional wisdom of embracing American exceptionalism in our culture did allow the United States to psychologically recover from such devastating events as the September 11, 2001 attacks. The attacks united Americans in a kind of patriotic fervor that permitted an emotional recovery as a nation as a country. However, if perfection is not achieved, an individual could resort to denial or severe disappointment that never allows for any meaningful self-confidence.  In the months leading up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, American economists and financial experts were ignorant of potential signs that the financial industry could be falling apart before their eyes. They had become believers of the myth of the perfection of the stock market and economy of the United States. It was assumed our boom-and-bust capitalist economy would “correct itself,” since it was asserted that the economy will surely never collapse – even after  lessons “learned” from the Panics of 1819 and 1837, the Great Depression, and the stagflation of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the case of Jay Gatsby, who refused to believe Daisy could possibly love Tom Buchanan, denial absorbed him. In such instances, striving for perfection is, at best, risky if flawlessness is not met. Therefore, seeking the absolute best outcome in life and in supposed heroes is a path which could produce a healthy relentless pursuit of success yet simultaneously be dangerously risky.