Dead presidents

Keystone, South Dakota

The United States of America and the Commonwealth of Australia have many things in common. They share – among a number of unique attributes – a New World optimism and frontier spirit, a fanaticism about sport, some insecurities about their young age, and a strong belief they are inherently superior to their respective postcolonial neighbours (with apologies to our Canadian and Kiwi friends).

But erecting monuments to dead politicians is not one of them, let alone one that is 60 feet tall and took more than a decade to complete.

This world-famous sculpture in South Dakota’s Black Hills is perhaps one of the most fitting and impressive displays of the irony at the heart of this great nation.

On the one hand, Mount Rushmore boldly celebrates America’s independence and the men charged with forging a new and distinct national identity. On the other hand, by meticulously and respectfully carving a giant memorial to these former leaders, America is mirroring precisely the sort of pomp and ceremony associated with the Old World.

Once again, it speaks to the fundamental difference between founding a new country on purpose, as a puritan Utopia, and founding a new country by accident, as a motley collection of immigrants and former prisoners, united not by their vision and philosophy but only by shared circumstance and a strong wish to avoid being put back in chains.

Aussies not only rarely honour our founding fathers, but few can even name the country’s first prime minister (some bloke named Edmund Barton FYI, who even a political history geek like myself knows little about).

So, with the mildest possible disrespect, I allow myself a slight chuckle at the pomposity of it all. It is, to put it in Australian vernacular, a bit of a wank.

But this is not to belittle the majesty of the national monument. Standing before the four chiselled faces, an image I have seen since literally the earliest days of my childhood, I am filled with awe – of the craftsmanship, the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and the quiet reverence of the American pilgrims disembarking tour buses in droves.

I am in awe also of the four men memorialised here. George Washington, the nation’s first Commander in Chief and father of independence (something we Aussies have yet to achieve); Thomas Jefferson, the great philosopher-president, author of the founding documents, citizen of the world and advocate of freedom; and of course, Abraham Lincoln, whom I have previously reflected on, the person most responsible for ending slavery and unifying this land. While Teddy Roosevelt is perhaps not always included in the same breath as these three national heroes (and in my personal view, was far too fond of intrusive government regulations), he is also an appropriate addition, as the founder of national parks and local champion here in the Dakota wilds.

When I think of the values that we in democracies hold most dear – free speech and assembly, self-determination, accountable governance – I think of Lincoln and Jefferson, not Barton or Alfred Deakin or the English monarchs who still reign Australia on paper.

For that, America should be rightly proud. And if that means carving giant faces into a rock then so be it.

The monument is also characteristically American in its ingenious utility, summoning tourists from across the country to this beautiful but remote place that would otherwise seldom be visited. It’s ability to be easily turned into hats and t-shirts, snow-globes and postcards and exported to all corners of the globe also speaks to the marketing and sales prowess for which Americans are renowned.

It is a hell of a drive from anywhere, and unlikely to be included on the typical coast-hugging US itinerary.

But it is well worth the effort, whether to pay respects to these titans of liberty, take in the breathtaking scenery or snigger at the seriousness with which Americans can sometimes take themselves.

Or perhaps a combination of all three. It is a free country, after all.


Published on 5 June 2016

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