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by Paul Rogat Loeb
Itís been almost a year
since Sept 11, but the flags remain. They decorate our clothing, cars, and
houses, to convey a sense of common spirit in a
land now vulnerable and threatened. Bush
officials play on these sentiments,
insisting that true patriots donít
The anthem of Bushís patriotism, Lee
Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," was actually written during the Cold War,
in 1985. Reagan made it his campaign theme while his advisors were backing
men like Osama bin Laden and the Nicaraguan
Contras as anti-Communist "freedom fighters."
The song has now been resurrected for a new fight, against invisible
enemies, which we're told may last our lifetimes. Greenwood climbed onto
the World Trade Center rubble to sing it for rescue workers. Sept 11
launched his 10-year-old album, "American
Patriot," back on the charts. And a recent AOL poll ranked "God Bless USA"
above all other patriotic songs, including "God Bless America" and "The
Greenwood's song begins with the specter of loss--"If
tomorrow all the things were gone, I'd worked for all my life/ And I had to
start all over with my children and my wife." Then the wounds disappear
before they're felt: "I'd thank my lucky stars to be living here today/
Because the flag still stands for freedom and they can't take that away."
Companies may be laying off workers by the thousands, while their CEOs grab
ever more. We may end up on the street with the kids crying, the bills
unpaid, and our retirement burned through
by Enron and WorldCom. But these are mere
inconveniences amid blessings that redeem all possible losses, uniting rich
and poor. As the refrain shifts from violins and a church organ to a
military march, Greenwood repeats, "I'm proud to be an American, where at
least I know I'm free/ And I won't forget the men who died who gave that
right to me."
respect those, like the World War II soldiers, who
fought in wars that had no alternative. We could use their spirit of
sacrifice in a time where greed too often trumps community. Yet cherishing
those who've bled for native soil gives us no special grace over citizens of
other lands. And because Greenwood says nothing about what freedom might
demand of us, it becomes just an empty phrase blessing whatever we do,
no matter how much our actions evoke that classic
sin that the Greeks called hubris and the Bible called pride. We
must be right, because God loves America.
defending freedom while selling more weapons to more countries than any
other nation in the world, and then being surprised when some end up aimed
or used against us.
defending freedom when the Justice Department recruits our friendly
postman, meter reader, or
to report on what we do, say, and read. When Greenwood sings, "There ain't
no doubt I love this land. God Bless the USA," he never suggests
what qualities of justice would redeem the
love he declaims. He just says we need to be proud.
We were defending freedom, according to this view, when supporting
dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Saddam
Hussein, and the succession of Persian Gulf autocrats who helped turn bin
Laden against us.
wrote the song following the U.S. retreat from Lebanon and Reagan's invasion
of Grenada, to reflect "the spirit of America being proud." It rose to a
top-five country hit, and both the Democrats and Republicans invited him to
sing it at their respective conventions. Greenwood turned them both down due
to scheduling conflicts. But after letting Reagan staffers use "God Bless
The USA" to frame their l8-minute campaign film, he began singing it at
But Greenwood's is not the sole patriotic ballad to choose from. The late
Waylon Jennings' "America" reached number six on the charts the year "God
Bless the USA"
first came out. Written by Sammy Johns, the song
affirms connection to native soil, as Jennings repeats, "America, America,"
slowly and tenderly as if to a woman he loves; then admits, softly, "You've
become a habit to me." But he also makes tough demands-recounting his own
history as an Anglo yeoman "from down round Tennessee," then continuing,
"But my brothers/ Are all black and white/ Yellow too/ And the red man is
right/ To expect a little from you/ Promise and then follow through/
Honoring promises of justice gives us problems.
Our culture too often gives them lip service, then dismisses them by
explaining, "We're sorry. This is the future. Get used to it." Yet we're
stronger for respecting common ties, even if they raise difficult
questions. Echoing Walt Whitman's poems of
Brooklyn blacksmiths and welders, Jennings celebrates "all the men who build
the big planes/ And who live through hardship and pain." But he also honors
those "who would not fight/ In a war that didn't seem right," and a nation
strong enough so "you let them come home." Once more questions are raised,
about a past that's no longer so clean. He judges us wiser for respecting
those who challenged their government-and might once again.
Because Greenwood says only that living in
America makes us free, his message feeds
what historian Christopher Lasch once called "the minimal self"--with
patriotism reduced to pledging allegiance. Only malcontents or ex-Enron
employees might question our blindly
delegating our most important national choices.
Instead of creating a standard by which we can judge our leaders and
hold them accountable, Greenwood writes a
blank check for whatever they choose to do.
Waylon's song, in contrast, is no political manifesto. Just a ballad
celebrating the diverse and contradictory land he calls "my home sweet
home." But his "America" respects the difficult unsettling questions and
deems us wiser for heeding the dissenters too often dismissed. He suggests
true greatness does not flow, like automatic grace, from the now
concrete-paved soil of our land--but is
fulfilled when we choose those hard choices
that honor common responsibility and connection.
Maybe this is indeed a time to stand together, but we can still decide which
kind of patriotism we embrace. Greenwood's song is once again being cast as
a vision for all America. The one sung by Waylon, now forgotten, asks
something more. We should take as our ballads those that demand the most of
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a
Cynical Time (St Martin's Press, www.soulofacitizen.org) and three other
books on citizen involvement.