Graham Greene on Bullshit Jobs

“It’s a living,” she said.

“It’s not a real living. All this spying. Spying on what? Secret agents discovering what everybody knows already…”

“Or just making it up,” she said. He stopped short, and she went on without a change of voice. “There are lots of other jobs that aren’t real. Designing a new plastic soapbox, making pokerwork jokes for public-houses, writing advertising slogans, being an M. P., talking to UNESCO conferences. But the money’s real. What happens after work is real. I mean, your daughter is real and her seventeenth birthday is real.”

“What do you do after work?”

“Nothing much now, but when I was in love… we went to cinemas and drank coffee in Expresso bars and sat on summer evenings in the Park.”

— Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958)

The Days Grow Short

Lily is an old cat now: fifteen years. Her littermate brother gone this past year and a half. She eats little and sleeps much. It seems an uncomfortable sleep, troubled by labored breathing and punctuated by the slightest noise. Yet she purrs.

The kittens are too much. They stalk her tail and move too fast–where can a lady rest? No longer in my lap; I stand too often. Outside, then. Or, when my sons are here, in their cave.

Does she sense the end? I see too many parallels with her brother’s final days. I’m selfish: I want to stay with her, to be there when the time comes–she can’t die if she’s not alone. She came and comforted me when I was left in the depths of despair. She wiped away my tears. She reminded me: I have responsibilities still.

Again tomorrow I will set out food and water, and change the litter box.

Lily, Sleeping

Earplugs Removed

I turned off the air-conditioner and opened the windows letting in the air and sounds from outside. The day grew warmer and the house grew hotter, until at nightfall I went to sleep outside with the insects. It was not cicada which kept me from sleep, but automobiles. They are tucked safely in garages now, put to bed for a day of rest.

This Sunday morning all is quiet and soft. Breezes blow and rain falls upon leaf and roof. In my kitchen, only the hum of the refrigerator now that ham and eggs have fried, but I can barely hear a thing over its roar.

No lawnmowers today: mourning doves, crows, and jays.

When the machinery stops, I feel my sense restored. I wasn’t deaf, exactly, but cut off and dumb, ears and mind too full. Now I am here, all around surrounded with sounds.

The War of All Against All

Across the street from where No. 1 Daughter lives, two dogs sat in a closed car. They barked at her when she left for work. They barked at her when she came home from work. A neighbor boy walking his dog said they’d been there since last night. She didn’t know whose dogs they are, or who lived in that house. What should she do?

An adult friend of someone I used to know was unstable, in the mentally ill bi-polar disorder kind of way, with little understanding of the world he lived in. He was childlike, in the sense that he needed someone to take care of him, and had no understanding or intention to do harm. His friends tried to help, but there was only so much they could do. Someone gave him work, but he was irregular. Someone fed him, but he wouldn’t feed himself. He could not live on his own. State and local government institutions could help–if he’d committed a crime; he hadn’t. He lived far from the community that had raised him, and seemed lost. He’d ostracized himself; he wouldn’t return from shame. I often wonder how he is.

Once, late but well before midnight, on the way home I saw a cat hit on the side of the road. He was injured, alive and hissing. Perhaps it belonged to the house just there, so I went to the door. An angry man answered. No! Not his cat. Slam.

No. 1 Daughter eventually found help, someone who’d go knock on the strange door with her. An angry man answered–what is it with men and answering the door? He bristled at the very idea a hot car was not the best place for his dogs.

What kind of society have we built where we don’t know where to turn for help? Where a neighbor is not only a stranger, but an antagonist?

Knowing One’s Place

My youngest (12) asked, out of the blue, why do some people want a monarchy when they can’t be the king?

I’m not sure. Maybe we should ask the British.

I was boiling water for tea when he started with his “Hey, Dad” question. Usually he asks these, as I did, late at night when I’m settling in for bed. He has a knack for asking questions when I’m tired. I had been up all night for work, and didn’t give the question the attention he deserved, but it has stuck in my head. Why do some people want a monarchy when they can’t be the king?

This is separate from the question of why some people like to beat on others, or why they like to be beaten–that’s the part of organizational hierarchy that doesn’t make any sense to me, even if it’s hard to avoid learning that shit rolls downhill. Unless someone is a political theorist, I suspect a liking for monarchy is less a preference for monarchy than a preference for stability. It has more do with the predictability of well-defined roles and responsibilities: There is comfort in knowing what is expected. There is comfort in routine. There is comfort in not making decisions. And there is delight in helping, of being part of something larger than yourself.

But there is discomfort in being on the shit end of the stick, in being ordered around, in being expected to do all the dirty work, in having demands placed on your time, in being nothing more than a tool. There is injustice in forcing people to do something we would never do ourselves. How do we choose who does what?

And, as always, we’re left with distinguishing good rulers and bad, and the question of what to do with the bad ones.

The Sacred Forests of Ethiopia

Here is a sad and hopeful story of the church forests of Ethiopia.

The land outside the church forest looks like desolation to me. So stark. Where’s the grass? I’m accustomed to the high valleys of Appalachia. I wonder, how did the land become like this? What processes keep it that way? In Highland County, the valleys are, for the most part, pasture for sheep and cattle. They keep saplings from growing, but the land is still green. Is it climate? Was it that the movie was filmed in February? (Yes.) What does the landscape look like with the plague of locusts? Can we ever understand the history and circumstances of another place when we can barely understand our own? A summary is just a start.

Either way, a missing forest saddens me. I’m glad Alemaheyu Wassie Eshete is taking care of what he loves.

“A church without a forest is like a naked person. A disgraced person.”

I like the thought that a church without a forest is somehow incomplete. Growing up around churches, their yards were as much part of the church as the building. My earliest memories are the smell of the sanctuary’s old wood and playing in piles of leaves. And climbing trees. Perhaps that’s why I felt like Sycamore Church in Loveland, Ohio, disappeared when I heard they’d sold their adjacent land.

“These forests are not just good for people,” Alemayehu said, “they are also the last shelter for wild animals. In our tradition, the church is like an ark. A shelter for every kind of creature and plant. If a wildcat or little kudu or vervet monkey leaves the church forest, immediately he will be killed. Here the animals are safe.”

Surrounding the cathedral at Canterbury, in its precincts, are gardens. If it weren’t for this COVID-19, I probably would not have looked far afield for morning and evening prayers, and they would not have been saying them daily outside in the garden where we can hear the gulls and see the cats drink the milk for the Dean’s tea.

“In this world nothing exists alone,” he said. “It’s interconnected. A beautiful tree cannot exist by itself. It needs other creatures. We live in this world by giving and taking. We give CO2 for trees, and they give us oxygen. If we prefer only the creatures we like and destroy others, we lose everything. Bear in mind that the thing you like is connected with so many other things. You should respect that co-existence.”

One of the dispiriting aspects of globalization has been the spread of a monoculture world-wide, particularly since it needn’t be that way: We do not need to voraciously consume everything in our path. Isolated pockets of true alternatives, not the false choice of twenty Pellegrino flavors offered by Nestlé, are useful–even if only to give a glimpse of the full breadth of life.


I forgot to exercise, I caught so caught up in learning about these forests. Maybe I should learn how to build a wall. 🙂

See also, among other places,

It’s Cerys

‪I heard Cerys Matthews first on the audiobook edition of Robert McFarlane’s The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017) 📚, and needed to hear her voice more, so I’ve been listening to her show on BBC Radio6. Every week she brings forth a wonderful world of discoveries: music, and poetry, and interviews. I love it. It’s hard to pull out highlights from her playlists; they flow.

Apparently she’s famous. Who knew? I just like the way she reads poetry.

Bedeviled

The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
….

Magdalene — The Seven Devils,” Marie Howe (2008)

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, for it was to her whom Jesus first appeared after rising (John 20:10-18). We meet her today in Luke 8:1-3.

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Luke 8:1-3 (ESV)

In his reflection along with this morning’s prayers, the Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, observed that women supported Jesus throughout his ministry. Women are ever-present in the gospels, doing what we would today call invisible labor: the necessary work of care. These three rather wealthy, well-connected women, and many others, “provided for them out of their means.”

Because they had been freed of their demons.

The world then was demon-haunted, much as it is today, full of afflicting spirits. Marie Howe in her poem imagines Mary Magdalene’s seven devils.

Some are familiar to me. What relief this cure of the soul must have been!

Thank you, Pádraig Ó Tuama, for drawing my attention to this poem.


What First Principles?

Tonight’s film was Romero (1989).

Earlier this year my eldest and I were talking about a paper due for her international politics class on the Middle East, the U. S. national interest, and grand strategy. She didn’t know where to start. I asked, what are our interests globally? Whose interests are they? How does the Middle East fit in context? What is the objective? How is why we do something different from what we say is why we do something? The professor had opened a can of worms asking about “strategy.”

What if post-war American foreign policy had been less concerned with Communist aggression and commercial imperialism? What would it have looked like? How would the world now differ in that case? Not how would things be better or worse, but how would they be different? Each decision opens some paths, closes others.

It was not necessary, for example, to choose France over the Viet Minh, but we did. It was not necessary to choose the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over Mohammad Mosaddeq, but we did. Nor United Fruit over Árbenz, Batista over Castro, Pinochet over Allende, and so forth. But we did. Which would seem to indicate some sort of strategery—an excellent neologism, BTW—but perhaps not one in the national interest as much as in the interests of those who’ve held the reins of government.

It’s strange to even imagine how policy might change, much less what policies one might have, to benefit the nation as a whole. Inertia seems inevitable. It’s almost as if one needs some principle of behavior, some concept of what the public good is, that could guide government actors. Perhaps this could be a principle that might suggest what a just government is and what it can and should do. Perhaps this principle could suggest it might not be prudent or just to sell weapons to a country which primarily uses them to kill its own citizens, particularly those citizens who dare ask it to stop killing them.

Such a principle might even inform domestic policy. It might even make it relatively simple to decide the correct course of action when an agent of the state like, oh, I dunno, a police officer, murders someone on camera while several of his fellow officers stand idly by.

If only we knew what the right thing to do was. How will we ever know?

The integralists’ arguments might be more enticing if they themselves weren’t personally cheerleading the abuse of power. To put this another way, they would spit on Dorothy Day because she dared tell Cardinal Spellman he was wrong. Some are old enough that it is not inconceivable they approved of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, for the same reasons that today they disapprove of protests against police brutality.

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the PATRIOT Act was an over-reaction. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the Department of Homeland Security was an ominous concentration of power. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that taking off your shoes to go through a full-body scanner before traveling is absurd security theater that does nothing to protect from random acts of violence. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that pervasive surveillance, whether by the NSA or AmazonGoogleFacebook or Equifax, is an attack. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that license-plate scanners are unwarranted search. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that there is no justifiable reason for mass use of facial recognition software, no matter how many teens are skipping school. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that extraordinary rendition is kidnapping and enhanced interrogation techniques are torture. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that service of a no-knock warrant is a home invasion. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that an authorization of the use of force is not a declaration of war. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the killing of an American citizen by the United States is murder. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the police are getting away with murder and rape and, well, anything. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that it doesn’t matter which party the President belongs to, Congress needs to restrain the Executive, not join in enthusiastically.

Not a few of us have said, over the years, that over-policing of poor neighborhoods, the war on drugs, and an us-versus-them mindset converts your friendly local police into paramilitary death squads.

Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the Bill of Rights requires constant defense.

If you want the right to remain free and secure in your person and effects, you have to fight for that for everyone, always.

But you would rather clutch your pearls and moan that you need protection from the corner drug dealer or that awfully swarthy terrorist. But you would rather ignore someone’s lack of character and jackboot fetish because we just simply must get the right people on the court in order to stop birth control and gay sex. But you would rather just do what they say as long you get yours. But you would rather voluntarily install microphones and cameras in your homes and neighborhoods. But you would rather excuse their behavior: “Why should I care? I don’t break the law. It won’t affect me.”

One day it will.

Lands Now or Formerly of

Over time I have lived on the lands of Lenape, Mohican, Wappinger, Manahoac, Piscataway, Powhatan, Monacan, Osage, Shawnee, Miami, Adena, Hopewell, and the Chickahominy. I currently live on land once used by the Lenape and the Mohican.

The modern sense of property in land is European. When you claim title to land, and file a map with your claim, because ownership changes over time adjacent properties are marked as “now or formerly” belonging to a given holder. With some diligent work, one can trace the history of an individual parcel back as far as records go. Our home on native land expands our perspective away from what’s on file with the county clerk.

There are layers and layers of history wherever you are, sometimes only surviving in place names, sometimes not even then. The names are remembered by the people who live there, but outsiders can have trouble finding the place. Perhaps the automobile leads us to forget our geography; certainly changes in population and politics do, as the colonists eliminated the indigenous population, and New York absorbed The Bronx and other outer boroughs. The Post Office’s delivery system follows along, as Fordham becomes a ZIP Code within New York, or Hampden-Sydney disappears into Farmville—or Poughquag into Hopewell Junction.

This latter amuses me somewhat as there are post offices in both the hamlet of Poughquag, Town of Beekman, and Hopewell Junction, Town of East Fishkill, while the sorting and distribution facility serving them all is in Arthursburg, on a parcel divided between the Town of East Fishkill and the Town of Lagrange, and associated with the Lagrangeville post office. The Poughquag post office itself isn’t in the hamlet of Poughquag, but it’s certainly closer to homes in the hamlets of Beekmanville and Clove Valley than Hopewell Junction is. Which leads to the silliness of the corner Stop & Shop (owned by Ahold, a Dutch company) posting a sign lauding our local store here in Hopewell Junction.

(Perhaps this explains why adventurers can land on a planet and immediately find the single person they seek: All places are identical.)

Acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones ever here, learning the stories of where we are, and of the people who were here before us, requires a bit of humility to look away from the narcissistic mirror of our solipsism to curiously ask, “Who are you? Where are we?”

Together Alone

I have been joining in the morning and evening prayers from the garden of Canterbury Cathedral these past several months. Because this is the Internet, and we aren’t in person, it often seems that I am alone here. This could be my paper journal; who can say without a conversation. So yesterday I was surprised to find that many others have been joining in the prayers, when the computer at YouTube recommended that I view this clip from The Independent.

I have been far too wrapped up in asocial media these past four months. Everything there seems like a tempest in a teapot when I look out at the real world and engage with real people—and the real weeds growing in my own garden.

Think Before You Speak

My mother admonished me to think before I speak, and now sometimes I do. Sometimes I even think before I write, and take a breath, which was good advice I was given early in my career of sending professionally damaging e-mails. Before that though, the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and the presidential election campaign of Bill Clinton argued strongly that an ambitious man should avoid a public opinion or carefully construct a mask. Or, as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Aaron Burr puts it, “Talk less. Smile more.”

But all that was before the Internet’s instant publishing platform let everyone’s hot takes wash over anyone daring to read the comments. No editor except myself will stop me, either from putting two spaces after a period or publishing an opinionated screed railing against the latest fad in the war against culture. The young, and those with no filter, properly took to this state of affairs like fish to water, which, as those of a certain age or with children know, led to warnings from the school principal to be more careful of one’s online activity than of one’s reputation in the cafeteria–because the Internet never forgets and a youthful indiscretion might harm one’s future.

Somehow all of this is forgotten in the current uproar over woke cancel culture, whatever that is, stifling debate and making it risky to say the wrong, i.e. unpopular, thing. One wouldn’t want to diminish one’s prospects now, would we?

The current flavor of public opinion differs from that enforced by Mrs. Grundy, but the enforcement is not at all dissimilar. Contracts for public school teachers contain morals clauses, for example, limiting their behavior outside of work, as one would not want to provide a poor example for children by public consumption of alcohol or by wearing a lewd dress, but the primary means of enforcement is a frown or tsk tsk. In some regions, while it may be illegal to fire someone explicitly for organizing a union, other excuses are found. Some have lost employment over racist remarks made outside the context of work, while others, notably James Bennet, have lost employment due to not doing their job–editing does involve reading, after all–which seems not all that different from any other time in history. Admittedly I have not had the audacity to enjoy video games while female or to appear in a Star Wars movie while black, nor have I given a speech on a college campus–though I have made many a stupid remark–but I think it’s still possible to distinguish between the harm caused by death threats and heckling. The signatories of Harper’s letter on justice and open debate are not stupid; to pretend that chilling effects are new is disingenuous. The difference is in who is affected. What appears to be even more different is how quickly the Internet lets everyone pile on, ad absurdum.

But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

To a large extent public opinion works through shame and opprobrium, but carries a latent undercurrent of violence. It’s physically unsafe to ask the wrong questions or make unpopular opinions known. Recently this has involved driving automobiles into crowds, most notably in the 2017 incident in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer, or police rioting–or abstaining from suppressing rioting–in response to Black Lives Matter protests. These events are little different from 1970’s student strike and the killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the Hard Hat Riot; or even the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X.; or, earlier, the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Red Scares I (1917-1920) and II (1947-1957), the Palmer Raids, and the Sedition Act of 1918; or, earlier still, Haymarket. The common thread is that the violence is, more often than not, on behalf of the status quo and established power.

Businesses offering a service to the general public, such as hotels, are, even though they are private businesses, required to offer accommodations to everyone. Bus companies, shippers, telephone companies, and railroadscommon carriers all–must do the same, for the same reason. In the United States, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these accommodations were segregated, and not open to all. One counter-argument offered against the legal requirement of public accommodation was that discrimination is economically inefficient, that it is in the best economic interest of an Atlanta hotelier to let rooms to blacks as well as whites; in addition, because of this economic interest, public opinion, will, over time, change so that discrimination would no longer be popular, and that, thus, there is no need to require active de-segregation measures such as busing. That is, the choice of the public to boycott a discriminatory enterprise is sufficient to change behavior.

Well, that time of changed public opinion would appear to be here. The marketing departments of large corporations have noticed that certain images may have adverse effects on their branding, and adjusted their masks a tad. Ross Douthat and others suggest this has other, unspoken, advantages for the corporate consensus.

Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.

Ross Douthat, “The Tom Cotton Op-Ed and the Cultural Revolution,”
The New York Times, June 12, 2020

I’d sign that Harper’s letter; no one asked: not sure why they didn’t. It would be nice if we could have reasonable conversations in good faith. I’d like that, especially if we could have them in person, perhaps around a campfire or over dinner. The idea of a secluded, quiet place for discussion has been a dream since Socrates corrupted the youth in Athens’s agora. The privileges and immunities of the autonomous university provide a framework for that. It’s not a coincidence that such a life is sheltered, cloistered, away from the rough-and-tumble cannibalism, as it were, of the polis.

Or at least of Twitter.


Should We Talk About the Government?

Every budget is a document of priorities filled with moral and ethical decisions. Every budget is the result of political wrangling over who and what matters. Who has the power, who keeps the power, who loses, who benefits, and who does not.

For my entire adult life political discussions, at least what passes for those in the media, have concerned various aspects of some imaginary culture war and who is ahead in the Legislative or Judicial or Executive standings. No one cares who’s on first, unless you’re a betting man.

Let’s talk about money again. Let’s talk about the purpose of society. Let’s talk about how we the people want to promote the general welfare. We cannot have either justice, or liberty, or domestic tranquility if we do not.


A Song of Grit

What are our guiding precepts? By which lamp do we light our way?

Langston Hughes asked a simple question in 1951.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Langston Hughes, “Harlem” (1951)

The founding myths of this country are not of twins suckled by a wolf, nor of a magic sword held in wait for the true king, nor of a God leading his people out of slavery, but of, on the one hand, a religious sect fleeing persecution and, on the other, rampant commercial speculation and exploitation of a vast, empty continent, beginning again with a compromise: a declaration of independence and a war for, of all things, Liberty. We are old enough now, 244 by some reckonings, 413 by others, that we could find the clear-eyed courage to face the past, and the present. We are old enough to comprehend that Santa Claus does not fly around delivering the newest plastic parcel from Mattel; we can certainly see the chasm between ideals and practice.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)

Other minds have left their voices for us to hear. One such is Frederick Douglass who, in 1852, addressed the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, presumably a sympathetic audience, on the subject of the Fourth of July. It is stern stuff.

The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852)

And then there was a war, a strange one where the losers on the field won the peace. As is the way in politics, power shifts over time. Somewhat.

But look, there is a seed.

that all men are created equal

And invariably there remains a struggle over oppressive power. The downtrodden do not often win, not wholly, but they struggle, sculpting the rock splinter and chip. So that Hughes could send up a plaintive cry,

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1935)

Whom is he asking? We, the people.

That the present demand for justice could be considered borderline treasonous, if not positively un-American, indicts those of us who let our comfort blind us to the suffering of the afflicted.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,

Abraham Lincoln, address at Gettysburg, Pa., November, 1863

to pick up our tools, lend whatever we may, to the task. Lend our voices to the song.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing” (1860)
Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” (1949)

This Land is My Land

1981, bouncing along in the back of a shag-carpeted Chevy van barreling down the highway, windows down, Neil Diamond on the 8-track, singing as loud as we can:

Got a dream they’ve come to share!

I love this land, my country and the people in it. Just walking along the hills I would sing full-throated “America the Beautiful,” “This Land is Your Land,” “This is My Song,” “God Bless America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends.” Sometimes I was a strange child.

I love this land, my country and the people in it–and sometimes I don’t. I hate that devotion to our country and respect for its flag, even the simple act of standing, has come to stand for so much less than “liberty and justice for all.” Now, it’s a gang sign for white supremacy and fascist violence, carrying a Bible and waving a flag.

I’ve long despised how patriotism is co-opted by a certain kind of nationalist: My country, right or wrong. America, love it or leave it–as if they had more right to it than I who say all are created equal; who hold that among these certain inalienable rights are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; who would form this more perfect union to establish justice and promote the general welfare, with liberty and justice for all.

Instead they pledge allegiance to what? A flag they disrespect by flying it in the dark, in the rain, tied to the back of their shiny, new Ford? To bullying? To endless consumption? To so much winning? They’ve turned the American flag by their misuse of it into a symbol of their proud hate. They turned the anthem into a celebration of murder by their insistence on unthinking obedience: let us purge all who have the audacity to insist we are guilty! Rah! Rah! Go team! Or are they the true Americans, who with their behavior confirm what critics and historians note, that this Republic was made only for a few manly white men, and they would keep it that way?

So much easier to hate. So much easier to recite a civic prayer by rote without hearing the words. So much easier to relax by the pool waiting for the ceremonial burning of the hot dogs than it is to listen to 1,321 words written in June of 1776:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Listen.

Reflect.

Understand the causes of their dissatisfaction with England. Understand the arguments made. Perhaps seek to understand that these were men not gods, afflicted with all the hypocrisy, the greed, the insolence, the frustration with limits on their licentiousness, and other sins that have afflicted mankind through the ages. Understand their common understanding. Understand the challenge. Understand the burdens placed on their descendants by words chosen, written, and widely read.

And ask, is the country you love one where you don’t matter; where your life is worth nothing because are a poor man–and you most likely are poor–; where your only use is to die, to labor for nothing other than the fading pleasures of the flesh?

Or is it a promise that you too may live, you too may be free, you too may pursue happiness?

I should leave? GTFO.