"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"In Praise of America" (Sunday, May 29, 2011)

Paul Robeson singing "The House I Live In":

I’ve always resented Frank Sinatra for “stealing” the song “The House I Live In” from Paul Robeson. When Sinatra sang it for the hundredth anniversary celebrations for the Statue of Liberty in 1986, I was livid. How dare he, I thought, that’s Robeson’s song (of course, Robeson was ten years dead by 1986, so he couldn’t have been invited to sing it for those festivities anyway). But still, there was Sinatra, that white Republican from New Jersey stealing the thunder from the memory of my favorite black leftist (who was also from New Jersey, too, if the truth be told).

Then I found out (quite recently actually) that Sinatra sang the song first. He recorded it in 1945; Robeson didn’t record it until 1947. Sinatra’s version was the theme song for a short film he made to fight racial prejudice and anti-semitism at the end of the Second World War. The film received an honorary Academy Award and a Golden Globe; the song was a national hit; it topped the charts. Robeson’s version was part of an album called Songs for Free Men, which also featured the Soviet National Anthem and a “Hymn to the United Nations” (neither of which topped the charts). So, I guess “The House I Live In” was originally Sinatra’s song, not Robeson’s. Never mind.
 You see, I assumed it was Robeson’s song originally because I knew that the lyrics had been written by Abel Meeropol, who was a leading leftist during that time. (He and his wife later adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution.) The music was by Earl Robinson, another well-known left-winger at the time. So, I assumed that Meeropol and Robinson had written it for their leftist friend, Paul Robeson.

Wrong. They wrote it for Sinatra, and Hollywood, and the U.S. State Department. 

 Which is probably one of those things that could happen “only in America”: two Communists writing a song for a movie starring a conservative Republican from New Jersey paid for by the U.S. government.  It’s also yet another example of the dangerous ground we tread when we assume that something is true, just because we think it is; or just because we agree with it; or just because it fits so neatly into the well-manicured view of the world we have constructed for ourselves.
 Which is something we all do, especially, when it comes to patriotism and America and how we regard this land of ours. 

I have a rather long list of things that tick me off, especially when it comes to politics. (The list gets longer as I get older, I’m afraid.) But nothing ticks me off more than the assumption that “liberals hate America”, that those on the political left aren’t patriotic; don’t care about America or its people; refuse to stand by their land at its time of need. (When I hear nonsense like this, I get out my picture of no less a flaming liberal than George McGovern, flying bombing missions over Germany during the Second World War. Talk about “standing by America”.)

But no less an “authority” than Ann Coulter says that “Liberals hate America”. That may even be the title of one of her books. (Of course, Ann Coulter is also the same woman who said—and this is a direct quote-- “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is that he didn’t go to the New York Times Building.”)
But it’s not just the loony right like Coulter and Savage and Hannity who feel this way. “Liberals don’t care about America.” “Liberals aren’t patriotic.” I’ve had people say things like that to my face, perhaps even within the walls of this very church. And it’s nonsense. It’s another of those ass-umptions,  and we know what ass-umptions make of both you and me.
No, liberals love America as much as conservative do (and maybe, in practice, even more sometimes). But the fact that many otherwise intelligent people (so we’re not talking Ann Coulter here obviously) really believe that liberals don’t, says something, I’m afraid. There is a a problem that people on the Left themselves do have. Why is it that they so often give the impression of being “America haters” (or, at best, tepid about things like the flag and patriotism and what have you)?
 I think that the insidiousness of assuming is at work here, once again. Liberals do a fair amount of assuming of their own, I’m afraid. So sometimes, when we talk about things like America and its people and its history, we give off the air of an overly judgmental parent. Or a hyper-critical spouse or child perhaps. In the eyes of some on the Left, America’s best is never good enough. We assume the worst about America’s motives. All success is suspect. We are too quick to ascribe ulterior designs when, in fact, none really exist.
 “What is America to me?” Meeropol asks. (And Robeson sings. And Sinatra, too, of course.)
            “A name, a map, a flag I see.”
 Yes—all these things that instill pride; that mean so much more; that symbolize so much. There is an intrinsic value that America has for us, simply because this is our home. One should naturally love one’s homeland.

But there’s something more at work here, too, and America also symbolizes most of all to us “a certain word,‘democracy’”America is about freedom. It is our belief in freedom that unites us as Americans, in spite of all our differences; in spite of all our disagreements.

“What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way?” one Romanian correspondent asked in the days just after 9/11. “Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic power?... I reached only one conclusion: “Only freedom can work such miracles.”
 “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” Janis Joplin used to sing (of course, Roger Miller sang it first). That’s balderdash, of course. (To be fair, the song is speaking of freedom in terms of personal relationships and not political ones.)
 But if you should think that, in any way, that “freedom’s just another word”, then I suggest giving it up for a while and seeing how that feels. No one ever tries to escape into prison, after all. In the 27 years of the existence of the Berlin Wall, about 80 people were killed by border guards while trying to escape into West Berlin. No one was ever shot trying to enter Communist East Berlin.
 In America, we have a great deal of personal and political freedom. What we do with it, how we use it, of course, is a different question. Whether we squander it, or whether we let it ring out in the goodness of our lives depends on us. Whether our freedom produces a good society or not remains to be seen, century after century, from generation to generation. (We’ll talk about freedom more next Sunday when we consider the toxic legacy of Ayn Rand and how the sacred name of freedom is so often abused.) But freedom is to creativity as air is to breathing. Freedom is the necessary groundwork of creativity; it is the necessary ethos of a dynamic society.
  Dynamism, it seems to me, is the second great American virtue.
  America is a society that is not static, that does not rest on the glories of its past, that is always pushing forward., toward the frontier, toward the “wide horizon’s grander view”.  In his historical studies of the American West, Bernard DeVoto showed how this expansive spirit came to dominate the American mindset from the very beginning of our national history. America has always been a nation “on the move”—and not just geographically. Creativity—innovation—an entrepreneurial spirit—all have made America a world leader in so many fields of endeavor. 

 Now, if the truth be told, I am, at heart, something of a Europhile. I read The Economist. I listen to Deutsche Welle, the Voice of Germany.  I cook French cuisine. So many aspects of European culture—its art, its culture, its history—fascinate me and even enchant me. But as a student of European history, I also have discerned—not just in the past, but right into our own day—a certain conservatism in the European manner: a not-always-earned deference to the past—and to class-- which sometimes lays a heavy hand upon the present; a clinging to tradition for the sake of tradition which can act as a damper to innovation and creativity at times.
 All nations have their ghosts of the past which haunt them from time to time. There is, of course, a dark side to America’s history, which we need to face honestly, which we’ll have ample opportunity to do in the months ahead. But in America, I think, we seem more ready and able to move beyond our past mistakes, and let the dead bury the dead, than other peoples often are.  Our focus seems more on the future than on the past. Of course, all this action without introspection can have its downside. But there is a reason that America’s universities (if not its health care system) are the envy of the world. There is a reason that American culture and American products are sought after the world over, and it’s not all about marketing. There is an American ability to foster innovation, creativity, and always something new.

            The grocer and the butcher
 and the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see…

As James Carroll wrote recently in the Boston Globe:

“Here is the amazing thing. Overwhelmingly, present-day Americans are positively minded. You can see it in their faces. In their instinctive kindness. In the way, universally, they open doors for you, or gesture you first out of the elevator. Nowhere is our splendid diversity more dramatically manifest than in queues, whether shoeless at the X-ray machines, caffeine-deprived at Starbucks, weary at baggage carousels, or idling at freeway on-ramps. People in those lines, as I inched forward with them, were invariably patient, courteous, respectful.”

We are an informal and laid-back people, in the main. We may love watching royalty on CNN, but we would never want that for ourselves. That is where a great part of America’s power and glory lies: in the hearts of her wonderful people. “Americans are smart and good,” Carroll concludes.

The place I work in
The workers at my side
The little town, a city,
Where my people live and die.
The howdy and the handshake
The air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out
That’s America to me.”
We are a diverse people, too. Another great American virtue is our diversity.

All of us had forbears who were aliens in this New World, at one time or another; forefathers and foremothers who faced hardship to come here, seeking religious freedom or economic opportunity, or escape from political persecution, or simply a chance to build a new life. Who were greeted by “No Irish Need Apply” signs in shop windows. Who had their churches and temples burned to the ground by anti-immigrant mobs of “nativist” Americans. Who were spit upon and harassed and slurred and slandered as “Dagos” and “Wops” and “Kikes” and “Canucks”. Who worked for pennies an hour in the textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell and Fall River and Woonsocket, and built up this American economic powerhouse that would become the envy of the world. We all share, in some way, this magnificent story of the diversity of America.

Not too long ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism had been an “utter failure” as far as her nation was concerned. Certainly, there are many questions we need to face as far as how we are to live in a world (in a society) where not everyone looks like us or speaks like us or prays like us. How much should we acclimate and how much should we integrate? Are we to be a melting pot or a tapestry? How can a healthy balance be struck between multi-culturalism on one hand, and national unity and cohesiveness, on the other? How do we live out our national motto: E pluribus unum—Out of many, one? I don’t pretend that these are anything other than tough questions.
But certainly, when we are most true to the ideals upon which this country was founded—for which our people lived and died—when we affirm that the American spirit is one of inclusiveness and not exclusiveness; toward opening doors and not barring them shut. That is what has made America great in the past, and will keep America great in the future.
The words of old Abe Lincoln,
Of Jefferson and Paine,
Of Washington and Douglass
And the tasks that still remain,
The little bridge at Concord
(the one in Massachusetts, by the way)
Where freedom’s fight began,
Our Gettysburg and Midway,
And the heroes of Bataan.

When we were in Germany last summer, one of the places I really wanted to visit was the main hall at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, where some of the leading members of the White Rose resistance group attended classes, passed out some of their leaflets, and where, ultimately, they were arrested by the Gestapo.

On the first floor of the building there is a small museum dedicated to the members of the White Rose and the anti-Nazi resistance, which tells the brave story of their exploits. Finally, toward the end of our trip, we made it to the university in Munich and got to see the museum. The morning we were there, a rather elderly gentleman balding, but with thick white hair circling his head like a halo, and a large, bushy white mustache, was seated before a group of perhaps twenty or twenty-five people, speaking to them in German. This, we learned, was Franz Josef Mueller, perhaps the last surviving member of the White Rose, who is now 87 years old.

After Herr Mueller’s talk was over, the docent at the museum came over to us, and asked if, because we had come so far, we would like to meet him. Of course, we said, if it wasn’t too much trouble. Not at all, she replied, and she went and brought him over to us. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and he spoke to us for a few minutes. With his eyes glistening, in halting but perfectly understandable English, he said, “I want to thank you for what your country did in rescuing us from Hitler and for saving my life.” After he had been sentenced to jail by the Nazi court—a boy of just seventeen at the time-- it had been American soldiers who had liberated him from prison. But it wasn’t just his own freedom that Americans had wrought, Mueller said (his voice still thick with emotion, 65 years later); it was the very freedom of Europe itself.

In addressing the U.S. Congress in 1990, Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel said:
“Twice in this century, the world has been threatened by a catastrophe. Twice this catastrophe was born in Europe, and twice Americans, along with others, were called upon to save Europe, the whole world and yourselves…
“Proof of this are the hundreds of thousands of your young citizens who gave their lives for the liberation of Europe, and the graves of American airmen and soldiers on [European] soil…”

            This Memorial Day, may we remember that sacrifice, and honor it. And may we use the best that is within our national spirit to build a world where such sacrifice will no longer be necessary. May this garden of America bloom forth with flowers of justice, equity, and compassion. May the million lights we see—in churches, school, and clubhouses; in temples and mosques and places of business-- shine forth as reflections of the torch of liberty lit so long ago, but which burns forever new in the heart of America and the hearts of America’s people.

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