"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Icons (Sunday, May 27, 2012)

            One of my favorite museums in this historical Commonwealth is tucked away, well over an hour from here-- fifty-something miles away-- on a main street in the (relatively) small town of Clinton (which is a bit beyond Marlborough and Westborough and Northborough, in that portion of the state which we here in the east refer to as “out there”). If that was not an incongruous enough place to have one of this learned state’s most respected museums, then its subject certainly is. It’s not a museum of American history; or nineteenth century American literature; or the flora and fauna of Central Massachusetts. No, tucked out there in Clinton is the highly-esteemed, world-class Museum of Russian Icons, which is,  indeed,  the largest collection of Russian icons anywhere in North America. And it’s well worth a visit, in my opinion (and maybe, I hope, another one this summer).

            Icons in the heart of Massachusetts—who would have ever thought it? Icons in America, even? The very topic might seem too foreign, too Eastern, too Orthodox (in the sense of religion) to be of much interest to people hereabouts.

            But no, the Museum of Russian Icons has a very good following; it seems to be doing just fine; they have even built a very handsome and modern addition during the past year. The icons there are beautiful; magnificent examples—more than 500 of them—of Russian religious artwork from the 14th century to modern times. People crave to see icons because they are so beautiful, I think.  

            Icons entice us because they pierce the surface to reach toward a deeper meaning. An icon is, very basically, an image, a picture, a representation, which  stands for something, either by signifying or representing it concretely, or by analogy, or in a stylized manner that is some combination of the two. When we look at an icon, we see what we see (a picture of the Virgin Mary, say), but we see something more, something deeper, we glimpse something of the essence of the subject. 

            Icons are not the same as idols. Icons engage us; they lure us in. Idols are static images; two or three dimensional representations that call not for engagement, but merely for unquestioning admiration, adoration, or devotion.

            There’s another meaning of the term “icon” too, of course. An icon is not just a work of art. It also means a person, a place, or a thing that has come to symbolize something beyond itself; an icon is a symbol of something that has greater significance or meaning or importance. In this sense, there are religious icons, too; but there are also cultural ones, or political or nationalistic ones.

            There’s the flag, for instance. People see the American flag waving, and it brings up all kinds of emotions;. That’s a sign that something is an icon: if it engenders a range of real feelings within us. The flag has become an icon—a symbol-- of the whole American story, our entire national history, of the battles fought and the laws passed and the men and women who lived and died for what America represents—freedom, liberty, justice, our highest ideals.

            But if the flag is an icon of America—and not just an American idol—then it has to draw us in; it has to engage us; it has to cause us to ponder the truth and depth of the American story, and our place in it.

            Not too long after the events of September 11th, I had to drive into Boston (seldom a pleasant experience), and the fact that I was locked in traffic from the Braintree split onward made it even more unpleasant. But I had chosen to drive rather than taking the “T”, so I really couldn’t complain.

But what really aggravated me was that in that ten miles or so that I was stuck in traffic, I was cut off three times—twice by people who didn’t seem to know what yellow “Merge” signs mean, and once by someone in a big white SUV who was damned if he was going to let me take advantage of a four-car-long piece of “daylight” that had opened up (somehow) in the lane I was traveling in—so he cut in on me—from the right to the middle lane—and then gave me the finger for blowing the horn at him!

Now, maybe ministers think too much (especially when we’re caught in traffic), and maybe I brood too much (especially when I’m caught in traffic)—but what do you suppose the vehicles of all three of those “aggressive drivers” (to use a polite term) had in common?

(No, it wasn’t Rhode Island plates, though that would be a good guess.) They were all flying American flags! (You know—the kind you can attach to your radio antenna, or whatever.) I thought to myself, perhaps a bit judgmentally:  It’s easy to mouth the platitudes of patriotism; it’s another thing to live out the civic virtues which patriotism truly represents, including common decency and civility.

Late in August of 1984, a couple of months into the national tour for his Born in the U.S.A. album, Bruce Springsteen appeared for four nights at the Capital Center, outside of Washington, D.C. In the audience for one of the shows was conservative columnist George Will, who had become intrigued by reports of the flag waving and other patriotic overtones that were said to accompany Springsteen’s recent concerts. After attending about half of one of the Capital Center shows, Will filed a column titled “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen”, which appeared in newspapers across the country. In his column, Will spoke of how “flags get waved” at Springsteen’s concerts, and of how “the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seem punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’” Will implied that “all-American” and “patriotic” values like those modeled by Springsteen were just what the country needed to keep forging ahead down the road of Reaganomics. After all, George Will had seen American flags waving at Springsteen’s concert; he assumed, then, that, Springsteen’s vision of America was the same as his own and of those who controlled the American government.

That’s when the flag becomes not an icon, but an idol. Anyone who had actually listened to or read the lyrics of Springsteen’s anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.” would know immediately that this was no paean to American superiority or perfection; it was no rallying cry to support the privileged and moneyed Powers That Be; it was no call for us to swear unquestioned allegiance to all of the policies of the U.S. government. No, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a sad and bitter story of a Vietnam veteran who comes home and can’t find a job. His life is in shambles; his hopes have dried up. The song is no anthem of American greatness, but rather, a fire bolt of judgment hurled against a society which has let down those sent to do its dirty work.

When we fly the flag, then—if it is to be a truly meaningful symbol of what it means to be an American—then it has to take in the unemployed veteran along with the heroism of Lexington and Concord and D-Day and 9/11. It has to take in both American abundance and prosperity and wealth and progress, and slaves in shackles and workers in sweat shops and the internment of Japanese civilians during the Second World War. The stars on the American flag stand for Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony; but they stand for Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepard, just as certainly.

The icon of the flag draws us in. Then, if it really does its work within us, it changes our heart; and engages our minds; then moves us to action—to make real the deeper truths, the wider vision, the higher ideals, which that symbol represents.

Ideals summed up in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, right? Perhaps.

Did you know that the Pledge of Allegiance was written in Boston? That’s right; it was written in the large red brick office building on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Berkeley Street (something I probably never would have know had I not driven a sightseeing trolley for a couple of seasons back in the 1990’s).

 The original author of the Pledge of Allegiance was a Methodist minister named Francis Bellamy, who was also a “Christian Socialist”, back before the days of the Christian Right, when that term would not have been considered quite as much of an oxymoron. Rev. Bellamy was pretty outspoken in his beliefs, too (as anyone daring to call himself both a Christian and a Socialist would tend to be, I suppose). He was an unwavering advocate of economic justice and social activism—so much so that he was fired from his ministry at one of Boston’s Methodist churches. But in 1892, he found a job as a staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a monthly periodical for young people, which was very popular at the time.

Bellamy was also named to a committee of educators and community leaders working on a suitable observance of the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. It was to commemorate that anniversary that the Pledge of Allegiance first appeared in the October 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion. There, the original Pledge read like this:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

  Bellamy (good socialist that he was) later said that he had also wanted to include the word “equality”—as in, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and equality for all.” But the editors of the magazine thought that including “equality” might be too controversial; it sounded like it gave support to efforts to get the vote for women (which, if truth be told, is what Bellamy did intend y including it, at least in part). So, “equality” was dropped. Then, a month after the original publication of the Pledge, the editors of The Youth’s Companion changed Bellamy’s words slightly as well. “My flag” became “the flag” and the word “to” was added before the words “the Republic”, so that the first line now read: “I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands…”  

A few years later, shortly after the turn of the century, the words “of the United States of America” were added as a clarification, it was said, for newly arrived immigrants who might not know to which flag they were pledging allegiance.

So, much to his chagrin, Rev. Bellamy’s private statement of the faith of the individual in the deeper principles of America had become a mass public oath, insuring loyalty of all citizens to the government of the United States. In Bellamy’s view, at least, his private patriotic icon had become a nationalistic idol instead.

After those initial changes had been made in the wording, they were to remain unaltered for the next half century. But then, a larger, even more intrusive change was made in 1954, about which, you would think, all “traditionalists”, “conservatives”, and patriotic purists would be in arms, but they’re not.  In that august year, 1954, at the height of the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria, prodded by lobbying from the staunchly anti-Communist, heavily-Catholic Knights of Columbus, as well as from the socially conservative Daughters of the American Revolution, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding those two little words—“under God”—to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Thus, in spite of the fact that generations of American young people had done just fine reciting a Pledge which included no reference to God; in spite of the fact that the American republic had survived just fine as, simply, “one nation, indivisible”—the words “under God” were added, unquestioned (it was supposed) until the very controversial ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.

It was during the McCarthy period, too, that our national motto was officially changed, from “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one.”) to “In God we trust.”-- once again, to differentiate “us real Americans” from those who “don’t believe”. It’s interesting to note that in both of these cases—for both the Pledge and the motto-- statements emphasizing American unity were, in fact, undermined by additions which sought to divide, separate, and differentiate. Once again, an icon became an idol; a living symbol became little more than a dead letter, repeated second hand.

But that’s America, and that’s history. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not; oftentimes in ways that sadden and anger some of us, and inspire and uplift others of us. Sometimes icons devolve into idols; sometimes they stay strong and true to their deepest meaning, in spite of the ravages of time.

For example, Americans of all persuasions love to sing “America the Beautiful”. In poll after poll, it’s selected as America’s most popular patriotic song—far outstripping the “Star Spangled Banner’, our actual National Anthem (which only became our National Anthem in 1931, you know; it wasn’t brought over by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower; it’ not even mentioned in the Constitution). But everyone loves to sing “America the Beautiful”. We really belted it out as our fist hymn this morning.

But you wonder what people like O’Reilly and Limbaugh would make of that song’s author, were she alive today? Probably not very much.

Katharine Lee Bates was from Massachusetts, after all (a place which some conservatives, even former governors, seem to want to deny is “really American”). Strike one! She was a professor at an exclusive Massachusetts college (and we know how dangerous and elitist and “not really American” woman professors at exclusive Massachusetts colleges can be). Strike two! And—here’s the big one—Strike Three!--  Katharine Lee Bates lived for over twenty-five years in a same-sex relationship, and she and her life partner, Katharine Coman, would probably be legally married, were they alive today in this blessed Commonwealth.

So, the “Pledge of Allegiance” was written by a socialist, and “America the Beautiful” was written by a lesbian. What a magnificent country! That’s America, and all of us Americans, however we see the issues of today, can find something to celebrate in the many facets of the story of this good land.

So I say, God bless us, every one. “God Bless America.” Or, as Woody Guthrie, who hated Irving Berlin’s song so much that he wrote a song of his own to replace it, would have said: “This land was made for you and  me.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Springsteen's Wrecking Ball (Sunday, May 6, 2012)

The darkness is no longer on the edge of town. It is now at the very heart of our nation.

Almost thirty years ago, in the song “My Hometown” from his seminal album, Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen wrote of “Main Street’s white washed windows and vacant stores,” and factory closings and jobs heading south. The tone of the song was something of sadness, as a young man and his wife lie in bed at night, discussing their future: Do they move, or do they stay? Do they uproot their young son, in search of (perhaps) better economic prospects, or do they remain in the place that has been their home for generations, and give him a sense of belonging, connection, and family?
The insinuation in the song is that they will stay in their hometown. It probably wasn’t a good decision.
Now, in the face of the economic devastation that came to a head with the financial meltdown of 2008, the whitewashed windows on Main Street seem almost quaint. Main Street has become, in too many American cities, a war zone. Thirty years of greed, speculation, globablization, and unfettered, robber baron monopoly capitalism, have brought, in Springsteen’s words, “Death to My Hometown”.

He sings:

… no cannon ball did fly, no rifles cut us down
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground
No powder flash blinded the eye
No deathly thunder sounded
But just as sure as the hand of God
They brought death to my hometown…

They destroyed our families, factories,
and they took our homes.
They left our bodes on the plains,
the vultures picked our bones…

Even worse, perhaps, is that no one has been called to justice for the devastation. Not a single person has been prosecuted for the crimes that nearly toppled our entire financial system just a few years ago. No, instead the perpetrators “walk the streets as free men now,” Springsteen sings, and he warns that “they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun,” he warns.

 So, listen up my sonny boy, be ready when they come…
Now get yourself a song to sing
And sing it ’til you’re done
Sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell

Springsteen’s tone isn’t one of sadness or nostalgia or resignation any longer. The overriding tone of Wrecking Ball (the first half of the album, at least) is one of unmitigated anger. This work is a word of prophecy and judgment, with plenty of blame to go around—and plenty of work for all of us to do.

There are other allusions to Born in the U.S.A. here, as well.

The opening track, “We Take Care of Our Own” also speaks of “the promise from sea to shining sea” and American flags waving in the breeze. (And, no doubt, like the song “Born in the U.S.A.” before it, “We Take Care of Our Own” will be woefully misinterpreted by people who refuse to listen to-- or at least read-- its completely unambiguous lyrics):

I been stumbling on good hearts
Turned to stone
The road of good intentions
has gone dry as a bone.
We take care of our own…
wherever this flag’s flown,
we take care of our own.

 But like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we have come answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” much too narrowly. The years have killed something in us, and we are circling the wagons and drawing in on ourselves.  

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone,
From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome,
there ain’t no help, the calvary stayed home,
there ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’…

Almost in desperation, Springsteen cries out:

Where are the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where are the hearts that run over with mercy.
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me.
Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?

 But there is no answer, not in this song at least. There is only the repetitious refrain, over and over, “We take care of our own. We take care of our own.” Like a discussion ending declaration, meant to cut off discourse, not further it; like Scrooge slamming the door in the face of the solicitors coming to him, asking for compassion and charity, and receiving only a cold stare and icy sarcasm in response.  “Charity begins at home,” the greedy wretch at the door seems to say, “and ends there, too.”

That’s the note of anger with which Wrecking Ball begins. Don’t look for things to improve any time soon. (As some of us have learned over the years, hope is always a long time coming with Springsteen.)

We’re lead first to “Easy Money”—about the shallowness and shakiness of a life based on acquisitiveness alone (and about how those at the bottom of the pyramid are always the ones who pay first and pay most).

There’s mothin’ to it, mister
You won’t hear a sound
when your whole world comes tumbling down
and all of them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny,
I’m goin’ to town now, lookin’ for easy money.

 But from “Easy Money” we get led to being “Shacked and Drawn”. ”Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong,” it’s as though we’re all part of a universal chain gang—trudging through life, just trying to survive. All notions of the nobility of work and the dignity of labor lie buried by the side of the road in the face of this dystopian new world we have inherited:

Freedom, son’s, a dirty shirt,
The sun on my face and a shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt that keeps the devil gone
 I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.

But nor is our sad fate merely the result of the acts of some detached or impersonal God or the disinterested spinning of the wheel of Fate. No, once again, there are real people—embodied social forces—to blame for the crushing of hardworking, decent folk:

Gambling man rolls the dice (like the bankers and speculators who facilitated the crisis of 2008)
Workingman pays the bill.
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.
Up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shacked and drawn.

In the song “Mansion on the Hill” from Springsteen’s album Nebraska in 1982, a young boy and his sister listen longingly to the music coming from a big house on the edge of town. Now, Nebraska is hardly a sentimental work; it is, rather, almost unrelentingly gritty and stark. But even there, there was, in that boy and his sister at the bottom of the hill, at least a glimpse of hope, the idea that good things can come to those who wait and work hard and have patience. Now, thirty years later, it is as though the young boy is still standing at the foot of the rich man’s hill—but now, with his legs in irons—enslaved in an almost neo-feudal economic system, with no hope, no dreams, only anger welling up inside him.

Only slightly better off is the “Jack of All Trades” of Wrecking Ball’s next song:

He’s the guy who will “mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain. [He’ll] mend your roof, to keep out the rain”. He is one of those countless hard working souls who kept America moving for so many years:

I’ll hammer the nails, I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops,
When they’re ripe and grown…
I’ll take the work that God provides,
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.”

But times have changed for him, too. It is as though a great storm has come through:

The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain,
When the blue sky breaks
It feels like the world’s gonna change
And we’ll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.

But we won’t. be all right, not any time soon. After the storm, things won’t change. Not this time. Not given how far our civic fabric has been frayed. Not given how far we have fallen from our high ideals. The album Wrecking Ball is freighted with images of storms and hurricanes—Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in particular. The decimation of the poor and working class neighborhoods of New Orleans by that storm, and the inability or unwillingness by those in power to respond marked, I think, a milestone in the radicalization of Springsteen’s message. Combined with the financial meltdown of 2008, the effect is highly combustible—indeed, explosive.

The banker man grows fat,
working man grows thin.
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again…
So you use what you’ve got,
And you learn to make do,
You take the old, you make it new

Then, our ever optimistic handyman, our ever hopeful Everyman, offers his solution for repairs on our body politic:

If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.

“Sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood,” Springsteen sings, and he reminds us that drought is often followed by  flood. History often teaches of the rage that festers beneath an unjust social code, and of the mayhem that can be unleashed when these tensions finally explode.  Springsteen dares to hint that it can happen here, and that even America is not immune to the lessons history teaches.

How then, do we channel this anger that “This Depression”—psychological no less than economic—has wrought? The album’s title track, “Wrecking Ball”, gives some hints.

The song is ostensibly about the demolition of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 2010. Bit its opening lines could be a fragment of Springsteen’s own autobiography:

I was raised outta steel
here in the swamps of Jersey
some misty years ago
through the mud and the beer
the blood and the cheers,
I’ve seen champions come and go…

In any of our lives, we tell our own stories, play our own game, and bear witness to the Giants whose paths have crossed ours. But there comes a time for each of us to lift our own parting glass, and we hear their voices call, and our spirits rejoin theirs, in a seamless garment of destiny. The passage of time is relentless and immutable; that’s something we all grasp more clearly the older we get.

Now, when all this steel and all these stories
drift away to rust
and all our youth and beauty
has been given to the dust
when the game has been decided
and we’re running down the clock
and all our little victories and glories
have turned into parking lots
when your best hopes and desires
are scattered to the wind
and hard times come and hard time go
...just to come again…

Then it is time for the wrecking ball of history to swoop down and level the whole edifice that has been, so that a new creation may rise in its stead. This is the inevitable pattern of life—the lives of any of us. But even more: it is the call of justice and history. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low, and the rough ground shall become a plain, and the rugged places an open valley.”

We know that, come tomorrow,
none of this will be here
So hold tight to your anger,
And don’t fall to your fears.

Between that choice—holding onto our anger or giving in to our fear—lies the redemption of our lives. Anger can empower. It can clear the way for a new day. It can kindle seeds of hope. Fear merely stops us in our tracks and freezes us in the present. It leads us onto “Rocky Ground” but then, merely leaves us stranded there.

But anger can lead to righteousness, and righteousness to action, and action can lead to hope; and hope—yes, to change.

It does not make the ground any less rocky. It does not solve all our problems or redress all our grievances or make pain and sorrow and tragedy any less than they are. Indeed, it might actually bring more pain, more challenge, into our lives. But often, the only way to the Promised Land is over “Rocky Ground”.

But we must not stay there. We must move. We must go forward. That requires leaders who are willing to lead; leaders who understand that the essential of leadership lies not in pretty speechifying and eloquent sloganeering,, but in decisive action (even if that means divisive action, at times—like Jesus with the money changers in the Temple). Real leadership lies in action and example and courage and will. Nothing will change if all our good intentions remain ideas alone. Our hearts are made sick by leaders who are too quick to compromise with evil, and will not lead.

So, Springsteen sings “Rise up, Shepherd, rise up. Your flock has roamed far from the hill… Find your flock, get them to higher ground. The floodwater’s rising. We are Canaan bound…”

There will be difficult times ahead. The rocky ground will seem to go on forever. The night will grown dark. We will despair. We will be alone. We will cry out, but will be greeted by only silence in return.

But the still, small voice of hope will abide. And a glimmer on the horizon will remind us that, indeed, “A new day’s coming…”

If we cling to our faith. And hold one another in love. Then we will find, at last, our hope.

When he was a younger man, Springsteen sang a lot about cars—cars as a symbol of freedom and individuality and a wide open road and the unique, individual journey that each one of us takes.

It is interesting, then, that in recent years, his chosen vehicle of redemption and salvation is no longer a car, but a train. A train that carries all of us—saints and sinners, losers and winners—to that land of hope and dreams.
"Land of Hope and Dreams” us a song that Springsteen first performed in the lat 1990s, as part of his triumphant Reunion Tour with the E Street Band. It is a song that predates the election of George W. Bush and 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and Katrina and the Financial Meltdown of 2008 and the hopes and disappointments that have come since. In some ways, it’s really quite an old song, relatively speaking.

 But it’s a song that Springsteen sings still (and included again on his most recent album) because its message will abide as long as his music abides. It is a song of an often weary, unsentimental, realistic, resilient, defiant hope. The hope that beats always at the heart of Springsteen’s music and inspires his worldview, a beating heart that comes to life all the more movingly here, with an extended saxophone solo from Springsteen’s late, great friend Clarence Clemons—playing for us again as though from the grave itself.

And Clarence speaks from the grave, as it were, in the album’s final song, “We Are Alive”, too—along with all the other dear souls who have lived and died and fount and loved and bequeathed their lessons and their hard won wisdom to us.

We are alive, Springsteen sings,
and though our bodies lie alone here in the dark,
our spirits rise
to carry the fire and light the spark
to stand shoulder to shoulder
and heart to heart.

 If we keep faith with those who have come before—that blessed communion of saints and sinners—then they will rest in peace, indeed; but they will not simply rest—rather, they will abide with us still, though they may be long gone. They will continue to inspire us and enlighten us,  as we, too, take our own stumbling, unsteady steps into an unknown future, They will abide with us still, and testify to us that the music we make in our own lives resounds not only in these  times in which we live, but also in the lives of generations yet to be born.