It’s 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 don’t question.
The anthem of Bush’s 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 Star-Spangled Banner.” 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.” Let’s 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.
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. We were defending freedom when the Bush administration gave $43 million to the Taliban early last year, a few months before Sept 11th. We’re defending freedom when the Justice Department recruits our friendly postman, meter reader, or cable technician 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. Greenwood 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 Republican rallies.
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/ America.”
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 us.
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.