Land of …. What Exactly? – Values of the Wise


lost in America
Is America Lost?

Lyricist and drummer for the marvelous rock-n-roll group Rush (a Canadian band with a period of productivity from 1974 to about 2016)(with dozens of gold and platinum albums along the way!), Neil Peart died in 2020 from brain cancer. The world lost a great man, and for some reason believers must believe that God decided to leave Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, and 10,000 drug dealers alive in the United States, and take the noble, hard-working, genius-level artist Neil Peart from the world.

 

At any rate, a song that came out on the bombshell album Fly By Night (Feb, 1975) that is really pretty tight. I want to reflect on it. What I’m going to do is to refer one to  this page  which is the official Rush website to see the words to the song “Beneath, Between and Behind”. One could also go to this  YouTube URL  to hear the song and read the lyrics simultaneously.

Note that if you’re not a rock-n-roller, the song is fast and furious. The lead singer, Geddy Lee, has a voice that, like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, or Sammy Hagar in “Dreams”, is off-the-charts high at times. So, in this way, Rush is kind of a “niche” band. But I guarantee the lyrics, and the meaning of the lyrics, are top-shelf, straight-ahead-poetry-level stuff! So listen if you choose, but don’t let the “metal” quality to the music or the screaming/screeching of Geddy turn you off!

 

A stanza, as you probably know, is a group of lines in poetry. Peart uses 6 lines per stanza, and there are four stanzas (so, 24 lines). His rhyme and meter are pretty tight and consistent (but not perfect). His themes are interesting, and his points are fairly unmissable! It’s a great song that critiques America from that highest level of critique. The song begins in the colonial era.

One thing to keep in mind that I think is helpful is to picture America as symbolized by a huge, marble and gold statue. Perhaps an eagle. Imagine it as grand; lofty; stately; powerful; proud; perfect. That is the maximum, best, most aspirational, highest possible incarnation of this country’s values and hopes and dreams and principles.

 

Ok here we go (and feel free to follow along with the lyrics on either of the two sites I mentioned):

So, in stanza #1, he writes about the fact that 250 years ago or so, the colonists of the British colony of America went to war against its mother country (and King George III and the Parliament) to secure its autonomy, opportunity, liberty, and self-governance. We defeated the king and what was essentially the greatest military on Earth. How we accomplished this is worth reading a 500 page book about—it was that remarkable. It really should have gone the other way if one were to play the odds. But, we prevailed. It made heroes out of certain white men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Tom Paine, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. They and others such as Hamilton and Madison became America’s “Founding Fathers.” The French were our saviors, and they took heart in this revolution and had one of their own in 1789!

We were very proud; we were off to the races! It was a wondrous dream that came into being.

There was an entire, virgin continent before us. The fact that Indians were here in numbers well over a million was an issue, but one that we would have to deal with if we wanted to work toward greater prosperity, security, and industrial growth. We tamed the trackless waste; we left no virgin land untouched. It was “40 acres and a mule time”; it was manifest destiny. The Indians were going to have to be cheated and killed in order to pull this off—there was to be no cohabitation or miscegenation. Spain/Mexico would be essentially plundered and ripped off. Slaves were going to do much of the agricultural dirty work, and some building. Chinese would help for pennies on the dollar. Irish would be second-class citizens and take jobs a lot of English and German Americans didn’t want. Children would be used in labor because it’s all about the Benjamins, baby!

Finally in stanza #1, Peart uses all shining eyes but never seeing to refer to our optimism, our sense of destiny and our eagerness to utilize our two great oceans to protect ourselves and grow prosperous and independent. Yet, a quote by Helen Keller—who was obviously blind, and also an amazing person—is relevant here: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight, but no vision.” Thus, with but never seeing, Peart is showing the near-sightedness and lack of mental flexibility and a lack of wisdom that was taking deeper root in this early days. One would easily be able to argue that a Christian and deistic nation that made peace with slavery and genocide and child labor was destined for trouble….

 

Stanza #2: that is the chorus. This is where picturing the United States and its principles and values and merit as an actual, massive sculpture of an eagle is helpful. Peart is saying here that beneath the eagle, between the inspirational wording of the Declaration and the Constitution and things such as The Rights of Man by Tom Paine, or writings by Jefferson and Adams, and behind the beauty cracks are evident. Something is wrong with the perfect, iconic statue of the eagle because something is wrong with the way we are dedicated to our lofty virtues and highest values. We thought we were moral, but we were being shown to have a very spotty record with righteousness and goodness.

Steven Vincent Binet said something that came to mind for me: “We thought we were done with these things, but we were wrong. We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.”

We were grossly falling short of both the wording of our founding documents and writings, and what the wise knew was possible, achievable. We knew what happened to Athens, and Rome, and here we were following in their footsteps. The love of money, power, and dominance was alive and well in our little republic started by those nice Puritans on the Mayflower.

Then in the second half of the stanza, Peart notes that we once were proud, noble, and full of glorious potential—with heads held high—but now something was amiss. He asks, why do their shadows bow in fear?

 

Stanza #3 involves the furious pace of industrialization, agricultural prowess and productivity, inventiveness, and prosperity that was taking hold in the vast continent (slowly being made available by relocating, manipulating, and killing Indians). Of course, slavery and Chinese labor and the subjugation of indentured servants made all of this much more possible. People began, in the early 1800s, to believe that there was a place such as America—as a second and third generation of British settlers began to consider themselves formerly British. Finally in this well-written stanza, Peart indicates that America was peopled by the greatest minds, but that there is an ignorance; a myopia that is plaguing us—morally mostly, such as sowing seeds of class division, racial injustice, oppression of females, etc.

There is also the lack of wisdom coming up for me here, too. There was ample evidence that America was not being guided by values such as wisdom, humility, coexistence, peace, equality, and respect. These things, when in short supply relative to competing values such as acquisitiveness, brutality, classism, racism, corruption, entitlement, and laziness for certain upper class individuals, sends the beautiful ship America toward the rocks….

In stanza #3, the decay, the rot, the seeds of our sorrow, are planted and actively growing. The weeds are beginning to choke us. As Peart wrote in another incredible song from the A Farewell to Kings album:

 

When they turn the pages of history,

When these days have passed long ago,

Will they think of us with sadness

For the seeds that we let grow?

 

Hauntingly, in the final stanza, Peart notes that the cracks beneath, between, and behind this massive, formerly pristine marble and gold sculpture of an eagle were at first visible, but that they have actually started to cause parts of it to chip off and become dull in hue—the eagle is under great stress and is appearing to falter; to be in danger. Even though there are all these warning signs that decay has set in and that the potential is getting further and further away from us—perhaps with the Civil War, the Salem Witch Trials, and the evils of industrialization/capitalism run amok—even with all this damage to our eagle, still, let hope prevail. We should be hoping at this stage that history’s debt won’t be [required to be] repaid. Americans love to rack up debt and kick the can down the road, as it were. We do this financially, and we do it in the moral/justice sense. As Jefferson said:

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Gulp!

History’s debt being repaid—I am wondering if that has already begun a long time ago, and that we are living on borrowed time, if you will? Or do we have yet to pay the piper?

 

 

So there you have it—Neil Peart’s take on America’s potential and its aspirations and principles compared with how it actually conducted itself both within, and on the world stage. The way things have gone since settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock hundreds of years ago are enough to give Jefferson and Adams heartburn.

The two great thinkers, statesmen, and patriots actually died on the same day—July 4th of all days!

A Frenchman who made a study of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, has this to say of us:

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.

 

 

So, by way of context, commentary, and reflection, I think it is remarkable that a young Canadian boy whom I don’t believe went to college was able to assess America so cogently. Beautifully. Devastatingly.

Peart saw the potential of America, and that was the (shall I say) perfectionistic backdrop. That is to say: if America was never supposed to be a wondrous and glorious place—where immigrants come to put aside certain native cultural tendencies, certain nationalistic loyalties to countries of origin—then it wouldn’t be worth writing a song about what has gone wrong.

However, if America is supposed to be, as Reagan said, a “shining city on a hill” (quoting Dickens, I believe) then the degree to which we fall short of our aspirations and possibilities is noteworthy. And potentially saddening or angersome.

Furthermore, this was written as long ago as I have been alive (!), so it’s appalling that in many measurable ways things have only gotten worse since then. Some people wisely think that we are coming apart at the seams nowadays. Watching Republicans do their thing, viewing the effect social media is having on society, and considering how entrenched and aggrieved white Americans have become since Trump, I have to say I am gravely concerned. Everyone who is pretty rational and observes politics is quite alarmed by where we are.

Where we are has been immensely exacerbated by electing a racist, misogynistic, narcissistic, criminally-minded con man to the highest office in the land. And that is not a mistake, apparently, since 70% of Republcians believe that the election was stolen from Trump, and that his two impeachments were corrupt and wrong-headed, and that January 6th was, as Joe Scarborough put it, “much ado about nothing.”

So this is where we are my friends. It’s a crazy time to be alive.

This country may have been founded on slavery and genocide and religious fanaticism and capitalism—and then started growing worse in many ways—but we are at the point now where, as the Native American proverb (ironically) goes, If we don’t turn around now, we might get where we’re going.

 

OK friends, I will sign off here, lest I continue down this dark rabbit hole that at times keeps me up at night. If there were a take-away it should probably be:

America has incredible potential, and claims to have principles such as democracy/democratic republicanism, equal opportunity, equality before the law, social justice, criminal justice, acceptance of immigrants, love of one’s neighbor, and a shared cultural identity, but the ship is taking on water….

 

 HERE ARE A DOZEN OR TWO QUOTATIONS ABOUT AMERICA THAT YOU MIGHT APPRECIATE:


“That’s the American dilemma; we’re all great successes, and if you push a little bit you can reach the anguish that’s underneath it all.” ~ Arthur Miller

 

“The dream of limitless leisure persisted through the twentieth century. Dazzled by the magical promise of technology, the man in the street dreamed of a life spent lounging by the pool, waited on by robots that not only mixed a mean martini but also kept the economy ticking over nicely. In 1956, Richard Nixon told Americans to prepare for a four-day workweek in the ‘not too distant future.’ A decade later, a US Senate subcommittee heard that by 2000 Americans would be working as little as fourteen hours per week. Even in the 1980s, some predicted that robotics and computers would give us all more free time than we would know what to do with.” ~ Carl Honore

 

“It has been the repeated dissatisfaction – even shame and disgust – that Americans have felt about their own country, followed by the application of practical remedies, that has saved us again and again.” ~ Sam Smith

 

“Unless we reverse our current economic course our children will have, for the first time in modern American history, a lower standard of living than their parents.” ~ Bernie Sanders

 

Since liberal democracies are very much the grandchildren of philosophy, the histories of wisdom and politics are deeply intertwined. Indeed, in the view of some, the attainment of wisdom moved from an individual calling prior to the eighteenth century to a grand endeavor of nation-states, fueled by the ideals of both the French and the American revolutions. ‘The attainment of justice and happiness were to become the art of organizing a just society that delivers happiness to its members through collective justice,’ Jean-François Revel said.” ~ Stephen S. Hall

 

“The most profoundly revolutionary achievement of the United States of America was the subordination of society to moral law.” ~ Ayn Rand

 

“At this point, all that stands in the way of universal health care in America are the greed of the medical-industrial complex, the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, and the gullibility of voters who believe those lies.” ~ Paul Krugman

 

Lately, most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, have been asking themselves some version of the same question: How did we get here? How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, galloping income inequality, bitter polarization, and dysfunctional government?” ~ Steven Brill

 

“What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.” ~ Barbara Jordan

 

“More than half of all voting-age Americans do not vote. If we are to prevent a further withering of our democracy and the entrenchment of plutocracy, we must take steps to spur dramatically-enhanced voter participation.” ~ Ralph Nader

 

For three decades after World War II, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. Over the last thirty years, by contrast, the size of the economy doubled again but the earnings of the typical American went nowhere.” ~ Robert Reich

 

“A record 400 Americans are billionaires — and a record 47 million Americans have no health insurance. America has 400 billionaires — and 37 million people below the official poverty line.” ~ Holly Sklar

 

“The causes of America’s resurgent tribalism are many. They include seismic demographic change, which has led to predictions that whites will lose their majority status within a few decades; declining social mobility and a growing class divide; and media that reward expressions of outrage. All of this has contributed to a climate in which every group in America: minorities and whites; conservatives and liberals; the working class and elites, feels under attack, pitted against the others not just for jobs and spoils, but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into a zero-sum competition, one in which parties succeed by stoking voters fears and appealing to their ugliest us-versus-them instincts.” ~ Amy Chua and Jed Rosenfeld

 

“Protests following the killing of George Floyd stretch from Minneapolis to Washington D.C., and Los Angeles all the way to the streets of Asheville. And through the tear gas and smoke, this much is clear: We are at a moment in history that will forever define who we are as individuals and as a nation. George Floyd’s death alone did not bring the country to this precipice. We’ve been building toward this moment for years and years. This is the reckoning. It has now arrived in the form of both peaceful protests and violence in the streets. As Martin Luther King Jr., once said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’” ~ Morris Davis

 

“I’ve been collecting lies on television for some time now. My theory is that Americans are so inured to being lied to on television that the big, important lies they’re fed, like “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” “Mission Accomplished,” and “We do not torture,” no longer makes any dent in their consciousness.” ~ Joyce Marcel

 

“There is a penalty for ignorance. We are paying through the nose.” ~ W. Edward Deming

 

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Politicians who purport to be guardians of American ‘values’ are rewarded for being inhumane. The nastier, the better. Republican pols have gone from kissing babies and rope-line handshakes to full-on viciousness. I asked Trump during the 2016 campaign why he had gone so dark. ‘I guess because of the fact that I immediately went to No. 1,’ he replied, ‘and I said, Why don’t I just keep the same thing going?’” ~ Maureen Dowd

 

“Governments and societies make decisions — expressed through policies, laws, and budgetary choices — that either strengthen that contract or weaken it. By allowing inequality to metastasize unchecked, America is choosing a path of the destruction of social capital, if not social conflict.” ~ Joseph Stiglitz

 

“Conservatives want to narrow the definition of security to mean only protection from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists. But Americans understand that protection of our health and well-being is also security.” ~ Bernard Horn

 

“For black, brown, and poor America, Reaganism meant an escalation of racism and white prejudice, a retreat from the enforcement of civil rights laws, an aggressive assault to undermine labor unions and the right to strike, and an extreme consolidation of wealth and property in the hands of a privileged few at the cost of increased poverty for the many.” ~ Manning Marable

 

“They call themselves conservatives but that’s not it, either. They don’t want to conserve what we now have. They’d rather take the country backwards – before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Environmental Protection Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; before the New Deal, and its provision for Social Security, unemployment insurance, the forty-hour workweek, and official recognition of trade unions; even before the Progressive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust laws, and Federal Reserve. They’re not conservatives. They’re regressives. And the America they seek is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century.” ~ Robert Reich

 

America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson

 

Most Americans don’t know what the socialists did during the first half of the past century with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity, and political acumen of American wage earners — our working class.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

 

“It is a spiritually impoverished nation that permits infants and children to be the poorest Americans.” ~ Marian Wright Edelman

 

“We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

 

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