There is a multitude of complex modern American problems, I think we can all agree. I was listening to a song the other day (which is essentially poetry set to music, is it not?), and I was overwhelmed by the idea that a song written in probably 1980 was alarmingly prophetic. Then I reflected that Neil Peart, lyricist of the rock group Rush, is uncanny in his ability to communicate meaningful and pithy messages in just a few short words (that can be successfully put to incredible music, no less!). So in this blog, I share a few opinions about modern American problems and reflect them off of the clear mirror of poetry (song lyrics). The poet’s words are set off in dark blue.
When they turn the pages of history
When these days have passed long ago
Will they read of us with sadness
For the seeds that we let grow? ~ Neil Peart
The above lyrics are apropos of modern American problems in a haunting way. The stanza is from the awesome song “A Farewell to Kings“. It wonderfully metaphorically describes the fact that daily the leadership at the highest eschelons of the government do things that can certainly be described as chicanery, corruption, and dishonor. The Trump Administration is a farce, and is only tolerated by many on the political Right because our country has slid so far into depravity, degradation, and dereliction that this seems at all reasonable and justifiable. Peart is presciently asking, In the future, will we not appear to have made a number of mistakes that should have been predictable at the time? Did we not let seeds of hatred, division, class warfare, income inequality, climate change, nuclearization, and hyperpartisan politics grow? Why didn’t we act more vigilantly when we had the chance?
“Did John Ashcroft forget a seminal statement of one of our founding fathers? As Ben Franklin said to the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1755, ‘They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’”
One scintillating and trenchant example of musical poetry comes from one of America’s most notable poets, Bob Dylan. The following lyric is from the fascinating song “The Hurricane,” about the boxer Rubin Carter who was, it seems, framed for murder primarily for being black. He was ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game, and I’m afraid that incident from the 1970s is far from resolved. Even now, “driving while black” is a thing, unarmed black men are simply shot by police officers (many of whom never have to answer for it), and black people have the cops called on them while simply doing normal things in public (as the recent incident with Starbucks clearly shows). Only someone with a defensive and naive view of modern American problems with race, class, and justice would do anything but criticize it loudly and soundly. Yes, we have come far, but how much racism is too much? It is true that political correctness is a thing now, but does that really detract from racism besmirching the American experiment?
It doesn’t diminish America to criticize it. That is something the greatest Americans have always done. Our values will always be more important than any other consideration, including patriotism, offending white people, and making the powerful uncomfortable.
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of liberal political philosophy is exemplified by the quote by Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” It is a wonderful characterization of how we can either spend our money now on preschool programs, nutrition programs, job-training programs, and health care (in alignment with ethics, compassion, and wisdom) or we can spend it later on welfare, prisons, and emergency room visits for opioid overdoses. Without further ado, here is the Bob Dylan lyric from the song, “The Hurricane”:
Rubin Carter was falsely tried/ The crime was murder “one,” guess who testified?/ [White detectives] Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied/ And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride/ How can the life of such a man/ Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?/ To see him obviously framed/ Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed/ To live in a land/ Where justice is a game.
Check out what Peart was able to do with history when he penned the following wonderful lines, very aptly describing modern American problems, I believe. It’s from a neat song that goes all the way back to the 1970s, “Beneath, Between, and Behind.” I feel very conservative when I reflect on how far we have come since those halcyon days of the colonial era. I agree with Peart that since then, cracks and tarnish and decay mark the potentially-beautiful image of a giant statue of an eagle, the symbol of America. Woe is us. We have come so far, both in positive and negative senses of the word, it is amazing.
The guns replace the plow
Facades are tarnished now
The principles have been betrayed
The dreams’s gone stale
But still let hope prevail
Hope that history’s debt won’t be repaid. ~ Neil Peart
“Graduation time in high schools is the moment to extend sincere congratulations to that elite 49 percent of American students who made it through the system. You all worked very hard for your diplomas, and it’s just too bad that most of you won’t be able to read them.”
The following deep song is by Johnny Cash, one of history’s greatest lyricists and most indefatigable musicians. In “What Is Truth?“, Cash astutely considers issues that are often more the purview of a philosopher:
Little boy of three sitting on the floor/ Looks up and says, “Daddy, what is war?’/ “Son that’s when people fight and die.”/ Little boy of three says, “Daddy, why?’
“I’ve always thought it ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders, and miscreants should, that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show.”
Bruce Cockburn wrote a compelling ditty about economic justice and power and such named “Call It Democracy”:
Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor. ~ Bruce Cockburn
Cockburn’s and other interesting songs can be seen on this page. Aligned with that message is one by the legendary songwriter, Woody Guthrie. Here is a brief bit of his song “Deportee”:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”. ~ Woody Guthrie
“History has a long-range perspective. It ultimately passes stern judgment on tyrants and vindicates those who fought, suffered, were imprisoned, and died for human freedom, and against political oppression and economic slavery.”
The following song, “Ragged Old Flag” is a paean to the men of old, who defended American liberty with their lives. I don’t want to be Pollyannish and indicate that I believe that even World War II was a “good war,” and certainly the 250 or so skirmishes, battles, operations, and coups America has wrought range from “ill-conceived” to “ignominious” to “patently obviously about economics.” However, it is true to say that once, before this complex panoply of modern American problems, we had more honor and legitimacy marking the fights we engaged in.
I can at once criticize the Revolutionary War and praise the glory of the cause; the way America treated the Indians and other people with its colonialization and imperialism and elective war is another matter. I can see how that child in the Cash lyric above would ask his father why so much war, anger, hatred, divisions, and suffering? It’s a poignant question, “from the mouths of babes.”
I am not terribly conservative, but I do see the valor and the solid principles that would animate the old veteran of war that Cash spoke to on that park bench in middle America on that day in the 1960s. The vet told him:
So we raise her up every morning
And we bring her down slow every night
We don’t let her touch the ground
And we fold her up right
On second thought
I do like to brag
Because I’m mighty proud of
That Ragged Old Flag. ~ Johnny Cash
I wish we had higher standards today for America. We seem to have slipped so far, and come so far afield. It gives pause to a liberal like myself, and I know causes a tear to form in the eye of many a conservative, too. “Liberty,” Aldous Huxley said, “as we all know, cannot flourish in a country that is permanently on a war footing, or even a near-war footing. Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the government.”
“[America], if you proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the world will stop admiring the good things about you. They’ll decide that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on them. They’ll think you’ve abandoned the rule of law. They’ll think you’ve fouled your own nest. The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn’t dead, but sleeping in a cave, it was said; in the country’s hour of greatest peril, he would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them.”
The lyrics below, again from Neil Peart, are from a song entitled “Totem”. It brilliantly points out (though subtly) how some modern American problems are due to an uncritical acceptance of religious dogma that millions of poorly-educated and stressed out Americans engage in. We are one of the most religious industrialized countries, and this has major relevance to politics and our functioning in the world because Trump’s “base” is overwhelmingly white and Christian and capitalistic. It’s ironic to the point of absurdity that his support among evangelicals is ever-present and is not diminished by any of the startlingly un-Christian behavior the president engages in virtually daily. It goes to show that in the eyes of the benighted masses in America, it’s really all about the culture war, and that means “God, guns, and gays.” That kind of myopia and lack of compassion is at the heart of many modern American problems, I believe. It’s very disheartening to liberals – and many libertarians, I would assume.
Angels and demons dancing in my head
Lunatics and monsters underneath my bed
Media messiahs preying on my fears
Pop culture prophets playing in my ears. ~ Neil Peart
“…in deciding what course of action is moral, you should act as if there were no God. You should act as if there were no threat of earthly punishment or reward. You should be a person of good character because it is right to be such a person.”
Hardly a day goes by when truth is not at issue. Different groups in America seem to have cordoned off their minds and only believe the truth that their favorite media channel pitches their way. Daily the POTUS denigrates the FBI, his own cabinet officials, and of course, the media, when they don’t do what he wants. This kind of sowing of disinformation and misinformation can be pernicious and corrosive of the fabric of this society. I find it appalling, frankly. Happily, Bruce Bartlett wrote a good, short book on how to tell lies from truth. Here is the famous peace-loving Beatle opining on this topic:
I’m sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth.
I’ve had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth. ~ John Lennon
What would a tribute to the wisdom of song lyrics and a look at modern American problems be without a nod to Marvin Gaye? Here, in the classic “Mercy, Mercy Me” he writes of what now can be considered a most urgent issue that not everyone agrees upon: the threat to animal life on Earth from human-caused climate change:
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
Ah oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Oh mercy, mercy me. ~ Marvin Gaye
“Sold to the world as a panacea for all problems, economic globalization has not lived up to its advertising. It has not lifted the poor; it has instead brought record levels of disparities in income and wealth between rich and poor nations, and rich and poor within nations. It has greatly inhibited democracy and social justice; it has destroyed local communities and pushed farmers off their traditional lands. It has accelerated the greatest environmental breakdown in history. The only real beneficiaries of globalization are the world’s largest corporations and their top officials, and the global bureaucracies they helped to create.”
To get a bit more of lyrics applied to modern American problems (of the political, religious, or moral nature), check out one of the 75 podcasts I conducted with experts on values, ethics, and wisdom. Here is the first page that lists them.