“America” is my favorite song by Simon & Garfunkel, but lately I’ve gotten a greater surge of emotion from listening to this cover by First Aid Kit, a duo of Swedish sisters born over twenty years after the song was first recorded. (This live version recorded in Stockholm that got a solo standing ovation from Paul Simon is also wonderful).
Simon’s genius lyrics take a bunch of highly-specific references and generalize them into a perfect expression of the hope and disillusionment of being an American in the late 60s. The cover resonates with me because it shows that the song is even more universal than that: it was never about a specific time or even a specific place, but about an ideal, and the perpetual sadness that comes from seeing that ideal remain unrealized.
Growing up in the Ronald Reagan-led, Newt Gingrich-fueled, jingoistic travesty of America that was the 1980s, I learned to reject American patriotism as the weak-minded arrogance of bigots and fools. So much of it seemed to be manifested in the laser shows at Stone Mountain. There were all the obvious signs of corruption and rot — the show’s climax traced the mountain’s carving of Confederate leaders and animated them riding off to glory, set to a medley of Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson singing “Dixie” and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. As the crowd around us hooted and hollered at the majesty of it all, my (white) friends and I could safely roll our eyes and mock it as gross and misguided but ultimately harmless. Virulent racists were dying out, I told myself, and the casual variety would flee back to their comfortable homes in the suburbs, where they weren’t reaching out to be part of a larger community, but at least they weren’t actively making things worse.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the comically absurd rot — a Confederate War memorial? In 1985?! Ha ha! — was more or less a front for the more pervasive fear and greed that would get more and more entrenched over the next few decades. That was manifested in a song, too: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I always misinterpreted it as dumb but harmless, a shallow take on patriotism that was easily dismissed with an eye roll and a wanking gesture. But it’s jarring now to look back and see laid bare just how selfish and transactional it always was. It’s all pride, no responsibility. You’ve got to thank the troops, but only for giving me my freedom and my rights. It’s all my family, not my community. The only suggestion of “stand[ing] up next to you” is to fight to keep what belongs to us.
I can at least understand why people like Greenwood’s version, though: sometimes you do genuinely just want the bombast and pride and being able to shout “America, Fuck Yeah!” Anybody who believes that the whole idea of “the American experiment” is based on just an accident of where you were born — for good or for ill — is missing the entire point, which is that none of this works unless we all to agree believe in it. That requires some faith and some swagger. It’s not a refusal to acknowledge all the layers of disillusionment and injustice; it’s a refusal to drown in them.
There are few more powerful accusations of American denial than Langston Hughes’ poem “America never was America to me.” It was Hughes’ prescient warning from 1935 to any of us who in 2021 are tempted to say “This is not who we are.” As if greed, exploitation, insurrection, corruption, and bigotry were new, foreign things to the USA, and not manifest in every phase of our history. Except that’s not actually the title of the poem, even though I always mis-remember it as such. The actual title is “Let America Be America Again.” It’s not content to just reject the promise of America as a lie; it insists that we work together to make it true.
And because it can’t be said enough: we can’t work together without first rejecting the lie. There’s no unity without justice, and no justice without accountability.
So if you want the simple anthem with waving flags and cheering and middle-aged people on their feet dancing, Neil Diamond’s always had you covered. My parents took me to a Neil Diamond concert when I was a teenager, and I was a capital-C Chode about it because I thought I was too cool for it. Even though it was a huge deal to my mom. I wish I hadn’t been such a chump, because his performance that night (as always) was a show-stopper. And if I’m going to stand up and shout “America!”, I don’t want it to be all about selfishness or fighting to keep what’s mine. I want it to be about welcoming everyone who wants to share in the idea and work together to make something better than any single one of us.