Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.~~ Joni Mitchell
I’ve never really thought much about patriotism, or about what it means to be an American. I’ve never been anything else, but I assume people who live in other countries love their countries too, for the most part, or at least love what their country used to be before something terrible happened that changed everything.
I know how that feels now.
What do – did? – I feel America was about? That it’s a messed up combination of the best and the worst from the very start (the man who wrote “all men are created equal” owned slaves and slept with one of them from the time she was 14 years old), but that we always have had this idea of “being better” at our core. We always aspired to be that city on a hill, though we often fall short. Even though we believe ourselves to be the best country in the world, one of our patriotic hymns includes the line “God mend thine every flaw” acknowledging our imperfection and our intent, fumbling and misguided as it sometimes is, towards the betterment of all.
That intent has changed. Our intent now is perhaps best described as “Me first, and screw everybody else.” Compassion, generosity, and honor have been overshadowed by greed, corruption, and hatred. Our public face to the world is some macabre cross between a joke and a vicious horror. How do we explain to the world that this – the product of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and very possibly the criminal disruption of democracy in favor of power harvesting at the highest levels – is not who we are? The scarier question, for me: What if it is exactly who we are, who we have become?
I grew up in the 60s. My parents were terrified at the changes blowing in on the wind: Negroes (that was the polite term at the time) as regular people? Women as bosses over men? Communes, drugs, frankly sexual music (popular music was always about sex – come on, what do you think Glenn Miller was in the mood for? And by the way, lots of medieval madrigals are downright obscene), natural foods, meditation, they thought the world had gone crazy. I wonder if I’m just seeing the other side of that now. But I don’t think so. I think this is qualitatively, quantitatively, fundamentally different. I think this was a coup. I think America isn’t America any more.
I keep thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” I didn’t know I loved my country until I lost it.