Every July 4th, many people sing “America the Beautiful” and I have been one of them for many years. But lately, some pretty big events in my life have caused me to question EVERYTHING, including some very entrenched beliefs about America, our history and the songs we sing every year. They say that to ASSUME things makes an ASS out of U and ME. (Get it?) And I (and probably 99% of Americans with me), have always *assumed* that everything in this song plus everything we have been taught about America is true. Well, it’s not I’m afraid, and I think it’s high time we sort out some of the fact from some of the fiction. Let’s take a look.
First, the title … “America, the Beautiful.” How did “America” get its name? Turns out it comes from an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. You can read about him HERE. Why isn’t it called “Columbia” after Columbus who (supposedly) discovered America? Good question and the article above explains. The name “America” is based on the European (German specifically) perspective but the truth is, there have been many “discoverers” of “America” throughout history, for example, the Chinese. The Chinese discovered “America” long before Columbus did. You can read about that in Gavin Menzies’ recent book, “1421: The Year China Discovered America.” Fascinating read. So if we really wanted to be accurate about our country’s name, we would have to say that, for good or evil, or in reality a little of both, it was named by it’s current reigning conquerors – Europeans. How about the “beautiful” part? Is “America” beautiful? Sure in some ways, but in other ways not so much. Stay with me and let’s explore this a bit.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
“Spacious skies?” Well, I suppose, yes, in Montana and some other places where city lights do not overpower the night sky. But not too many folks live in these wide open spaces anymore. A pity I think. I’d like to see fewer cities and smaller cities and more “spacious skies.”
Are “amber waves of grain” beautiful? I used to think so, just like every other American. But not any more. Not now that I realize that the tillage required to plant that grain is depleting our precious topsoil. Not now that I have learned that you can make bread out of nuts from trees Sample Nut Flour Link Here which are perennial so you don’t have to replant every year, thus saving you enormous effort AND allowing us a way to not deplete soil but still have wonderful breads and pastries. Not now that I have learned that the destructive habit of raising corn is also destroying life in another way – most corn is fed to cows which are designed to eat grass not grain and this causes all kinds of health problems both in the animals and in the humans who eat them. The other corn products – like high fructose corn syrup – are also destructive to human health. Sorry folks, but I don’t think those “amber waves” are beautiful anymore, now that I know the truth. Thank you, Mark Shepard, for your new book “Restoration Agriculture” which alerted me to this.
“Purple mountain majesties”? OK, I’ll give you that one. They are indeed beautiful. Love ‘em.
The “fruited plain”? What fruited plain? What “fruits” are we talking about here? As far as I can tell, the “plains” are quickly becoming depleted and are but a mere shadow of their former richness and splendor, back when Lewis and Clark explored them and encountered vast buffalo herds, and massive numbers of every other kind of wildlife imaginable, and prairie grasses so tall you’d get lost in them. THAT to me was a “fruited plain” if anything was, the “fruits” being an abundance of nutrient dense food being produced automatically, year after year, with no expensive inputs of any kind, no huge John Deere machinery, no GMO’s, no pesticides or harsh fertilizers, and, most importantly, no depletion of one of our most precious natural resources – topsoil. In fact, all this natural wildlife actually BUILT topsoil. So again, sorry to be a wet blanket, but there IS no “fruited plain” anymore unless you are talking about BAD fruit and it’s certainly not beautiful. Thankfully, there are tiny pockets of fruitfulness like on Mark Shepard’s farm in Wisconsin where “fruits” of every kind imaginable are bursting forth bountifully every year almost automatically. These are few and far between, but the ideas are catching on.
“God shed His grace on thee”? Well, we certainly need that, or we are in some Deep Kemshe (a word coined by a Baptist teacher of mine) but I have some very different ideas about HOW and WHY God will “shed His grace upon us” than I’ve been taught.
“Crown thy good with brotherhood.” Thy good? Is “America” good? Well, some folks think so and it certainly is in some ways. Supposedly, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “America is great because America is good.” Well I don’t know who actually came up with that little quote, but my question is “Is America really good?” Well, Dave, of course it’s good. Look at all the refugees from other countries that have flocked to our shores! Well hold on. I know all that. But are you telling me that just because people fled horrible dictatorships to come here, that makes us “good”? I will grant you that “America” is “better” than some of the horrible dictatorships around the world and through history. No question there. But “good”? “Good” is relative and ASSUMES (there’s that word) a perspective, namely OUR perspective. What if we were to consider the perspective of the Indians who got marginalized, vilified, displaced, driven out like cattle and slaughtered wholesale to make way for the “good” Americans? Would THEY say that “Americans are good?” I don’t think so. Seems to me if we had really been serious about “good” and “brotherhood” we would have never done what we did to the wonderful people who inhabited this land before we did. “Good” people don’t steal. “Good” people don’t kill and destroy and displace and vilify and marginalize. And how about our land? Who has been a better steward of our land? “Americans”? Or the Indians? We are destroying it. They preserved and nurtured it and shared it. Now tell me who is “good” will you?
To be fair, I can think of some good things that Europeans brought to these shores. The Hebrew Scriptures. We have failed to follow them in some pretty important ways. But at least we brought them and propagated them and that is a good thing. Music. European music – Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and so many more – is pure genius in my opinion, but of course, I don’t have any Native American music to compare it too. The ethnocide of the Indians was pretty darn thorough. Science. Good and bad in my opinion. I do love my iPhone and the way it allows me to make phone calls, navigate with the use of satellites, surf the internet and check my bank balance. That’s pretty slick. And the internet is a wonderful tool for learning and communicating. And I do like modern means of travel. Nothing like a jetliner to help you visit China. But boy how I wish the scientists would keep their noses out of the Life Sciences. Wow, have they ever messed things up there! What else did the Europeans bring? Frankly, I cannot think of much else that is positive.
“From sea to shining sea.” OK, yes, we are between two seas and they do shine if the sun is just right. I’ll grant this one.
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
So what we are saying here is that the Pilgrim’s quest for freedom of worship created the freedom we have here? Well not so fast. It is true that the Pilgrims achieved more freedom when compared to the horrible lack of freedom they experienced in Europe. But this “freedom” was NOTHING like the freedom *already in existence* in what is now called “America.” And the truth is, the Pilgrims and all Europeans learned much about freedom and democracy from Native Americans, peoples they later exterminated. If you want to read about REAL freedom that existed in this land long before Europeans invaded, read the article linked here … “The Iriquois Confederacy: Our Forgotten Heritage.” and about “The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace” in Charles Mann’s book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. (2011)” Here’s a teaser for you … From the first link …
Dr. Grinde: Yes, there was separation of powers. John Adams, on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, pointed out that the best example of separation of powers was the Iroquois confederacy, because they had three distinct branches. In many discussions I have read by political theorists about what makes American democracy unique, they say that it is the separation of powers — the three branches, separately autonomous and mutually counterbalancing.
In England, there are no branches of government. Everything is theoretically vested in the crown. Then, out of the crown come various sub-levels like the legislature and the judicial, but they are all subject to the crown.
Carol: That’s quite a difference!
Dr. Grinde: Often people have told me that they can’t believe that the American Constitution was derived from Iroquois ideas and government. They believe it comes from the British Constitution. I say, “Have you ever seen a copy of the British Constitution?”
The point is, there is no copy of the British Constitution! There is no place you can go and see it as you can our Constitution in Washington, DC. The British Constitution is the sum total of the acts of Parliament for the last thousand years. There is no corpus of laws and articles and so on in the British Constitution.
And from Charles Mann’s book …
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us [Franklin lamented in 1753], taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he hoes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading [sic] him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, when there is no reclaiming them. (Mann, pp. 388-389.)
More on this topic from old Ben Franklin HERE.
The truth is friends, America got much of it’s concepts for freedom from Native Americans — people groups it later destroyed. That’s a pretty sobering thought.
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!
I do appreciate the sacrifices of our men stop tyranny such as that of Hitler’s. But I do have to ask, “Why fight the war in the first place? Did our leaders pull us into WW2 intentionally by pretending to be surprised at the Pearl Harbor attack when in reality, they knew the attack was coming?” And if one begins asking questions about why wars were started – all the way back to the American Revolution, one gets into deep waters very quickly. The Amish don’t fight in wars. They are called “conscientious objectors.” Maybe we should be singing songs praising them instead of praising our soldiers. And their leaders.
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Sees WHAT beyond the years? Alabaster cities where no one cries anymore? Can someone please tell me what’s so great about “alabaster” cities? (Alabaster is apparently the stuff statues and capitol buildings are made of) And no tears? Are you kidding me? How is THAT supposed to come about in this “alabaster city dream”? And what is so great about cities anyway? I don’t really like cities. They are too big for me and there are too many people too close together for my taste. I like the country better with it’s small towns and communities.
Again, sorry to be a wet blanket, but I just don’t buy this vision. Cities just seem unnatural to me and “alabaster cities where nobody cries” not only seems like a pipe dream, it doesn’t sound interesting to me at all. Give me a quaint “Thomas Kinkade” village nestled in rolling hills, surrounded by Restoration Farms where people live in harmony with the land and each other and don’t marginalize, excommunicate, enslave and exterminate people groups they don’t like.
THAT to me would be America the Beautiful.