America the Beautiful points the way

This column took a long time to write, and because of editing and production realities, it will be even longer before you read it. Events within that gap may change my mind, and yours. But right now, here's where I am, and it's pretty important to my own mental health that I say it.
I am an American. In general, I neither hide that fact nor flaunt it. But in these recent weeks, it defines me to myself as never before.
Like everyone, regardless of birthplace, I was in a major funk after September 11.

This column took a long time to write, and because of editing and production realities, it will be even longer before you read it. Events within that gap may change my mind, and yours. But right now, here’s where I am, and it’s pretty important to my own mental health that I say it.

I am an American. In general, I neither hide that fact nor flaunt it. But in these recent weeks, it defines me to myself as never before.

Like everyone, regardless of birthplace, I was in a major funk after September 11. I felt horrified, angry, violated, melancholy, powerless. Yes, and scared too, of course. I moved a business meeting scheduled for New York City to an upstate town of 11,000. I love the streets and bars and vibrancy of Manhattan, but I figured Corning, five hours up in the hills, was a lot less likely to be on some nut case’s hit list.

When it came time to drive to Corning, I needed the trip badly, just to be doing something active, maybe getting my mind wrapped around a different subject. That resolve lasted about fifteen blocks.

Headed south on Toronto’s University Avenue, I passed the United States Consulate. In all my years as an expatriate in Canada, that place has been a mildly negative experience for me. Metal detectors. Tax forms. Passport red tape. And also, the site of lots and lots of protest demonstrations, any time any group anywhere in the world thought it was being picked on by anybody.

That week, it was different. The space between the consulate and sidewalk was packed with flowers and signs. And the signs weren’t telling America where to go. They said things like ‘I Love New York’ and ‘God Bless America’.

I don’t think I was much of a driver for the next few minutes. I was crying.

By the time I had traveled twenty miles down the Queen Elizabeth Way, I was doing something else. I was singing, loudly and solo, patriotic songs.

I was singing the same songs that the U.S. has been singing since September 11, and the songs are an improvement. The Star-Spangled Banner has fallen by the wayside, with its unsingable melody and its images of bombs and rockets. Instead, the nation now sings God Bless America (‘stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above’) and America The Beautiful (purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain). Better. Quieter. More thoughtful.

I sang the first verse of America The Beautiful, and then I kept going. I happen to know the words to three verses. It’s a freaky little thing involving brain cells. My mind has always paid attention to words, even back in fourth grade music class with Miss Sherman and her damned little pitchpipe.

I sang the second verse (or maybe it’s the third), and I paused to listen to what I was singing. And I was amazed. The century-old words could hardly be more relevant.

O beautiful, for patriots’ dream, that sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.

America, America, God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul with self-control, thy liberty in law.

The first two lines are an uncanny prophecy. Written in the days when the U.S. was a rural country, it nevertheless talks of cities surviving tears. Precisely where New York is today. But then, good Lord, look where else the song goes.

‘America, America, God mend thine every flaw.’ America has not historically been very good at acknowledging that it has flaws, let alone setting its attention toward mending them. Yet there it is in the sacred lyrics. I pray that America will listen, and make policies with the understanding that there are other viewpoints, other wants and needs and beliefs beyond ‘My country, right or wrong.’

‘Confirm thy soul with self-control, thy liberty in law.’ Self-control. Law. Tempering of the all-too-human desire for revenge, and substituting careful action and common sense. Not nuking the world because you’re the biggest kid on the block and you have to prove it.

Without question, the U.S. has to act. This is a justified case of self-defence if ever there was one. Yet at the moment I write these words, I have been very surprised and pleased by the degree to which my country has listened to the quiet, calming words of its own hymn. I hope and pray it will be the same by the time you read them.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.