I’ll Fight You For “America The Beautiful”
Spoken word artist Taylor Mali’s poem, “I’ll Fight You For The Library” is a battle-in-four-letters between a veteran teacher and an administrator over whether the school’s library will be available for the teacher’s students to conduct research for an assignment…or whether it will be used for a “Facilities Utilization” committee meeting.
It came to mind when I saw this (brutal, devastating) ad from the Obama campaign about Mitt Romney’s business career and personal finances.
For those who can’t watch the video, it takes as its “soundtrack” Romney singing a verse of “America the Beautiful” during a January campaign stop at a retirement community in Florida. This was a regular feature of Romney’s campaign appearances earlier this year, and he’d often connect the lyrics to the state in which he was speaking—”amber waves of grain” for Iowa and Missouri, “purple mountain majesties” for New Hampshire and Colorado, etc.
In doing so, Romney was not only displaying his patriotic bona fides, he was also implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) making the case that many Republicans and conservatives have made against Barack Obama: that he doesn’t really love America, and that he’s not really, fully American. Often this is tied to rhetoric about “taking back” or “restoring” our country, with the implication that the current occupant of the White House somehow doesn’t legitimately belong there.
The Obama campaign ad marries Romney’s unaccompanied singing of “America the Beautiful” with a plain series of statements (and accompanying images):
- “In business, Mitt Romney’s firms shipped jobs to Mexico and China.”
- “As Governor, Romney outsourced jobs to India.”
- “He had millions in a Swiss bank account, tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.”
The ad closes with white words on a black background: “Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem.”
A confluence of events in the 1950s, 60s and 70s threw American liberals back on their heels when it came to appropriating the cultural symbols of patriotism. More recently, liberals seem to have (for whatever mix of reasons) grown more adept at and confident in laying claim to what it means to be American.
This ad brings that change into sharp focus. We’ll see in time whether the attack on Romney works, or whether it backfires on President Obama. For now, it’s notable because it signals that American liberals (or at least the one in the White House) are ready to fight conservatives for control of, for the meaning of, “America the Beautiful”.
That’s a good thing because defining the promise of America, and to whom that promise is available is supposed to be contested. That’s why we have (among other things) elections. That was part of the genius of the Founding Fathers.
Even though they didn’t consider most of us to be included in that promise, they understood that creating a culture and politics of robust debate and argument, and of widespread participation was the best shot they had at creating a republic that could survive and thrive. To an unmeasurable but significant degree, it’s because of the best parts of that culture that the promise of America has expanded as much as it has over the last two centuries. With a bit of luck—and a lot more fights for “America the Beautiful”—it will continue.