Searching for truth in the vocabulary of democracy
By Jim Slusher
Long before lyricist Don Raye put words to the music of Al Jacobs in 1940 to create the anthem "This Is My Country," we already were arguing over what America is and who it belongs to.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln invoked the notion of "a government of the people, by the people and for the people" even as more than a third of the people of the United States were at war with the country. As resentment over the war in Vietnam grew in 1970, John Lennon sang "Power to the people, right on," apparently referring to different "people" than those who had just elected a war hawk president and still generally supported the war effort. A decade later, the Kinks rock band would demand, to some degree cynically, that we "give the people what they want." Woody Guthrie famously declared "This land is your land; this land is my land" in response to Irving Berlin's patriotic juggernaut "God Bless America." The list goes on.
So, I had had plenty of opportunity over the years to reflect on who "the people" are and whose country America is. Still, it wasn't until I first heard firebrand Joe Walsh explain why he was mounting an unlikely campaign for Congress in 2010 that I began to feel the uneasiness that underpins my personal response to the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Walsh told our editorial board he was concerned because he felt "I'd lost my country." He would go on to win the 2010 primary and then upset incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean, and the concept of a "lost" nation would become a mantra of Tea Party Republicans. Until, that is, Donald Trump ascended to the White House, when suddenly it became the rallying cry of Democrats, who made "taking back our country" the central theme of the 2020 election.
And then, of course, lame duck President Donald Trump declared to a mob of supporters that if "you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," and the game, as it were, was on.
Now, we have the imagery of human bodies crawling like spiders up the side of the nation's Capitol to remind us of the incessant tension tearing at the fabric of America, the battle between those who insist that theirs is the only valid vision for the country and the government institutions in place to accommodate all the diverse other visions constantly striving for influence.
That tension seems to me unlikely ever to go away entirely. What worries me most about Jan. 6, 2021, is how close it came to snapping. Whatever you or I or Joe Walsh or John Lennon or Irving Berlin or anyone else may think "the country" is or who "the people" are, we are all wrong if we don't realize that the only singular essence of our nation emanates within the walls of that Capitol building, where vastly diverse interests debate, strategize and vote on the matters that -- though they may shift forward and back, left and right over the unpredictable course of time -- shape our daily lives.
Guthrie was right on this point at least: This land was made for you and me. It wasn't made for us to agree on everything. It was made because we don't agree on everything. No one interest can own or lose America. No individual represents the vision of all the people.
Whatever else they may have been, the events of Jan. 6 were an attack on that premise. May we all acquire the vocabulary to ensure that our nation -- yes, all of ours -- never again comes so close to actually being lost.