Alicia Ostriker, “America”

Our earnestness our sincerity… when we learned to sing America.

When studying Greek political thought, I’m tempted to think Americans especially naive. For an example, consider Antigone. Antigone invokes the gods; Creon fears disobedience of his edict will destroy the city. That’s the surface, but a closer look shows the play refusing to be such a simple conflict. Creon absolutely is a tyrant, declaring himself in charge and setting down his one law to consolidate rule. He’s a terrible, stupid excuse for a human. His conversation with Haemon demonstrates a complete contempt for women, not just Antigone, and an utter inability to see his own son as anything other than a possession. Thus, it seems opposing Creon’s rule is perfectly just. We witness Creon angrily argue with nearly everyone else in the play as if no one recognizes him as the ruler of his own room, much less Thebes.

But Antigone’s own motives are complicated. She has no concern for the life of her living sister and barely mentions the other brother who died in the fighting. Though she confronts Creon with his hubris, her final justification for her action sounds warped. She buried Polynices because she can always have another husband or son, but she can never have another brother. It is safe to conclude that Antigone, like Creon, has no idea who actual people are. Like him, she has an idea that she’s part of a family and that family should be honored. Creon cannot abide a hint of dishonor, and Antigone’s first conversation with Ismene reveals she cares far more about the slights the family name has received than her sister’s well-being. Antigone and Creon are not merely thin-skinned, as they are completely unable to engage other people properly. If, as a matter of convention, we value obedience to law and honor families dedicated to public service, we hold that distance from other people is a political necessity. It’s what makes a true political leader committed to order, we think, than some individual good.

I look at this sort of reflection on the public and the private—how the family is the heart of the city, but is itself an unstable concept which could destroy civic order—and then I consider how my country thinks. If people don’t believe the Trumps are a great family, deserving of rule, they believe the Kennedys and Bushes are. People believe large amounts of wealth indicate large amounts of skill or favor from God Himself. If something is on television a lot, it must be good, or else why would it be on television? I know–it isn’t fair of me to compare Antigone to common opinion. American contributions to drama, cinema, visual art, sculpture, dance, music, and a host of other artistic endeavors are incredibly thoughtful.

If Americans on the whole are naive, then it is purposeful.

“Our earnestness our sincerity,” part of the achievement:

America (from The Atlantic)
Alicia Ostriker

Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
In first grade when we learned to sing America

The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
And say the Pledge of Allegiance to America

We put our hands over our first-grade hearts
We felt proud to be part of America

I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
Maybe I was right about America

School days school days dear old Golden Rule days
When we learned how to behave in America

What to wear how to smoke how to despise our parents
Who didn’t understand us or America

Only later understanding the Banner and the Beautiful
Lived on opposite sides of the street in America

Only later discovering this land is two lands
One triumphant bully one hopeful America

Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
Somehow or other still carried away by America

Earnestness and sincerity as part of a larger project are complicated to explain, but Ostriker’s musing helps. When, “in first grade… we learned to sing America,” no one meant to brainwash kids. Nor did they mean to create a civic faith which would deepen with liberal learning. What you see as an earnest first grader is “The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled.”

You name the place you’re in. “America.”

You sing it as good. “Star-Spangled” sounds awesome, you stumble over the syllables of “spangled.” You have no idea what it means.

You feel “proud.” It’s higher but related to the same pride you have pretending to be a ninja while watching Power Rangers or powering up a Pokemon. These are “first-grade hearts”—earnest, sincere, innocent above all.

*

Innocence is fine for 6 year olds. We’d like them to know words. We’d like them to fill with pride as they learn more.

I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
Maybe I was right about America

The teacher wants the word “indivisible” learned. Curious. The word doesn’t really have a use outside of the Pledge. They want the Pledge said correctly, but a child’s patriotism or enthusiasm isn’t in question. What matters is the uniformity: the Pledge as proper ritual, said all together, and no teasing of one for not knowing “indivisible.” No one means to brainwash a child, but we have yet to speak about adulthood.

Ostriker then bursts into sing-song about where and when she was taught to behave: “School days school days dear old Golden Rule days.” More than family, more than song, more than teachers, peers at school taught.

Adults in America get so frustrated with their children’s friends. Why is a kid not listening to their elders? Why are they going to some other kid to learn “what to wear” or “how to smoke?” Amazing that adults can’t stop for one second and realize they’re not dealing with first-graders any more. What a kid, teenager, or college student wants to understand is how their interactions with others work. Their own independence and distinctiveness. How to exert control, demonstrate value, gain respect. Amazing so many adults refuse to ask about any of this or appreciate the complexity involved. Nationalism or blind patriotism alone don’t make adults hopelessly rule-bound, unable to understand their own growth. Rather, it’s the assumption growth is natural and inevitable which drives the narrow-mindedness which in turn feeds the nationalism. One ugly sentiment captures it perfectly: “Why aren’t they grateful,” where “they,” for example, have households worth $8 in the same city “we” have ones worth $250,000.

“The Golden Rule” Ostriker intones is deeply problematic in an American context. It is easy to do unto others as they do unto you when segregated by race and class. Relative equality denies the moral principle any force, or for that matter, any moral content.

Still, kids and their peers, despite their lack of knowledge, despite their conformity, see through the Golden Rule somehow. Something regarding their anxiety about being a part of their generation helps them. When I taught Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” a few months ago, we puzzled over “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.” Never treating another as a means resonated with my students immediately. They knew how wrong it is to simply use people. Treating others as ends? That’s more complicated. What does it mean for society if we put our individual goals aside to ensure the welfare of others? In some ways, we do this already. But the ways we don’t would change everything if attended to.

*

The quiet drama of Ostriker’s “America” concerns growth. Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” celebrates individuality and industry as musical. Hughes’ response in “I, Too” sings those neglected, bearing witness to their strength and the strength of their songs and hopes.

Ostriker’s growth is different. Older, she now sees “this land is two lands.” That the flag is used in the service of a great denial: “the Banner and the Beautiful…[live] on opposite sides of the street.” I take this to be an echo of Nikole Hannah-Jones in the introductory essay of the 1619 project:


The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The 1619 Project” p.16

Ostriker’s growth, you could say, resides in grasping the difficulty of the ideal being a lie. If you see the opposite side of the street, you have only begun to look. There are no easy, balanced dichotomies even when one has located good and evil: “one triumphant bully one hopeful America.” The complexity of truth comes into sharp relief with the pull nostalgia still has on her:

Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
Somehow or other still carried away by America

It’s not a naive pull or a faded pride. It’s the product of confrontation with belief itself. This is growth. Not unwavering triumph or resolve, nor all things settled, but the acceptance of being swayed in an ambiguous world.

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