I was born in 1976, a bicentennial baby. I’m an American thanks to my Mexican parents’ foresight, the 14th Amendment and a love of U.S. pop culture that guaranteed I was fully indoctrinated by the time I was 7, just in time for Uncle Ronnie’s second term.
All that to say that I believe in America — and I can’t say that without thinking about the first line in “The Godfather.” It’s no wonder then, that when I’m feeling down, discouraged at the state of this great experiment of ours, I turn to pop culture to get me through.
And right now, there’s a lot to get through.
This Fourth of July finds us still struggling with COVID-19, a reminder that no matter what the film “Independence Day” tells you, Americans will not unite to fight a common threat. In fact, judging from what the Jan. 6 hearings have shown, a slice of America would have probably cheered when the aliens blew up the White House.
A steady diet of science fiction had me thinking that by 2022 we would be debating the rights of machines and whether androids dream of electric sheep; turns out we’re still struggling with women’s rights. As we celebrate our nation’s 246th birthday, the U.S. Supreme Court wants to pretend it’s 1868 and has us asking, who is this country for?
It’s definitely not for unarmed shoppers, or worshippers or school children, whose right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ends at my right to pretend I’m Rambo. Nor is it for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free as they bake to death in the back of a tractor-trailer in Texas because Congress refuses to do anything about immigration.
So, what’s the balm to keep anger and frustration at bay? What inspires me to keep believing in America when what I want to do is throw up my hands and give up? Perhaps it’s a little Steven Spielberg mix of decency and sacrifice in “Lincoln” or “Saving Private Ryan.” Or the fresh takes on the Founding Fathers found in “John Adams” or “Hamilton.” Maybe it’s the flag shorts in “Rocky IV”? (I mean, the Russians are back).
All good choices, but for me, it’s a song by Harry Chapin from 1974.
No, it’s not his most famous tune, although I’m sure there’s a University of Washington dissertation somewhere comparing George Washington to the absentee father in “Cats in the Cradle.” My song of choice is “What Made America Famous?”
Now, this is the part where, as a Gen Xer worth his irony-drenched salt, I should distance myself from Chapin’s brand of painful earnestness; from his unapologetically embarrassing seriousness, which can be, as the kids say these days, the definition of cringe.
However, to love America is to believe in it. Patriotism cannot be unquestioning, but it must be sincere.
“What Made America Famous?” — all six minutes and 52 seconds worth — tells the story of the town, the folks, the kids, the house, and eventually, the fire that “made America famous.” The narrator describes the chasm between the local fire department “stocked with short-hair volunteers” and the “flower children,” routinely hassled by the cops, who had painted a “swastika on the bright red firehouse door.”
“America, the beautiful, it makes a body proud,” Chapin sings ruefully.
When a fire breaks out in the low-income housing project where the narrator lives, the firefighters’ response is to take it slow — “let them sweat a little, they’ll never know” — but one of the volunteers, a plumber, takes it upon himself to act.
He saves the people and the narrator from the flames and opens his home to them that night. “It’s funny when you get that close, it’s kind of hard to hate,” Chapin sings, getting to the core of his message. Only together, “yes, we can; Create a country, better than; The one we have made of this land.”
Is that too hokey? Well, I warned you.
Anyway, the first time I listened to this song as an idealistic teenager, it did my bleeding heart good. As I’ve grown older, I’ve managed to stanch the bleeding a bit, but to me, like to Chapin, the answer to the question of what made America famous is its promise — and how we work to fulfill it.
That promise was made in the Declaration of Independence, reiterated in the Constitution, and has been battered and bruised from the start as the fight for freedom, equality and unalienable rights continues.
The only way to reach that promise is by connecting with our fellow Americans. Understanding that we cannot prove our love for our country by hating each other; believing that we can disagree, and that as we work toward making things better, we can rejoice when we succeed and understand when we don’t.
I’m optimistic. As I said, I listen to this song to feel a sense of hope, to know the plumber will do the right thing and that understanding will grow. But divisiveness is growing as well, and “What Made America Famous?” is also a question in the past tense.
To quote the song’s last lines, there’s something burning somewhere, does anybody care?
Unless we work together, that fire may yet consume us all.