This land is your land, this land is my land from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me. ~ Woody Guthrie, 1940
In 2010 I embarked on a two-pronged journey around the world and across America to explore the state of our nation, and then shared what I learned in my book, The Idea of America: Are the Principles Eroding or Enduring. Now, 10 years later, our nation is on the cusp of an election that will define our future and I am drawn back to my notes from those journeys. I will devote the next few posts on this blog to reexamining the conclusions I drew a decade ago and reflecting on where we are today. So, I begin where I ended my project, the challenge from Woodie Guthrie’s vision of our land. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Guthrie’s America is a grand and breath-taking land of lush forests and soaring mountains, fertile plains and flowing rivers, mysterious deserts and verdant valleys. It is flanked on the east and west by vast and resource-rich oceans and it is dappled with lakes and wetlands. Over the centuries we’ve added magnificent cities, irrigated and tilled fertile croplands, constructed interstate highways and explored outer space. Best of all, America is blessed by an inexhaustible and ingenious resource: her people.
There Are Shadows
But Guthrie reminded us that amidst the grandeur of the nation, there are shadows: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, by the relief office I seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking: Is this land made for you and me?”
Today’s America is still that paradoxical land of light and shadows. Beneath our soil lies a richness of water, oil, coal and minerals. Above the soil these resources fueled an unprecedented industrial and economic expansion that made us the world’s richest and most powerful country. But their unbridled use in service of development and commerce also brought the unintended consequences of environmental degradation. With our riches we built an unrivaled military-industrial complex and a financial system that produced great wealth, but primarily for a few. These, too, came with unintended consequences.
While the post-World War II building of a military-industrial cabal equipped us to become a dominant force in the world, it also brought the consequences that President Dwight Eisenhower warned my parents’ generation about in the 1950s: “In the councils of government,” he told the nation, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” And persist it has.
Eisenhower was prescient, foreshadowing our day when he continued, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.” Neither my parents’ nor my generation heeded Eisenhower’s warning. We are still investing our sweat, genius and hope in acquiring weapons of destruction and in pursuing fruitless and unwarranted wars.
So, here we stand in Paradox America, a nation that shines with unlimited possibility, but a nation also shadowed by lurking threats from human-caused climate change, a degraded infrastructure, a financial meltdown, a never-ending fixation on weapons, gross economic inequality and an education system on life support.
It is time for us to ask ourselves a version of Woody’s question: “Is this the land made for you and me? Is this the land we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren?” Guthrie answered the question in the song’s last verse: “Nobody living can ever stop me, as I go walking that freedom highway. Nobody living can ever make me turn back. This land was made for you and me.”
And that is my answer. This land is our land — all of us: Native American, African American, white, Asian, Hispanic; native born and immigrant; rich, middle class and poor. It is the land our ancestors took from the native people and on which they formed a nation. Now — acknowledging the injustices and mistakes of the past — the land and the nation have become our responsibility.
It is our opportunity and our obligation to ensure that the America our children and grandchildren inherit is stronger, more responsible to the vitality of others and more vigilant in protecting the dignity and equality of all of her people. Let’s hand down a country living wide-awake to its responsibilities toward interdependent effects on our international neighbors. We must commit to bequeathing future generations cleaner air, a sustainable environment, rigorous protection of basic human rights to safety, privacy and dignity as well as a repaired infrastructure.
If we embrace the opportunity and accept the obligation, our challenges will be daunting but not discouraging. America’s history proves that when we come together, when we focus together on big challenges, when we walk together on that freedom highway — nobody living can stop us, nobody living can make us turn back, because this land was made for you and me and our posterity. But, if we’re not awake to our responsibilities, to each other and to the planet, we’ll wake up to a nation in peril. We can, together, make the difficult decisions and do the hard work required of those who have stewardship responsibility of a great nation.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.