America the Exceptional, Part 1

By Dan Snyder

And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, and said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? ~Nehemiah 2: 1-3

The cupbearer…

Sometimes life affords unique perspectives.  For one of my many jobs in a checkered career, which could be alternately styled proof of diversity or general unsuitability for anything in particular, I was paid to sing patriotic songs as a member of the armed forces of the United States of America.  I was a fly on many large Greco Roman walls, regularly posed amidst monuments to the nation’s history, and called upon to punctuate events at the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court.  Having served as a sort of patriotic furniture, an adornment during the circumstances of pomp, I heard talk and observed actions at the highest level of our country’s public life. While my comrades and I in an all male chorus were mostly deployed in high ceremony or at more intimate receptions of foreign officials, we also performed in large popular settings around the country.

As a vocal soloist for the U.S. Army Band I frequently sang the national anthem at events ranging from monster truck rallies to professional baseball games. In this unique job I traveled around the nation and observed Americans at public events, celebrating the establishment of the United States.  As the years went by, I began to understand that the end of the song was truly a question about the country itself that I, the singer, was asking the audience.  Does the flag indeed wave over a land of free and brave people? I would sing those final lines of the anthem searching the crowd: “oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave, oe’r the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”, asking myself this question in the presence of, in the case of a stock-car race, 120,000 of those Americans.

I began to lose hope.  Hope, a funny word bandied with energy during various salvos between political parties, was something I understood as part of a trivium of virtue.  Please understand I often had a lot of time to think about this question at hotels between engagements. Could I ask someone in that audience what they hoped for? Perhaps the answer would be a great weekend, or a well financed retirement. Perhaps some of them would hope for change. That change would be the goal of an inchoate desire for anything that an authoritarian history had bequeathed, and so would be a primitive urge, one that tears down rather than one that builds on an inheritance left by ‘hopers’. All of this ran through my mind, perhaps inspired by the surreality of such large crowds leading to a generalized fallacy concerning my fellow man. But in the light of the recent protests surrounding the National Anthem, I track back.  I’m more assured now that I wasn’t imagining the disappearance of something. Hope, that result of faith, in this case in the country of my birth, is not any longer the subject of public speech when we sing that anthem.

Perhaps the present is absent of hope since all of the great challenges have been met and now all that remains is the degree to which we can experience everything ‘equally’. Maybe we are living in the glorious realization of the founders of our nation, and there are no longer ‘foes for us to fight’. It could be that now we must concentrate on justice among ourselves because capital “H” history is over. Whatever this is, it is not freedom.  We assert equality as the handmaiden of justice, precisely because the revelation of the unequal would lead to an hierarchy of things to be attained, some higher than the lower. We would then feel the pangs of limited choices in the pursuit of those excellences. Under the tyranny of equality none can choose what is higher than all.

Hope is an expectation of future events, ones that will reveal the desired.  Hope is looking for the thing that is believed.  Looking into the bleachers festooned with advertisements it was hard to discern anything believed amongst my countrymen who harp on jobs and economics –an offering to the present.  Belief, of course, is a private thing, not for public disclosure – sort of like a medical file.  Ask a man on the street, “Is there a hope for the next generation?”  Ridiculous.  It is the same hope as the one that we have today; hope in the present. We believe only in the eternal present, one of feasting and celebrating the ‘self’, or alternately castigating the other for their inability to rest in the distribution of equality. Anything else is fanaticism. This hopeless expectation is a prison. Those I sang my question to appeared to be caught in a gently tightening grasp of captivity.

Courage is required to hold fast to faith, which leads to hope and can love that hoped for object when it appears. We who hope would anticipate what may appear as virtue in ourselves and others.  The position that courage engenders is the availability to beauty. The courageous are prepared for the arrival of the transcendent because they have held fast to something. This something comes to us from our inheritance, our history. In abandoning the rarified and exceptional virtue, we are singing only of something once deemed self-evident; an aesthetic tautology.

Equality is the self-evident state of man’s being, an endowment and therefore not of the things that hoped for, will appear. In other words, we are born in a lowly equality, and a Christian would say a miserable one at that. We must fight for the freedom that allows hope to find its object. We must be brave to do that.

But, you may ask, fight against what? There are two types of possible hopers in this world.  There are those that hope for everything in this world, and those that hope for everything in all worlds. One is the man who is encompassed by this time and place, and therefore must entrench in the present. The other is the man who is lost to this world through the death, resurrection and ascension of his Savior and therefore spends all on the next. It may be that for the America of my time, many have decided that the world has reached its fullness and they must therefore surrender their courage and hope in the face of death, laying up treasure in the barn of the present and mortgaging freedom for security, spending their care insuring against all catastrophe and apologizing for the heroic past.  It may be that many of the redeemed are confused about this, mimicking their hopeless neighbors and forgetting that the pressure of death has been banished, therefore counting the present age as nothing and opening the field to great acts of expectant courage, celebrating the beautiful, even America the beautiful of the storied past, hoping to see more from her in the future.

Even the pagan Athenians understood this at one time, intuiting the presence of beauty in the service of others by those free to choose otherwise.

“For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war. The unfortunate who has no hope of a change for the better has less reason to throw away his life than the prosperous who, if he survive, is always liable to a change for the worse, and to whom any accidental fall makes the most serious difference. To a man of spirit, cowardice and disaster coming together are far more bitter than death striking him unperceived at a time when he is full of courage and animated by the general hope.”

~The Funeral Oration of Pericles:  Thucydides 2.43.2-4.

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