Tuesday, July 5, 2005

MH - My Country 'Tis of Thee

We celebrated Independence Day, as we do most major holidays, with movies; in this case, two of the more lyrical evocations of the season, The Music Man and 1776. In each we find a reminder of times gone by, times not likely to return.

The Music Man was MeredithWilson's wonderful portrait of small-town Iowa just after the turn of the last century. The movie's filled with familiar songs - 76 Trombones, Ya Got Trouble (that's the Trouble in River City song), Gary, Indiana, Til There Was You - and great performances (no offense Matthew Broderick, but there is only one Professor Harold Hill, and that's Robert Preston). What you mostly get is a glimpse of idealized life in an America that we often revere but usually take pains to ensure can never happen again. Times have changed, of course, and so have we. We've gone through two world wars, a cold war, and countless conflicts since then. There's been political scandal, pharmaceutical revolution, free sex - you name it. It's probably true that you can't go back to that time again; there's too much water under the dam.

By the same token, however, there's nothing wrong with flying the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and memorizing the lines to the Star-Spangled Banner in school. They probably said a prayer every morning before class, too. I doubt that they had much of a problem with kids carrying weapons in school, and teachers spent a lot more time worrying about chewing gum than other kinds of disruptive behavior. Little things, maybe, but they must be big things to someone, because a lot of people spend an extraordinary amount of time fighting to prevent those little things from being allowed.

Society's changed, as well. It's more and more difficult for small towns to live in the kind of isolation that you saw 100 years ago. While TV and the Internet have done their best to shrink the distance between places, they've also done their part to create a larger distance between people. Gone are the days of small-scale shared experience - it's hard to imagine the entire town turning out for a 4th of July program in the school gym, or the ice cream social in the town square. We're all too wrapped up in our own lives to notice much about the world around us, too concerned about protecting our private spaces while we listen to our tunes on our headphones. We don't even know our neighbors, let alone love them.

There are occasions when the shared experience reappears, of course, and one of them is the 4th of July fireworks show. John Adams, the hero of 1776, would have loved them - it's how he wanted the holiday to be celebrated - but he might have wondered, were he here to see it today, if people really knew what it was they were celebrating.

It's easy to see how the America of The Music Man no longer exists; perhaps it's less obvious in 1776. Oh sure, our statesmen don't wear powdered wigs and frilly coats anymore, but I'm talking about looking under the surface at what this nation and its leaders truly believe.

William Daniels is magnificant as the prickly, visionary Adams. Howard Da Silva steals the show as the brilliant, witty Franklin. Ken Howard is appropriately intellectual as Jefferson. Would any of these characters recognize the America they helped to create if they were returned here today?

This is a theme that's easy to overwork, as it has been in the past, so I'm not going to dwell too much on it. It is striking, however, to look at these men - all successful in private life - risking everything for the birth of a new nation. Today's political leaders test the climate lest they be seen taking any chance that might endanger their careers; the Founding Fathers staked their very lives on their decisions.

Adams, the strident opponent of slavery, threatens to scuttle the entire move toward independence with his insistence that the Declaration condemn slavery. He would almost certainly be just as horrified today by the abortion industry. If slaves - human beings born in America - were Americans, not property, what would unborn children be? And that doesn't even begin to address the question of euthenasia. Adams might well wonder if this was the "sweet land of liberty" for everyone but the unborn, the aged and the infirm. Do they not have rights as well?

At another point, Franklin argues that we shouldn't be so eagar to throw away a few rights in return for additional security. Those that do, he insists, don't deserve that security. What would he say about our headlong movement to throw away everything we've gained over the past two hundred years?

I was most struck, especially in light of the SCOTUS decision a couple of weeks ago regarding eminent domain, as to the emphasis the Founders put on ownership of private property. Rutledge makes quite a point of it during the debate. Could any of them imagine someone's home being seized today to build a Wal-Mart?

Easy questions, I know, and disturbing ones as well. Best not to dwell on them too much, lest it get in the way of your enjoying the movie. And there is much to enjoy - for a musical, there's a surprising amount of drama, as the vibrant debate over the founding of the nation plays out, and there are long stretches with no musical set pieces at all. These are real, flesh and blood people; and if the writers have taken some liberties with the actual facts (certain places and events have been rearranged and reconstructed, as they might say today), there are also entire passages of dialogue that come straight from the history books. No matter your feelings about America today, you can't help but be filled with admiration for these men, the men who founded the country in which we live today. They actually believed in something, which is more than we can say for many politicans today; and if we read their writings, we come to find that they cared a great deal for us. Much of what they struggled over concerned the kind of America that their decendants would live in - they truly cared about the kind of country we would have to live in. They knew they would never live to confront many of the problems they worried about; they wanted to keep us from having to confront them as well. Though we live over two hundred years after them, it's clear that we were never far from their thoughts. They come alive for us, as they work to give birth to the idea that is America.

Our concerns about modern-day America never stray too far from the surface, however; the characters themselves seem to keep bringing them up. At one point, echoing the words of the absent General Washington (never seen in the movie, but through his dispatches to Congress towering over the scene anyway), Adams sings, "Is anybody there? Does anybody care?"

He might well be asking those questions today.

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