Skip to content

history

Why “This Land is Your Land” Should Be Our National Anthem

Share

The Star-Spangled Banner is a fine song for remembering the war of 1812 and giving some attention to our flag, but it doesn’t really embody the values that have made America great. It’s hard to sing and uses language that most people find obscure. (What are ramparts anyway?)

By contrast Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land is memorable, easy to sing, and easy to understand. It also expresses ideals that have made America a light to the world: inclusiveness, equality, and liberty. Take a look at the lyrics. I’ve left out two controversial verses Guthrie wrote but which are not often performed. To learn more about the song, see the Wikipedia article.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Share

American Unreason

Share

Reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason made me very uncomfortable. The book chronicles the history of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the Revolutionary period to the present. It’s an excellent book, well-written, carefully researched, intelligent, and witty. Jacoby, a self-avowed secularist and freethinker, is evenhanded in her treatment of what she calls “junk thought” whether it comes from the political right or left. Hardly anyone comes off blameless, regardless of their supposed credentials.

What made me uncomfortable, though, was her criticism of Christian fundamentalists. I found it too well-deserved.

Jacoby defines a Christian fundamentalist as anyone who believes that the Bible is literally true. This makes it easy for her to lump together all the right-wing Christians, since most would in fact agree that they believe the Bible quite literally. She doesn’t care about most of the miracle stories because believing them does not have consequences for public policy except insofar as those who believe them must be anti-rationalist or at least irrational. She focuses most on the first part of Genesis because a literal understanding of it conflicts so obviously with evolution. Jacoby points out that America alone in the developed world has a sizable portion of the population that still rejects the descent of humans from earlier, non-human primates. Why? Biologists, geologists, and geneticists know that the theory of evolution is true. The evidence that all life on earth has a common ancestry is overwhelming. Yet “just 26 percent accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living things, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (p. 23).

There can be no doubt that the theory of evolution has problems, especially for Christian conceptions of sin and death, regardless of how metaphorically one takes Genesis. However, scientific credibility is not one of them. Scientists use what they know about evolution to make predictions about where to look for additional fossil evidence. They go to those places, look for fossils, and find them. In the same way, unraveling DNA has confirmed again and again that certain species are closely related, descended from common ancestors. Is it possible that God created the world in six days and filled it with living things as Genesis says? Yes, of course it is, but not in any scientifically meaningful sense. It is possible that God concealed his creative act by adding a backstory, going all the way back to the big bang, to everything he made. If so, then one of the aims of science is to unravel this backstory. I am not saying that this is what I believe; I am merely offering it as a way for biblical literalists to reconcile their faith in Genesis with scientific evolution. Unfortunately, this leaves no place for creationism in science and hence no place for the teaching of creationism in schools.

To her credit, Jacoby exposes the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, which came to prominence in the early twentieth century. It was used in ways never intended by Darwin to promote eugenics and justify exploitative capitalism. To this day, there is still confusion, not only among Christian fundamentalists but also among supporters of evolution, between biological evolution and social Darwinism.

Despite her attempts at fairness, however, Jacoby cannot conceal her contempt for fundamentalist Christians. Biblically attested miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth of Christ, and his resurrection are just so many fables told and believed by naive and intellectually unsophisticated people. She finds the tenacity with which Christians adhere to their faith baffling, though she never says so in so many words.

Despite her careful research, she attributes the origins of the Jesus Movement in the late sixties and early seventies to Campus Crusade for Christ, which she later refers to as the Christian Crusade. She says nothing of Calvary Chapel and appears not to know about the struggles of organized denominations to accommodate the sudden influx of young people who had renounced drugs and alcohol and sexual promiscuity but wanted to keep their rock-and-roll, long hair, and communal living. She also claims that Roe v. Wade occurred in a cultural climate that offered almost no opposition, which, while true, neglects that fact that abortion was presented almost universally as a way to protect young girls and women from the devastating injuries caused by “back alley” abortions. No one foresaw in 1973 that within a decade nearly one in four pregnancies would end in abortion.

Despite these shortcomings, I highly recommend The Age of American Unreason. The chapters on junk thought and the culture of distraction are especially worth reading. Jacoby uncovers the pernicious influence of the ubiquitous audio-video culture. It is not what we expose our children to, though that is certainly bad enough. It is what we fail to expose them to because they are always distracted by what’s on television or on the Internet or playing on their iPod. Previous generations valued quiet. My children think I am odd because I turn off the radio while I’m driving, but I just get tired of always having to listen to something. All my children, thank God, are readers. We have always valued reading in my home, and when they were young, I read to them. We have also deliberately gone without television and video at times just to have time for other pursuits. But there is no denying that we are exceptions. Most families live in a cocoon of entertainment, constantly bombarded by sound and video. Not many people I know read for pleasure. Fewer still spend time in silence listening to their own thoughts. Among Christians there is a tradition at least of prayer, meditation, and Bible-reading, but for many this tradition has been brushed aside. Christians are as likely as anyone else to fill their time with self-medicating entertainment and thoughtless absorption of the prevailing audio-video culture.

Share

First Computer

Share

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX-81, a masterpiece of low-cost design. The entire computer was smaller than a medium pizza box, but it did have some drawbacks. To keep down costs, it did not include a monitor, but to encourage wider adoption, it produced NTSC video, so it could be used with most television sets. I purchased a big, clunky stereo boombox with built in black and white television to go with it. I used the television as my display. The ZX-81 also supported standard cassette tape for digital storage. It wasn’t perfect, but it usually worked. The first thing I did when I got my boombox was void the warranty by opening it up and adding a switch that would allow me to run the television and cassette player at the same time. I could use it more conveniently with my ZX-81.

The computer itself wasn’t much to look at. It was smaller than a pizza box and had a cramped membrane keyboard. One of the first upgrades I made was a real keyboard. I also expanded the memory to 64 kb.

The ZX-81 sported a custom version of BASIC known to aficianados as “Clive Code,” after Clive Sinclair, the man behind the computer. Clive Code had some interesting and unique features. My favorite was VAL() function, which would evaluate a string as if it were code. It was possible to build very complex expressions using string variables and then have them execute as a single line of BASIC. In the early 1980s when I returned to college after a six-year stint in the Air Force, my ZX-81 went with me. The college had a DEC PDP-11 for students. (This was before PCs had become common everywhere). Since the native language on the PDP-11 was also a version of BASIC, students in numerical analysis were supposed to write all their programs in BASIC instead of in FORTRAN like the examples in the text. I would write my numerical analysis programs on my ZX-81. When they were debugged and working properly, I would print out a copy of the code, walk across campus to the Computer Center, and enter my code at one of the terminals on the PDP-11. Usually I could do what little translation was needed in my head. Occasionally, I found I could even write my program in more compact form on my ZX-81.

The printer driver actually shared code with the video driver, so it was always possible to print what was on the screen. Unlike the video driver, which ran from ROM, the print driver was copied into RAM before running. By tweaking it and adding your own code, you could print things that were higher resolution than could be displayed on the screen. Keep in mind that the printer used a print head that mimicked the scan lines on a television. It used electrostatic sparks to burn the surface of metallic coated paper. It was a marvel of cheap technology but not at all practical for business applications.

I learned what little I know about assembly language programming from my feeble attempts to write assembly language for the Z-80 chip in my ZX-81. I think it was the most educational toy I’ve ever owned. I wrote dozens of short, single-use programs with no utility beyond the momentary problem they were designed to solve. It was fun.

The Sinclair ZX-81’s success was short lived. Within a few years it had been entirely supplanted by other, more-capable systems. By the time the IBM PC was introduced, it was already an obsolete product. When my printer finally went out, it was impossible to find a repacement, and I had already moved on, too. Still, I sometimes feel a little wistful, thinking about how easy it was to write my own programs on the ZX-81. I can’t even begin to make headway with Java or C++.

Share