I remember the first time I saw Bruce Cockburn perform live. It was at the Cotati Cabaret and it was in support for his album, Stealing Fire. The album had been getting a lot of play on AOR stations and I bought it both because it was brilliant but also because I was very focused on the way that US policy was screwing up Central America.
That album featured two songs about this in particular. First, Nicaragua about the efforts to create a decent society by the Sandinista government despite American meddling. Second, If I Had a Rocket Launcher about the military-led Salvadoran government’s attacks on refugee camps.
For his encore, Cockburn said, “A friend asked me to perform this song.” He talked about how he didn’t really want to do it because he was a visitor to the US and he didn’t want to badmouth it. But the audience was fine with it. This was, after all, during the early years of the Reagan administration, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: Reagan was as vulgar and vile an aberration of the norm then as Trump is now.
America’s Reputation in the World
That song was “Yanqui Go Home.” It wasn’t on Stealing Fire but has since been added to the CD. I present it today because its picture of how America looks to the rest of the world hasn’t much changed: an arrogant and abusive drunk that needs to go sleep it off.
Sadly, I think that Cockburn is far too kind. I don’t see this country as fundamentally good but easily diverted from the path of righteousness. That’s the line we sell to the proles. The people in power in this country understand as well as O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four does: power for its own sake.
The main way that the myth is sold to the people is through the idea of American Exceptionalism. I’m not clear why this ever worked. Every group of people at every time thought they were exceptional. And even here in America, people don’t agree about what the term means. To conservatives, it apparently means that we should be able to act as boors and the rest of the world should roll over for us because of our greatness.
At the beginning of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler says to his rich southern friends, “Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance.” That sums up the way I think of America. We’ve got a lot of financial instruments and under-paid workers. But what we really have — in such excesses that we will never run low — is arrogance.
And for my life, I do not know why.
Stealing Fire album cover from Amazon under Fair Use.