Canaries and Patriots

I love music. During my cardio workouts, I put my iPod on random shuffle… and before long, with heart pounding and endorphins firing, the elliptical machine transports me into another dimension. In this dimension, aided by a vast music collection, my brain is free to explore uncharted territories and occasionally make new connections. That’s what happened today when the song Monster by Steppenwolf started playing. I had forgotten the many memories connected to this song. By the time it ended, the past had merged with the present and left me focusing on the future… America’s future.

At one point, Monster returned me to my sophomore year of college. To a time when my nerves were shot… I was confused, sleep deprived and directionless. When you’re attending college full-time while simultaneously working to pay for it, there’s little time for sleep or contemplation. Picking the right path (major) under such conditions can seem impossible. I had always been drawn to the arts… but needing to make a living, practicality was important, too. Uncertain, I decided to enroll in Preston Jackson‘s basic design class. (A few years later, I earned a degree in design/visual communications.) In addition to being a renowned artist, Preston is also a great instructor… and a kind, sensitive and insightful person to boot. One day, as Preston was musing, he said something I’ve never forgotten. “Regardless of what you do in life, be a student of history. But don’t limit yourself to history books. Study the music, art, and literature of particular time periods. Learn everything you can, from every perspective. The past provides meaning to the present… and sheds light on the future.”

When Monster was released, the U.S. was engaged in the Vietnam conflict, Richard Nixon was president, and civil unrest was rampant. To many citizens, especially those from the “older” generation, bands like Steppenwolf were unwelcome messengers—radical groups of unpatriotic, hippie misfits. Students of history know that demonizing the perceived enemy is nothing new. Wait! The enemy? Did you read the lyrics? (see below) They’re lucid, insightful… even prophetic. Unpatriotic? Steppenwolf sounds like a band of patriots! That’s from today’s perspective. When Monster was released, these lyrics challenged America’s ideology with reality. They violated many citizens’ perceptions of themselves by contrasting symbolic representations with facts. The map is not the territory. For many, this concept is difficult to grasp.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”

Perhaps that’s what pulls me to the arts? But I digress. Like canaries, Steppenwolf sensed the poison permeating America… and like good patriots, they warned fellow citizens of the pending dangers. How many listened? How many heard? Many citizens confuse symbols for patriotism. To them, political ideologies outweigh truth and honor… and canaries. Discrediting the messenger is easier than examining the message.

To ignore, discredit or denounce messengers, canaries (or gadflies) is nothing new. Ask Socrates. This brilliant philosopher was found guilty by his fellow citizens and sentenced to death. Guilty of what, you might wonder? For asking valid questions… and thereby exposing perceptual blindness, political corruption, and delusional citizens. In short, Socrates was guilty of being a true Athenian patriot. For the record, I have little respect (actually none) for beliefs or subjects deemed too taboo to question. In fact, I encourage everyone to question most, those deemed most unquestionable. Just as some confuse the package for its contents, they also confuse beliefs, folklore and ideology for reality. Questions followed by critical thinking help us to distinguish the differences… and uncover the truth.

As we shape our future, we also create our past. Time has a way of revealing the villains from the heroes… propagandists from truth tellers… and perceived patriots from real ones. By learning everything we can, from every perspective… we begin to see a bigger, more accurate picture. America is a melting pot of individuals… and patriots come in many shades, shapes and sizes… and from many walks of life. Yet, I’ve observed it’s America’s canaries… the “super-sensitive” folks… those most vulnerable, easiest to attack and discredit that are best at shedding light on our future. Great patriots are seen best by future generations.

Once the religious, the hunted and weary
Chasing the promise of freedom and hope
Came to this country to build a new vision
Far from the reaches of kingdom and pope
Like good Christians, some would burn the witches
Later some got slaves to gather riche
But still from near and far to seek America
They came by thousands to court the wild
But she just patiently smiled and bore a child
To be their spirit and guiding light
Then once the ties with the crown had been broken
Westward in saddle and wagon it went
And ’til the railroad linked ocean to ocean
Many the lives which had come to an end
While we bullied, stole and bought a homeland
We began the slaughter of the red man
But still from near and far to seek America
They came by thousands to court the wild
But she just patiently smiled and bore a child
To be their spirit and guiding light
The blue and grey they stomped it
They kicked it just like a dog
And when the war was over
They stuffed it just like a hog
And though the past has its share of injustice
Kind was the spirit in many a way
But its protectors and friends have been sleeping
Now it’s a monster and will not obey

The spirit was freedom and justice
And its keepers seem generous and kind
Its leaders were supposed to serve the country
But now they won’t pay it no mind
Cause the people grew fat and got lazy
Now their vote is a meaningless joke
They babble about law and order
But it’s all just an echo of what they’ve been told
Yeah, there’s a monster on the loose
It’s got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watchin’
The cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin’ the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can’t understand
We don’t know how to mind our own business
Cause the whole world’s got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who’s the winner
We can’t pay the cost
Cause there’s a monster on the loose
It’s got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watching

America, where are you now?
Don’t you care about your sons and daughters?
Don’t you know we need you now?
We can’t fight alone against the monster
© Copyright MCA Music (BMI)




One Response to “Canaries and Patriots”

  1. Ben on February 22nd, 2012 8:34 am

    it’s really good

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