Sunday, October 12, 2008

Civics Lessons: Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)

Steve Earle: Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)


We are a people perpetually balanced on a tightrope stretched between our history and our potential, one faltering step away from a headlong tumble from the most dizzying of heights. But fear not – we're working with a net.

In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history, our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything that we throw at it, including ourselves. For myself, my faith in this one institution of our all too human (and therefore imperfect) society is absolute, but, I hope, not blind. It was built to last, but only if properly maintained. Fierce vigilance against the erosion of its proven principles is the very heart of our peculiarly American brand of democracy.

- Steve Earle, July 4th, 2002

We kick off our civics lesson theme this week with angry, aging alt-country musician Steve Earle's sweeping condemnation of both the very insufficiencies of Compassionate Conservatism as a mechanism for perpetuating those values which we as Americans claim as ideals, and of the misguided complacency of those who accept that standpoint as "the best we can do".

It's a pretty extreme lesson to start the week with, but there's much here about the state of our current civic society -- a veritable laundry list of social and civic issues, from global warming to HMOs -- and Earle makes a pretty explicit connection between what he sees as our abdication of our full responsibilities as citizens and the ways in which he sees the limited passions of the conservative platform as, ultimately, eroding the very foundation of our democracy. Take a gander at the lyrics, and you'll see what I mean:

Yeah, take a look in the mirror now tell me what you see
Another satisfied customer in the front of
the line for the American dream
I remember when we was both out on the boulevard
Talkin' revolution and singin' the blues
Nowadays it's letters to the editor
and cheatin' on our taxes
Is the best that we can do
Come on...

Through these words, supported by driving guitars and an understated, half-ironic lack of intonation, Amerika v. 6.0 offers a pretty thorough look at what happens when we limit our civic responsibility out of fear and selfishness. Earle has angrier songs (his cover of Nirvana's Breed, for example, rocks much harder than this) but I think he doesn't want to scare us off with too much anger -- after all, the second person address of the first verse makes it clear right from the get go that Earle is asking us to own our own complacency, and yelling at people isn't always the best approach if ownership is the goal.

The push to do better -- to take up the mantle of civic action upon ourselves -- may be otherwise unstated, but I don't think you'll find many who can argue that this is a song of despair. Rather, this is a call to action, just one of many we are sure to hear this week, which traces its call to action to the folk process which lies at the very foundation of Earle's electro-roots sound.

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