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REASONABLENESS: ‘The ‘city on a hill’ is starting to shine again
Monday, 15 February 2021 11:08
Special to the Daily Planet


February 22, 1980:  the Olympic hockey semifinal game at Lake Placid, United States versus USSR. The tiny arena rocked with “USA! USA!” Our college boys beat the Red Army professionals, and the world cheered American courage.  

At the same time, Ronald Reagan was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, where he often borrowed from John Winthrop (1630) and John Kennedy (1961), speaking of America as “a shining city on a hill.”

America stood for unity around our Constitution, unity in spite of disagreement. We stood for generosity, fair play, liberty and justice for all. We were indeed the country by which other countries were measured.

January 6, 2021: Another crowd chants “USA! USA!” They were not celebrating their commitment to the Constitution or to fair play. They were answering the call of a renegade, lame-duck president to prevent Congress from certifying his defeat. They had been summoned to Washington, specifically on this day, and challenged to action with an incendiary speech.

Last year, a columnist in Ireland wrote this:

“Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.”

The columnist is Finian O’Toole, a tough critic of books and corruption in government. His column doesn’t tell us something we don’t already know, though, does it?  America ain’t what she used to be.

I grew up with a victory garden in my yard and scrap drives and a gold star in a neighbor’s window. Every single house observed blackout rules. We even covered the little light on the radio with fingernail polish. I grew up with the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, guiding defeated enemies to democracy. 

Harry Truman, Earl Warren and Lyndon Johnson dealt with civil rights. Our democracy survived Richard Nixon. 

But neither Winthrop nor Reagan assumed the light would burn forever. Last month in The Atlantic, David Frum cited part of the Reagan speech in 1964 that launched his political career:

“The eyes of all people will be upon us—and those eyes could condemn as well as approve,” Reagan said. “The city on a hill could fail. That defeat would drag all humanity to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

Countries are judged by how well their government defends its people. Does it have sound decision-making processes? How well does it interact with other nations?

For the past four years, the United States has had a president who didn’t preside.  Donald Trump replaced capable people around him with zeros. He governed by himself — but he had no inclination, or talent, for governing. His term in office was a non-stop campaign for re-election. Nothing more. 

And everybody saw it. We had no functioning government. Commentators wondered in print what would happen if a crisis came.  Then a crisis did come, didn’t it? And indeed, the eyes of all people were upon us.

A Pew Research study last fall found: “Across the 13 nations surveyed, a median of just 15 percent say the U.S. has done a good job of dealing with the outbreak…. and in nearly all nations people give their own country positive marks for dealing with the crisis (the U.S. and U.K. are notable exceptions).”

Finian O’Toole, in his use of “pity,” is not exaggerating. At this point in time, the United States is staggering out of chaos.  Our light went dim in that time—but it didn’t go out.

The inhabitants of that city, in their hearts, did not lose confidence in America the Beautiful — the patriot’s dream, the immigrant’s hope.

Interestingly, in Reagan’s farewell speech in January 1989, he added four words to the visionary Winthrop phrase: “America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.”

I posted a column in this space in the sad days of May 2018 starting from Maureen McGovern’s powerful #1 hit from 1973:

“There’s got to be a morning after

If we can hold on through the night

We have a chance to find the sunshine

Let’s keep on lookin’ for the light.”

We held on. We looked for the light. And the sun is shining.
Lee Ballard lives in Mars Hill. He was a longtime linguist and lexicographer, before heading a naming and branding firm for 25 years.


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