Ronald Reagan famously used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a theme song for his campaign, without noticing that the lyrics were a blistering condemnation of American injustice rather than an anthem of unquestioning pride. And it seems that the conservative tradition of misunderstanding progressive songs continues. David Firestone reports:
DES MOINES — It is jarring, in an age of irony and nuance, to hear Mitt Romney conclude his stump speeches with a riff on the hymn, “America the Beautiful.” […]
“O beautiful, for patriot’s dream, that sees beyond the years,” he said, discussing the fourth verse and asserting that this dream referred to political and especially economic freedom. “The freedom to choose one’s course in life, to be an opportunity nation, a merit-based society” — that, he suggested, conflicts directly with the president’s vision of America as an entitlement society, where everyone is equal and thus more impoverished.
[…] [T]hat is not at all what the song was originally about. The lyrics were written in 1894 by the Massachusetts poet Katharine Lee Bates, an ardent feminist and lesbian who was deeply disillusioned by the greed and excess of the Gilded Age.
Her original third verse was an expression of that anger:
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!
[…] Bates’ revulsion at the inequality and corruption she saw around her was shared by many others who became the core of the Progressive Movement. President Obama has lately begun to channel that movement, invoking the spirit of its greatest champion, Theodore Roosevelt. Given his positions, he has a better claim to the spirit of the song than does Mr. Romney, who appears to have no problem with inequality.