In 1967 Louis Armstrong sang “What a Wonderful World”, written for him by Bob Thiele and George Weiss, who had in mind the tumultuous backdrop of the Vietnam War and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, which amplified the song’s power. Armstrong himself addresses this in his spoken introduction to his performance:
Some of you young folks been sayin’ to me, “Hey Pops, what do you mean ‘what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? That ain’t so wonderful either.’ But how about listenin’ to old Pops for a minute. Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we are doing to it. And all I am saying is see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.
Today’s political context is as relevant to the song as it was 50 years ago. Yet it is unsullied by that ugliness. So I thought I’d present the lyrics as a commentary on today’s political scene because I believe the song, much like a magical incantation, possesses its own mysterious healing powers.
Sung towards the end of his life, “What a Wonderful World” captures what Armstrong himself brought to the world:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom, for me and for you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
These lines possess a perfect simplicity, as if polished by thousands of years of experience. They emerge as if we were seeing green trees and red roses for the first time, or perhaps in old age for the last time. The second line is the magical one, though: there are trees and roses and someone sees them bloom and through the generosity of the heart, he at once wants to share this miracle “for me and for you”. Only then can he think, “What a wonderful world.” It’s not just the trees, roses, color, or bloom – the “for me and for you” is the core of the wonder.
Then cut to Trump threatening to savage the National Parks through development and fracking. Witness the oil pimps lining up for new pipelines…the Koch brothers appointing the head of the CIA…the Secretary of Education closing schools and cutting school lunch programs while her brother, head of his own mercenary force, advises Trump on foreign policy from behind a dark curtain. We see environmental regulations tossed overboard by beady-eyed men doing their masters’ bidding, congratulating one another because they managed to raise the price on their souls another 10 or 50 thousand bucks.
I wonder at those seeking to undermine the Endangered Species Act so they can kill grizzlies and wolves and mountain lions as trophies of their pitifully perverse sense of manhood. They can’t wait to reverse the progress made in cleaning up our waterways, gut regulations aimed at keeping our food fresh and uninfected with lethal bacteria, and abolish limits on all forms of pollution. Where Thiele, Weiss, and Armstrong see the possibility of beauty and connection, our politicians see only profit in destroying and despoiling. And the profits they reap? That economy they so devoutly claim requires this destruction? They hide most of the profits to avoid taxes, robbing society even of the collateral social goods that their spoliation is supposed to produce.
I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days. dark sacred nights
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
His eyes turn upward and lose themselves in the balmy expanse of blue and white as if he’s surprised that creation favors beauty and color when it so easily could have been drab and dreary. Then, instead of his thoughts going outward, they seem stunned by the sheer basic fundamentals of life on earth. Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights – phrases to sit quietly with, six words that mark our own dualistic spirits. And this too makes it a wonderful world.
Meanwhile, I see birds of silvery doom streaking across those blue skies, fracturing those white clouds, and searing the dark sacred night with deadly fires. And I wonder that the same species that boasts Louis Armstrong can produce the bloodless technocrats of death with their hollow rationales. Year after endless year they proclaim their kills and every year the number of our enemies multiplies. Still, we press the buttons that rain automated, robotized death on the just and unjust alike. The wealth and genius of an entire civilization is devoted to creating weapons whose sole purpose is to vaporize bodies and level cities. Our “leaders” are addicted to murder as the solution to political problems. How did the tragedy and loss of 9/11 turn into an endless disaster of regional destabilization, daily massacres, millions of shattered lives, a million dead?
And they are so glib about it! The blithering president crows about dropping the biggest non-nuclear bomb in history to destroy caves in which 36 “Isis members” were killed (exactly 36? all Isis members? who identified them? who counted?), and has ramped up our military activity in the Mideast. Of course, it is not just Trump. Obama coveted his drones and sold well over $100 billion in arms to the Saudis, while neither Bush could keep his missiles in his pants. We have right wing chicken hawks; neo-liberals striving to show they’re tough even if they do support food stamps and gay marriage; and all those liberals who hem and haw and finally turn against the killing because they view a given war as unwinnable. How about un-startable and inhumane and the product of paranoia, greed, and political pandering? Ever occur to them?
A system produces leaders who reflect the dominant values of its components. If our system keeps producing the same morally bankrupt leadership and the same murderous, fruitless policies, perhaps we, the 330 million components of the American system, are the machinery that keeps churning out leaders incapable of resisting blind reliance on force and blind obedience to the power of money.
The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Also on the faces
Of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They’re really saying, I love you.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his quest for a bottom-line ethical foundation for human life, framed what he called “the categorical imperative”, that is, a principle true by its very nature. One way he summed it up was by saying, in effect, “No person should treat another as an object for their own ends. Each of us is an end in ourselves, the ‘subject’ of our own life, and no one must be deprived of the freedom that implies.” The Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), expressed the same thing in a somewhat different way, using the phrase “I and Thou”. Authentic engagement between human beings depends upon two “subjects” capable of accepting one another’s reality. For Louis Armstrong, the colors of the rainbow are not only reflected on people’s faces, they reflect the joy and beauty of each of those faces. The very fact that “I and Thou” can shake hands as equals is as beautiful as a rainbow, and as the rainbow is an expression of light and joy and the aftermath of storm, so too does an open-hearted greeting testify to the power of love.
Trump’s hateful attacks on immigrants and Muslims; his followers’ ignorant chants and casual racism; the brutal legal and prison system that enforces racist repression and slave labor; our embrace of torture; the glib dismissal of the collateral damage from phony wars on terror, drugs, socialism, or whatever justifies another profit-making jaunt into the void…So casually brutal! The Nazis industrialized slaughter. Our system is more subtle; we integrate our murders with business as usual and righteous sounding missions. And we are so predictable in our outrage when karma, life, the scales of justice, planet Earth – call it what you will – presents its bill. We mistake crass malice for honesty, honesty for weakness, and weakness for opportunity. In truth, there is nothing stronger than the honesty and acceptance of Kant, Buber, and Armstrong.
I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
Watching a video of Louis Armstrong sing this is to witness a sage who embodies his own wisdom. His face and voice and the melody express uncontainable joy at new life. And growing, as he, Thiele, and Weiss recognize, is all about learning. But what really excites him here? “They’ll learn much more/Than I’ll ever know”: only hoping for their lives to be better and their horizons wider than his. One of the great geniuses of his era and what he most wants is for future generations to shine brighter and swing higher than he ever could.
The smallness of vacuous, vicious, meaning-starved sub-mediocrities who inflict suffering on millions…They wage endless war to rake in the proceeds and then shed crocodile tears over the shattered bodies shipped home. They roast babies and shrug and blame it on “human shields”. They cut their own taxes even as schools and libraries are closing and highways crumbling and children starving. They’d even banish science for reasons so insane one wonders if their brains have been replaced with donuts. So much for “they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know”!
I suppose I’m struggling with a way to strip away the political noise and the hypocritical lies and just say, “This is what they are. This is all they are. This is all you need to know about them.”
I don’t get it. But I suspect Louis Armstrong did. As he said in finishing up his introduction to “What a Wonderful World”:
Love baby, love. That’s the secret. Yeah. If lots more of us loved each other we’d solve lots more problems. And man, this world would be better. That’s why old Pops keeps saying –
and the music comes in and he sings,
I see trees of green, red roses too…