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Life on 200 Words a Day
City Upon an Eroding Hill
December 30, 2005

It was with vanity and spelling doubled over that John Winthrop famously predicted to his shipmates that “We shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.” It’s anybody’s guess how he knew that in 1630, when Europe was busily mutilating itself with the Thirty Years’ War and the rest of the world was busy ignoring barbaric Europe and its hill-centric travelers. But the phrase has kept a patent on selected mythmakers, evolving accordingly. It now belongs to Ronald Reagan more than it does Winthrop , much as David Copperfield attaches to the magician more than to Dickens. Reagan first used the “city on a hill” theme at least as far back as 1974 in a speech about America ’s “divine plan” and “the last best hope of man on earth.” He used it for the last time 15 years later in his farewell address. Both times he credited Winthrop and liberally used quote marks where they belonged. But just as David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear, political illusionists have a way of making quote marks disappear. It’s their way of rewriting history and please their disciples’ way of reading it. The words may now be Reagan’s, though his vision is smoggy. When gazing America ’s way, the eyes of all people choose either to look away or to look no further than America ’s television image. Looking America straight in the face requires somebody’s permission. Or shades, to cope with disbelief’s radiation.

—L.D. Amabed Jr.

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