Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

September 4, 2016

On National Anthems

By David K. Shipler

            One day in the summer of 1960, just 15 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a tour bus of Americans, driving through the Netherlands, broke into song, led by a seminary student in the group. It was an old Methodist hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, in a beautiful Haydn melody.
            Suddenly the driver, a Dutchman named Jerry, shouted at us to stop, please stop. He had to pull over, he was so upset. We fell silent, baffled, until he explained that we were singing the melody of the German national anthem, whose lyrics in Weimar and then Nazi times began, “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles/ Uber alles in der Welt,” (“Germany, Germany above all/ Above everything in the world”). Jerry had seen the German tanks and troops roll into Amsterdam. He had seen people hanged from lampposts. By singing that tune, even as a hymn, we were unwittingly sweeping him back into the war.
             For me, at 17, this was a moment of clarity about the innocence of my parochialism, the indelible memories of suffering, and the power of patriotic music. It was a sudden education in the vast symbolic force of national anthems. Like the pieces of colored cloth sewn together into national flags of fierce identity, the arrangements of notes and words can compute into something far greater than the sum of their parts.
So it is that we now see Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, reviled and applauded as he stays seated or takes a knee instead of standing for The Star Spangled Banner. He is protesting what all good citizens should: police shootings of unarmed black men and the country’s stubborn scourge of racism. If he had only made a speech, fine. But failing to respect the national anthem, well, that’s heresy!
Some people, such as Kaepernick, take ritual seriously. They do not simply stand, remove their hats, and sing along robotically. They think about the meaning of their gesture. If you are an Arab citizen of the Jewish State of Israel, for example, that becomes a particular problem at the singing of the national anthem, HaTikvah (The Hope), also a beautiful and stirring melody whose words were written in 1886:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

One-fifth of Israelis are Arabs, not Jews, and so the anthem’s moving appeal to the yearning of the Jewish spirit does not speak to them. It even speaks against them, in the minds of those who cannot reconcile their Arab identity with citizenship in a Jewish state. The anthem is  awkward for them, a marginalizing reminder that they are not fully part of their country. The only Arab on the Supreme Court, Salim Joubran (a Maronite Christian) stirred outrage on the right when he stood for HaTikvah but did not sing along. Other Arabs find various ways to keep their integrity. A young man told me that he always stands, in silence, as a gesture of respect for his fellow countrymen who are Jewish. Some stay seated. An Arab-Israeli school principal tries to anticipate when the anthem is coming and leave for the rest room just in time.
Russians in late Soviet times also had an awkward relationship with their anthem, which once paid reverence to Stalin:

Through days dark and stormy where Great Lenin led us
Our eyes saw the bright sun of freedom above
And Stalin our leader with faith in the people,
Inspired us to build up the land that we love.

Although the lyrics were changed after Stalin was officially denounced for his “cult of personality,” most Russians didn’t know the new words, so only the music was played—a bold, stirring piece that is retained today with completely different lyrics: no Lenin, no Stalin, but a bit of God.
So, too, today’s German national anthem retains the music that disturbed Jerry so deeply, but the “Germany-above-all” lyrics are gone, replaced by the third stanza on “unity and rights and freedom for the German fatherland.” Haydn wrote the music for the 1797 birthday of Francis II and called it God Save Franz the Emperor. Whether anyone in Europe still shudders when they hear it played, say at the Olympics, is a question I cannot answer.
If you wish to stay on the surface of symbolism and national adoration, it is probably wise not to probe the origins or listen too carefully to the poems that have been spliced into national anthems. La Marseillaise of France, composed in 1792, extols slaughter in war:
To arms, citizens
Form your battalions
Let us march, march
That impure blood
Soak our fields

            The Star-Spangled Banner also champions war and glorifies military victory—not in the American Revolution, which would be appropriate, but in the lesser-known War of 1812, when numbers of African-Americans, both free and enslaved, joined to fight with the British navy. The third stanza by Francis Scott Key, which is not sung these days, has a graphic line as severe as the “impure blood” of La Marseillaise. Of the enemy, the American national anthem declares:

                        Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution
                        No refuge could save the hireling and slave
                        From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
                        And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
                        O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

            Apparently prompted by Kaepernick’s protest, Shaun King read the lyrics and concluded that he would not stand for the anthem, he wrote in his recent New York Daily News column. He also cited Key as having profited from his family’s ownership of slaves.
            Personally, I prefer an anthem with as much yearning as celebration, one that reminds us of our high calling. Even if God has to be in it, I’d rather that whatever God you believe in would “crown thy good with brotherhood” and “mend thine every flaw.”
Maybe this protest and debate can lead us to America, the Beautiful, which would be a fitting national anthem that excludes and denigrates no one, hails no war, admires the natural beauty of our land, and reminds us of cherished principles:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

1 comment:

  1. And there's something about "thy alabaster's cities gleam..." I seem to remember from senior year chorus. America the Beautiful is a much better choice for national anthem, for sure. Nice piece, Dave. Food for thought! - per usual.
    Thanks. Enjoy your Labor Day.