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April 19, 2006

Patriotism Is So Hard

All right. I promise I'll stop talking about generals who can't seem to stop talking.

Next up on the horizon: the Star Spangled Banner. In the NY Times, Lawrence Downes doubts our national anthem is "worth saving":

Unless you think about it for a while, which not a lot of people do, "The Star-Spangled Banner" does not appear to be a problem. It's a serviceable national anthem. It does the job, which is to say it gets baseball games moving and provides a suitable audio backdrop for Olympic medal ceremonies and for TV channels signing off in the wee small hours of the morning.

Given its circumscribed ceremonial function, and the general shortage of non-sports public gatherings these days, "The Star-Spangled Banner" doesn't get around the way it used to. When it does, it is tolerated – halfheartedly sung or mumbled, or simply sat through. A recent Harris poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans don't even know the words. Prompted with phrases like "whose broad stripes and bright stars" and "were so gallantly streaming," and asked to supply the next line, people were more likely than not to mangle their order or to come up with nothing at all.

With a situation like that, it's hardly surprising that the song seems to have lost the ability to stir within many Americans feelings of patriotic grandeur or civic purpose.

This is not always true, of course. Naturalization ceremonies are an obvious exception. At events like these, the anthem rises to match the emotional heights of the moment. An immigrant's love of America naturally expresses itself in a heartfelt attachment to its symbols, "The Star-Spangled Banner" included. I don't know of any polls on the matter, but it seems safe to say that naturalized citizens are more likely than the native-born not only to know the song, but also to like it enough to want to keep singing to the last lines, rather than to start yelling "Woooooo!" through its closing couplet in their impatience for the home team to take the field.

The enthusiasm of new Americans for the national anthem only underscores the indifference and ignorance of the rest of us. This gap between what the anthem could be and what it is has prompted the National Association for Music Education, a teachers' group, to create The National Anthem Project to try to reinvigorate "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Well excuuuuuuuuuuuuse me, but I like our national anthem. And I get quite annoyed when I'm in public and I am the only one who bothers to jump to my feet and place my hand over my heart when the flag goes by or I hear the opening strains of that old standard begin to play. Since when did cynicism become so fashionable?

The problem is not with the music, the words, or any other of the trivial objections Downes cites. The problem is us. Changing to God Bless America is unlikely to stir a resurgence of patriotism in the breasts of his fellow countrymen because patriotism is not invested in a song.

It is a value we Americans no longer bother to teach our children. We no longer consider it worth the time.

And that, in a nutshell, is why replacing the anthem with a shorter, easier-to-remember song won't make any difference. How long before future generations decide that God Bless America is just too, too long and boring?

Maybe they can replace it with something really short like Old MacDonald.

Update: Thanks to Dave Schuler for alerting me to this wonderful post entitled Anthems, which I'm not ashamed to admit just reduced me to tears. My favorite part:

The United States really has three national anthems. Yes, I know the official national anthem is The Star Spangled Banner but for most of my life the real national anthem has been America the Beautiful. It has a lovely melody, more beautiful words, and I truly believe that it represents my country’s real aspirations. It’s the anthem of America at peace. I’ve always loved it.

But something about it has changed for me and perhaps been lost since September 11, 2001. I just can’t hear the fourth verse without dissolving in tears.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

It’s just too much for me. I see towers falling, twisted metal, and a whole nation in mourning. As I say, I’ve always loved it and I hope I can hear it as I did before some day. I once thought it should be our official anthem rather than The Star Spangled Banner. Now I’m not so sure.

Although I’ve heard and sung The Star Spangled Banner all of my life I never really understood it, I never really got it until after 9/11. Now I get it.

On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

This is the anthem of America embattled, an America that really does not know how things will turn out. When the smoke clears will our flag still be flying? We must hope. After 9/11 The Star Spangled Banner came alive for me. Now I understand.

My Mom called a few minutes ago and reminded me of how we used to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic in church every Sunday during Viet Nam. Where did that spirit, that resolve, go?

I can't help but think perhaps America has a fourth anthem now: God Bless the USA. I can think of worse things to teach our children than these words:

If tomorrow all the things were gone
I'd worked for all my life,
And I had to start again
with just my children and my wife,
I'd thank my lucky stars
to be living here today,
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom
and they can't take that away
.

And I'm proud to be an American
where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today
,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

Whether in peace or in wartime, this is a message we can all get behind. Our material possessions mean nothing without the blessings of freedom secured by the sacrifices of those men and women who have been willing to fight to defend the ideas in our Declaration of Independence. And those rights will go away unless every one of us is still willing to stand up and defend the land we love.

We are, truly, lucky to be here. And we should never let our children forget that.

Update II: Via that veritable buffet of manliness, Don Brouhaha, this eloquent exposition and history of Our National Anthem by a very smart man. Like him, all I can say is... heh.

And, read the whole thing.

Posted by Cassandra at April 19, 2006 12:05 PM

Comments

I wrote a post on the subject of our national anthem some time ago. Part of the problem is that we have more than one. Here's my post, Anthems.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at April 19, 2006 12:26 PM

All in all it's not a particularly great anthem, but then I can't think of a country that has what I'd call a great anthem. The important thing though is that it IS the anthem, and should be treated and respected as such.

It's the respect end of it that's the problem.

Posted by: tommy at April 19, 2006 02:00 PM

Now, I wouldn't say that I know our National Anthem the best. If I didn't have words to sing along to, I'd probably screw up and repeat one verse over and over again. However, that doesn't mean that I dislike the anthem. I personally think its the best and nothing less stirring.

Its a showpiece song, and when sung well, it shows off the voice of the singer. Its charged with energy, ambitious, and idealistic. All things which, to me, are the best part of being an American. Its not impatience to me that people cheer at the end, but appreciation usually.

I think it was unjust of the author of the article to assume that just because a person couldn't come up with the next line of the anthem, that they didn't know or appreciate the song. As I am a contextual person, I would have had to sit there and sing the song to myself if I had any chance at all of figuring that out.

Posted by: Kevin L at April 19, 2006 02:01 PM

I think you could make a very strong case for

God Bless the USA

I can never listen to that song without crying. But I'm not even sure the song is so important. It's the thought that counts.


If tomorrow all the things were gone
I'd worked for all my life,
And I had to start again
with just my children and my wife,
I'd thank my lucky stars
to be living here today,
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom
and they can't take that away.

I'm proud to be an American
where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

From the lakes of Minnesota
to the hills of Tennessee,
Across the plains of Texas
from sea to shining sea.
From Detroit down to Houston
and New York to L.A.,
There's pride in every American heart
and it's time we stand and say:

I'm proud to be an American
where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

I'm proud to be an American
where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 19, 2006 02:10 PM

If you have never read this, it is the late Isaac Asimov's take 9an essay) on "The Star Spangled Banner".
To which I would say, read it all. Heh.

http://www.purewatergazette.net/asimov.htm

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at April 19, 2006 02:32 PM

The Cub Scout pack in our church sent the Engineer a tape with them singing "God Bless The USA," and some
thank you notes. It is really a neat thing...
and does bring tears to your eyes, because the values in that song are absolute...the flag still stands for freedom and NO ONE can take that away.

Yes, God has blessed America and I pray that He continues to do so.

Posted by: Cricket at April 19, 2006 03:39 PM

Buffet of manlinesss????
You're confusing me with Pile On. :)

I'm sure that would get a REAL hoot out of my wife.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at April 19, 2006 04:10 PM

Anthems and patriotic songs embody an idea, and if the idea is alive within you, the song will have meaning; if the idea is dead in you, then the song will seem worthless. Perhaps the coin of the "Star Spangled Banner" has been cheapened by its overuse to start sporting events, etc. Who knows?
Anyways, this phrase from the fourth verse of the "Star Spangled Banner" should be dedicated to the REAL men and women who have served and are serving now, in a lot of desolate places:

"Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,"

Thanks to all those out there who stand on a wall, between us and the desolation of a sometimes very cruel world.

Thanks to so many serving now...
Spd rdr's son, and JHD's son, and so many, many others that Cassandra writes about; above all, those heroes who have given everything that they had to give, the last full measure of devotion (like Cpl. Nich).

"Who more than self, their country loved
and mercy more than might..."

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at April 19, 2006 05:19 PM

Manliness buffet? No no not me Don. I have seen how women behave at those all you can eat buffets. Gorging themselves on manliness, filling their pockets with manliness and sneaking it home for later. Not me...no sir.

Posted by: Pile On at April 19, 2006 05:24 PM

Aw c'mon... just one little nibble?

Posted by: Cassandra at April 19, 2006 05:42 PM

Not one thin wafer.

Unless you do some yardwork.

Posted by: Pile On at April 19, 2006 06:01 PM

Buffet??? I didn't know the Coral Reefer Band did a version of the Nat'l Anthem.....

Yes, the song is difficult to sing, but still moves me to tears, wherever I am when I hear it.....


But you could make a case for the Ray Charles version of "America the Beautiful" as a prelude to TSSB.'Dixie" is also a perennial fave, but unlikely to become the Nat'l Anthem.

Funny thing, but I know several people who say that TSSB has difficult lyrics to sing, but they can recite whole passages from Caddyshack........go figger.

Posted by: WildBlueYonder at April 19, 2006 10:49 PM

Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind, you mean. Or perhaps I am too much like Jefferson, who said: "My country is Virginia."

Patriotism isn't hard. Breathing is harder. What's hard is understanding these deformed, these weak children, born without heart, without sight, without love. I don't know what to do with them.

Posted by: Grim at April 19, 2006 11:50 PM

Once I have my own classroom (probably fall 2007), I expect to do my best to instill a lot od patriotism in my young students, as well as how to show respect for the flag, the National Anthem, and our military.....

Posted by: Lisa at April 19, 2006 11:59 PM

Nothing makes me think patriotism like spd rdr singing "In The Navy"

Posted by: KJ at April 20, 2006 02:11 PM

> Prompted with phrases like "whose broad stripes and bright stars" and "were so gallantly streaming," and asked to supply the next line, people were more likely than not to mangle their order or to come up with nothing at all.

This is a patently stupid excuse for a metric.

**I** can't, off the top of my head, answer the next lines without the music.

Many people's memories of songs are tied to the actual music itself -- play the music, along with the words, and leave a blank space (with or without music) and see how many can fill in THAT blank. I suspect it would be just a bit higher... as in multi-digit percentages.

Posted by: OhBloodyHell at April 20, 2006 08:35 PM

I'm kinda surprised you hadn't seen Doc Sanity's entry on a similar topic, regarding The Pledge:

A MOTHER'S NIGHTMARE
http://drsanity.blogspot.com/2006/04/mothers-nightmare.html
Tell me again why we shouldn't question the left's patriotism (link included to a longer version of the below snippet)?
:::::::::::::::::::::::::::
In simple language, I told my son that our president had started a war with a country called Iraq. I said that we were bombing cities and destroying buildings. And I explained that families just like ours now had no money or food because their parents didn't have offices to go to anymore or bosses to pay them. "America did this?" my son asked, incredulous. "Yes, America," I answered. He paused, a long silent pause, then burst out: "But Mommy, I love America! I want to hug America!"
:::::::::::::::::::::::::

One can only hope said child will grow up to be the kind of massive disappointment to said mother that Casey Sheehan was to Cindy (but live to spread his patriotism)

Posted by: OhBloodyHell at April 20, 2006 08:42 PM

"The Star Spangled Banner" always stirs my emotions. It has become so un-cool to be patriotic, and we're the worse for it. Thanks for the post - I'm quoting and linking to it.

Posted by: Carol at April 23, 2006 10:35 PM

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