Wednesday, September 10, 2014

O Say Can You See?

As wars go, the War of 1812 was among the most inconsequential, both in terms of its goals and of its accomplishments. It left the two sides pretty much where they were before. But, it did have one very important effect. For both the United States and for Canada, it heightened the respective national identities of the two neighbors and permanently defined their separateness - - settling forever the division of English-speaking North America into two similar but yet so very different nations, societies with similar and yet so very different political systems and political cultures. So it was probably only fitting that that otherwise worthless war would produce our national anthem.
Tomorrow, Saturday, September 13, will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. As every American schoolchild knows - at, at least used to know when history was still seriously taught in schools - when Francis Scott Key saw the 15-star, 15-stripe American flag still flying proudly over the fort in the dawn's early light  of September 14, 1814, he was moved to compose the poem now known as The Star Spangled Banner.
One can still see that famous flag in the Smithsonian in Washington, where it has been for over 100 years now. And, of course, one can always hear (and hopefully also sing) Francis Scott Key's famous poem, which since 1931 has been the official National Anthem of the United States.
The Star Spangled Banner has four verses. In elementary school, we were required to memorize the fourth verse in addition to the first, because the fourth is the one which explicitly mentions God (And this be our motto, In God in our trust.) Most people probably only know the first verse by heart. (and even that may be less so now that so often at public events we just listen to someone else singing our anthem to us instead of everyone singing it together, which is, of course, one of the purposes of a National Anthem!)
My immigrant relatives loved The Star Spangled Banner. My mother used to say its words were so beautiful because they came from the heart. Truth to tell, I remained for a long time unconvinced. Like many others, I found the melody awkward to sing. And the words seemed focused not on our country but just on our flag, admittedly the symbol of our country, but still just a symbol. In my pseudo-sophisticated college years, I felt the anthem represented the "reification" and consequent "mystification" of the flag. 
Neo-Marxist jargon aside, such is, of course, in the very nature of national symbols. One reason monarchy makes so much sense is precisely because the national symbol is a real person. Deprived of monarchy by the problematic accidents of history, we have had to make due with the flag. 
Back then, I thought America the Beautiful would have made a better anthem. In the aftermath of September 11, God Bless America was especially popular - perhaps because of the collective memory of its popularity in World War II. But, in my old age, I have come to appreciate the anthem we have. Donald Rumsfeld supposedly said that you go to war with the army you have. Likewise, you go to war with the anthem you have!
It is another sad sign of our civic disengagement that the anthem is often sung to us, instead of all of us singing it together. As another September 11 anniversary rolls around, we could it wouldn't hurt to rediscover the anthem's merits, recall its original appeal, and, most important of all, relearn how to sing it.

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