Friday, April 28, 2006

Our National Soul

The President came out today against singing our national anthem in any language other than English.

"One of the things that's very important is, when we debate this issue, that we not lose our national soul," he said.

Because our soul, apparently, only speaks English. Because our soul, apparently, comes from the English heritage of the colonists and Founding Fathers. Can't sing the national anthem in German, or Russian, or Vietnamese, or Spanish, or Mohican, even though all of the cultures those languages represent are strands in our national fabric, because our "soul" is English.

As a former opera singer, I have a bunch of thoughts on singing music in translation. The biggest argument against it, in my mind, is that it relegates the work of the poet to distant second-class status, as if his (or her) contribution were insignificant, as if an opera without words still has the same effect. In the best operas, the words and music are inseparable; indeed, the words themselves are musical. Perhaps the best example is the alliteration of Siegmund's Act I aria from Die Walküre, "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz; auf linden Lüften leicht und lieblich, Wunder webend er sich wiegt," etc. To discard this poetry on the argument that the audience doesn't understand German is to not understand what opera is.

The Star Spangled Banner, however, is not opera. It's a nationalistic jingle. It's not an aria describing the events at Fort McHenry, it's a metaphor for the endurance of American ideals. It should be sung with pride. One of the things we have taken pride in, at least since the 20th century, is our cultural diversity. I think the idea that the national anthem should be sung in a variety of different languages is a good one. At the very least, it should not be dismissed with the prejudiced assertion that our national character would be tainted or, indeed, lost, by singing this song in a different language.

No, Mr. President. This country lost its soul when you deceived its citizens and led us into a war against innocent people under false pretenses.


little-cicero said...

I'll disregard the last sentence so we avoid getting into a Bush debacle.

What is implied in "nationalism"? Culture, cohesion of society, reverance for our forefathers (patriotism), unity. Things of this sort do not jive with multinationalism, only with nationalism.

Our national anthem is a nationalist hymn. Its purpose is that of the cohesion of Americans in the cause of strength in unity. There is no cohesion without communication, and there is no communication where there is no common language. If immigrants love this country in such a way that they care about our strength and unity as anyone who loves their country should, they will learn English so that they can talk to their fellow Americans.

This song shows most blatantly that this is not the case with those who support it.

Andy said...

One: you confuse multinationalism with multiculturalism. Two: about half the country speaks Spanish. Three: I agree, immigrants to America should learn English. What the hell does that have to do with LOSING OUR SOUL if we sing the national anthem in a different language?

little-cicero said...

Multiculturalism and multi-nationalism are similar in the areas in which culturalism and nationalism are similar. A nation has one common culture- that is what nationalism promotes. Multiculturalism incorporates all cultures, but those cultures are rooted in respective nations, so when you promote multi-culturalism you are also promoting mulit-nationalism.

The point is that nationalism and multiculturalism can neither grow nor shrink in unison. National unity requires cohesion, and cohsion requires communication. Multiculturalism promotes foreign languages and nationalism promotes native language.

I'm not sure what "National Soul" means, but from my estimation it means national character and unity, as unity and character of the self constitutes an individual's soul. Just as speaking like Robin Williams rather than myself would change my national soul, reciting the symbol of our national soul as would a Mexican would change our national soul.

By the way, something you forgot to mention is that the new anthem not only alters lines, but it adds in a new line promoting the agenda of the illegals' movement.

Time said...

A LOT of Americans don't even know the words to our national song.

I love opera, it moves my soul, yet I don't understand one word of it. I'm sure I'm not the only American who is moved by music they don't know the words to. All the Lat./Hisp. music Americans love but don't understand the words to.

I see no downside to singing the song in another language.

If they have changed the words or mocked the song, that's different.

Jarred said...

A nation has one common culture...

I'm not convinced this is universally true. I've spoken to enough people of other nations (India comes most readily to mind) which suggests that a nation can consist of multiple cultures and cultural groups.

Indeed, it's this insistance that there must be one unified "culture" for a nation to be strong that underscores the more disconcerting current within some groups today. To me, the similarities between "cultural unity" and "racial purity" and other ideas is worthy of wariness.

little-cicero said...

Absolutely. I am a very proud Italian American, so I understand as much as anyone the beauty and importance of remembering our cultures, but there also has to be a national culture. There must be a culture that is all encompassing for a nation for that nation to have power. The more cultural unity, the more power. That, taken to an extreme, was the cause of Nazism's dangerous developments. Nationalism is powerful, and like any thing with power it must be used carefully.

Andy said...

Little Cicero, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with nationalism (though clearly sometimes it gets taken too far). But you have no argument to say that a diversity of cultures -- even a diversity of languages -- is necessarily a destabilizing factor for national unity. In fact, you're betting that the diversity in Iraq is not a barrier to a functioning society; that's basically the whole premise of your democracy theory. You can't have it both ways.

Diversity in America, however, is not what's tearing us apart, but rather one of our greatest strengths. While I do believe that for simple matters of practicality the United States should have a common, official language, the idea that there is some damage done by allowing a simple song to be sung in translation is racist and xenophobic.

This is like flag-burning or "marriage protection" -- a non-issue meant to distract Americans from more pressing problems, like the fact that we have a terrorist in the White House. Fortunately his offensive comments on this topic will serve to highlight that.

little-cicero said...

Please don't use such a drastic label with your President, it only shows your hatred and inability to see him as a human being. By the way- you've been tagged.

The way this relates to Iraq is that I have argued that federalism may be necessary in Iraq moreso than nationalism, the reason being that the diversity of Iraq is incompatible with nationalism. The cultural differences are definitely an obstacle to unity, which is why regional government cannot be marginalized there.

As for the United States, it has been our similarities, not our differences, that have tied Americans together. The desire to become American, the ambition that is common among all who brave the journey to come here, and the willingness to do whatever they had to do to attain the American Dream.

Many Latino Immigrants, legal or illegal, have all of these traits, but those who wish to make our symbols conform to their language blatantly announce in doing so that they are absolutely unwilling to conform to our society.

Andy said...

Little Cicero, there's a difference between hatred and being angry with someone for legitimate reasons. Terrorists don't necessarily need to be anonymous, stateless suicide bombers. A terrorist is anyone who uses violence or the threat of violence to achieve political goals, and that fits this President to a T.

I will have to think about your tag. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any Republicans about whom I have three nice things to say. Used to be McCain, until he went a-courtin' with Jerry Falwell. Olympia Snowe seems cool, but I don't know enough about her to write three statements of praise. This is not partisanship: I can't think of any Democrats I'm hankering to praise, either.

When it comes to the President, I wonder if whether he's just plain stupid and grossly deceived by his advisers, and that all the many horrific and tragic and inexplicable decisions and policies he's made came from the right place in his heart, untainted by reality. If it's not that, then he's just a bad person. He's petulant, arrogant, insecure, incurious...I believe future generations will speak his name with a shudder of shame.

little-cicero said...

Hatred is personally directed anger when it reaches the level to which the person subjected to it is dehumanized. I dehumanize bin Laden, therefore I hate bin Laden- I have nothing good to say about him. You, however, were able to say a good thing about bin Laden- that he is intelligent. If you can say something nice about bin Laden, surely you can say something nice about the man who genuinely seeks to destroy him.

Andy said...

And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.

President George W. Bush, March 13, 2002.

kr pdx said...

LC: "reverance for our forefathers (patriotism)"
GRRRRRR. I think just about every implication in this phrase makes me angry about our culture.

LC, again: "As for the United States, it has been our similarities, not our differences, that have tied Americans together. The desire to become American, the ambition that is common among all who brave the journey to come here, and the willingness to do whatever they had to do to attain the American Dream."
Pretty sure the concrete Desire To Get The Freak Away From Badness Where They Came From has nearly universally been a more ardent desire than some abstract Desire To Become American. Desire to live a better life, to have freedom to succeed ... these things MAKE the American Dream. Perhaps part of the reason we are culturally and economically astray is because we think The American Dream has its own existence, when it is only a result of cultural drives we have lost in our luxuriant living ...

In any case, We the People were and are NOT a monolithic culture. Never have been. Hope we never are. This country was designed as a federation; the federal government has ben allowed to highjack (LONG years ago) the word "federal," but that semantic aggression can't fully deny the reality that we remain in spite of all unifying efforts a complex people.

I think a national language is necessary, for street signs etc. If people want to, by translating them, understand and celebrate the teachings of our national traditions and national documents, I hardly see how that is a threat to them appreciating Americanness (which I presume you want them to do). If Americanness is so great, having a better grip on it will only encourage them in pursuit of that greatness.

If they added stuff to the song, clearly they aren't innocently translating it. But translating it (communicating meaning in a different language) is not a sin by itself.

little-cicero said...

It's not a question whether it's a sin (ie offensive to America as moral sin is offensive to God, or hurtful to America) it's whether it is good or bad for America. If the health of the nation is a function of the nation's strength, clearly strength in itself relies on national cohesion, not just unity. Clearly the nation would be stronger if all Americans were ready to fly kamikazee missions in support of it, to kill innocent people among our enemies. That would be morally reprehensible, but were you solely interested in national strength, that sort of single-mindedness would be ideal. Obviously the extreme is not desirable, but it illustrates my point- cohesion=power. The cohesion of the Japanese made them formidable, as did that of the Nazis who thought that they'd created a Master Race.

kr pdx said...

Young man, you really must get over thinking that power = good. You shame 2000 years of Crhistian teaching/learning/cultural development. Earthly power is a thoroughly Old Testament virtue. This assumption on your part observably taints all of your thinking and predisposes you to excuse or accept immoral, unethical, or not-well-thought-out action(s) in the name of "patriotism" or "national unity," when in fact, if our nation is based on philosophy instead of pragmatics (as you so often imply on your blog)--if our nation stands conceptually, not just in its contemporary existence--efforts to consolidate "power" should be viewed first with skepticism.

little-cicero said...


That is why I presented the reprehensible example alluding to the Japanese. They gained power through nationalism (extreme nationalism=extreme power) and bad things happen- power can be used for good and evil. I happen to believe that we need power to a degree, otherwise we cannot maintain our position as leader of the free world.

little-cicero said...

By the way, go to my blog and you'll find that I have shown solidarity by singing the Mexican Anthem in English.

Andy said...


You don't have to say it in so many words for us to say you said it. In fact, you wrote an an entire post on why the U.S. gets to be the "world's police" and the first reason you gave? Military capability. You DID say it. Emphatically.

kr pdx said...

Yes. Post after post and reply after reply you have stated or suggested that we need to hold, consolidate, or exercise power.

AND, we should earn our leadership by [i]being leaders[/i]. We don't have some God-given Right to be Leaders of the Free World.

This is like the American Dream question--the Dream (or the Right) don't exist because we once earned them. They only exist if we earn them constantly.

We can't legitimately claim a moral right if we aren't morally right. Moral righteousness should be the first, not a subsidiary, step to making a nation "great."

Jarred said...

Well said, KR. And every day, we need to constantly re-evaluate our moral righteousness. It's too easy to assume that just because we were morally righteousness yesterday, we continue to be so tomorrow, let alone that we will be so tomorrow. Quite frankly, it's the obvious (to me, at least) lack of this constant re-evaluation on our part
that has me most concerned.

kr pdx said...


You know, this is what the Democrats are good at, this constant reevaluation. Bit of a hard sell, come election time, though ... except when "change" is what over 50% of the people want ;).

Aethlos said...

i think we should outlaw the English version of the national anthem... force everyone to sing it in any other romance language of their choice. at gun point. Ahhhhh.