The recent demonstrations focusing attention on the problems of immigration and immigrant status could be the entree to one of those longed-for national discussions I always imagine us having in a less-bunkered world. In my utopian dream, we’d be discussing whether the nation-state is anachronistic in an age of borderless global corporate influence. We’d be concerning ourselves with the balance between a nationalistic call for immigrants to assimilate completely and the desire of many refugees to freely express their cultural identity after having fled someplace else on the globe where they were persecuted precisely for that identity. We would be examining the degree of overlap between our guarantees of civil rights and international notions of human rights. We’d ask if it’s really a good idea to suspend the protections of workplace and environmental laws–either domestically or abroad, in the guise of Free Trade Zones–with no thought to long-term consequences. And whether we really have the means or desire to deport the 12 million undocumented people currently living within our borders.
So we have important issues to address. Given that full menu, it is somewhat surprising that We the People are apparently obsessed with whether the singing of the national anthem in Spanish is an affront to our Union. Indeed, this has become such a pressing issue that the Senate spent actual taxpayer time to craft and pass a resolution condemning the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” in any language but English. The matter has gone all the way to top levels of the White House, where President Bush took time from pondering insurrection, economic collapse, terrorism and nuclear threat to opine that “The Star Spangled Banner” just does not have the same “value” when sung in Spanish.
It is an odd stance for a President who, when campaigning for office, sang the national anthem in Spanish wholeheartedly when he visited Latino districts. And it is surely an odd stance for a government whose own websites list translations of the song into many languages–for the protectorates, presumably, rather than for those whose feet actually rest upon the sod of the mainland Homeland.
I confess I don’t understand this English-only stance, poll numbers notwithstanding. I appreciate that stasis in language is often a marker of what is holy, revered, ritualized, handed down from generation to generation in exactly the same form in which it was received. But hybridity is inevitable. Even allowing for those who adhere to such a relationship to language when it comes to God–like those who want Aramaic for their Scripture or the King James version for their Bible–as citizens of the United States we are distinguished by our motley, miscegenated populace. From Garrison Keillor to Jimi Hendrix, we are at our best in the creatively profuse expressions of our allegiance to the United States of America.
The structure of an anthem is pretty basic. It is a stylized song in praise of God, country, rivers, seas, the bravery of soldiers, the kindness of rulers and the eternity of one’s own form of government. There don’t seem to be many other rules: Some countries have more than one; some change them like coats according to the season. Across our northern border “O Canada” is sung in French and English. The Swiss national anthem has four official versions, in French, Italian, German and Romansch. There is only one version of the South African national anthem, but it blends two former anthems and has stanzas incorporating five of its eleven official languages. “The Star Spangled Banner” itself has been translated by previous generations–our forebears–into Latin, German, Yiddish, Acadian, Creole.
Yet as one travels around the world of anthems, the similarities are a tribute not only to nationalism but to a certain universality of spirit–it’s much too often a common spirit of nativism. When, for example, Mark Krikorian, director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, asserted that a Spanish “Star Spangled Banner” is as unthinkable as “The Marseillaise” being sung in English, all I could think of was the third stanza of “The Marseillaise,” which, roughly–if unthinkably–translated, exclaims: “What! These foreign cohorts! They would make laws in our living rooms! Good God! The vile despots would become the masters of our destiny!”
It’s intriguing if not always comforting to consider the similarities of sentiment in a time when so much else divides us. If we have fruited plains and purple mountains, Sri Lanka is “laden with corn and luscious fruit”; if o’er the ramparts we watched through the perilous fight, the People’s Republic of China was arising to “build our new Great Wall! The people of China have come to a time of greatest peril!”
If our anthem asks whether that banner yet waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave, Israel’s declares that “hope has not yet been lost, the 2,000-year-old hope, to be a free nation in our own homeland.” When the third verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” says, “O, thus be it ever when free men shall stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,” I think of the song written in 1934 as Palestine’s national anthem: “We do not want an eternal humiliation, nor a miserable life…. We will re-establish our great glory. My homeland! My homeland!” (That Palestinian anthem, by the way, was adopted by the Provisional Authority as Iraq’s new national anthem, in 2003.) The previous Iraqi anthem’s chorus was: “A homeland that extended its wings over the horizon and wore the glory of civilization as a garment. Blessed be the land of two rivers, a homeland of glorious determination and tolerance.” My favorite national anthem–other than our own noble paean, of course–is that of Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific, which reminds its citizens, “We have many traditions and we are finding new ways. Now we shall be one person. We shall be united forever.” The title of the anthem is “Yumi, Yumi, Yumi,” or you-me, meaning “We, We, We” in Bislama, a lingua franca made from English, French and several indigenous languages.
Yada, yada, yada. Now can’t we all play ball?