Sunday, August 19, 2007

Patriotic Reflection

This being Sunday, I feel a need to sermonize. The text for my sermon comes from the "Book of Bierce," otherwise known as The Devil's Dictionary:

PATRIOTISM, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

My need to sermonize, in turn, was triggered by JP Rangaswami's sentimental paean to the Indian national anthem and the dignity with which it was invoked in a recent propagandistic video on the theme of "respect your national anthem." It did not take long for my proclivities for text analysis to surface and start teasing out just how manipulative these few minutes of video were. So I'm afraid my reaction to JP's enthusiasm was a fond memory of one of the etchings in Goya's Caprichos on the theme that he who wishes to get hoodwinked surely will get hoodwinked.

Fortunately, however, madame l. submitted a comment that has saved me the effort of spelling out the details of my analysis. The heart of the comment was a video that vividly illustrated the techniques of manipulation, using an Intel commercial as a case study. (I believe Gertrude Stein once said that the only way to review a work of art was with another work of art. To the extent that mind control is an art form, the second video is a perfect review of the first.)

I have to insert as an aside here that I was most interested in the musical analysis of the four-note Intel motif. The video discusses the implication of how that motif had previously surfaced in Handel's Messiah ("Rejoice, greatly") and "La Marseillaise." The only thing missing was the role those four notes play in launching the storm in Peter Grimes!

Out of the ashes of this ritual sacrifice of the concept of national-anthem-as-jingoistic-propaganda emerged a comment from Mario Ruiz that absolutely amazed me. He observed that the Spanish national anthem has no text! Now, from a strictly semantic point of view, all three of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definitions of “anthem” denote a text set to music. This reinforces the American frame of reference, where “The Star-Spangled Banner” is associated exclusively with Francis Scott Key, the composer of the text. My guess is that it would be very easy to go to a sporting event in the United States at which no one knew that the music for the anthem came from the “Anacreontick Song,” composed by John Stafford Smith, which was used to open every meeting of a British drinking club (plus ça change)!

Technicalities aside, the real "lesson" of this sermon is that Spain is on to something good. Creating a situation conducive to silent meditation as far superior to conditioning a crowd to spit out words without any reflection. Key’s first stanza is only mildly jingoistic. However, as one reads further into the text, it gets downright offensive:

Then conquer we must
For our cause it is just
And this be our motto,
"In God is our trust!"

I find in very hard to find any of JP's "dignity" in that language! It is closer to the concept of "honor" that Touchstone mocks in As You Like It!

3 comments:

Stephen Lewis said...

I agree strongly. The only anthem that passes my lips without making me wince is the old short-lived UN anthem sung on behalf of all of humanity and ending with the words "... a hymn to a new world in birth." It was sung to music composed by (if I am correct) Shostakovitch and was a wonderful bit of post-war optimism. See also my blog entry on "The House I Live In" at http://www.bubkes.org/stories/storyReader$352

Anonymous said...

Yes, I suppose you would call the last stanza of the American Anthem "offensive."

But then again perhaps you have never studied Francis Scott Key nor the War of 1812. Key was a layperson in the Episcoplian church, a highly religious man. He had just witnessed a bombardment of 25 hours, consisting of nearly 1500 rockets, cannons and bombs. His home nation was under threat of invasion and possiblly being assimilated back into its mother country, after only enjoying independence for 30 years.

Yes, I suppose I can see why you would call it "offensive."

Stephen Smoliar said...

Having paid attention to my American History lessons, I am well aware of the story behind our National Anthem. I am equally aware of a broad spectrum of opinions over the War of 1812. Most importantly, however, as you may be able to tell by reading more recent blog posts, I have recently finished watching the HBO JOHN ADAMS series. I have to wonder whether the old man might have found that last stanza to be a bit too much! (He must have had an opportunity to read the text.)