Xenophobia in a Land of Immigrants

“One of the important things here is that we not lose our national soul.”

George W. Bush

Was George Bush speaking of some truly shattering event in American affairs? Perhaps the imprisonment and torture of thousands of innocent people? Perhaps the lack of democratic legitimacy in his own coming to power?

No, what Bush was describing is a version of the American national anthem in Spanish – Nuestro Himno (Our Anthem) – which was played on American Hispanic radio and television stations recently.

Now, in many countries with multi-ethnic populations, most people would see this as charming and flattering. Canada’s anthem has two official versions, French and English, and were a group of immigrants to offer it in Ukrainian or Mandarin, most Canadians would be tickled. It would undoubtedly be featured on CBC.

But in America, the broadcast of a Spanish version of The Star Spangled Banner has aroused a somewhat different response. Charles Key, great great grandson of Francis Scott, offered the immortal words, “I think it’s despicable thing that someone is going into our society from another country and changing our national anthem.”

“This is evoking spirited revulsion on the part of fair-minded Americans,” offered John Teeley, representative of one of innumerable private propaganda mills in Washington commonly dignified as think-tanks. Mr. Teeley continued, “You are talking about something sacred and iconic in the American culture. Just as we wouldn’t expect people to change the colors of the national flag, we wouldn’t expect people to fundamentally change the anthem and rewrite it in a foreign language.”

A foreign language? There are roughly thirty-million Spanish speakers in the United States. The analysis here is interesting: an immigrant singing an anthem in his own language resembles someone changing the national flag. This argument does, perhaps unintentionally, reveal the real concern: Hispanics are changing our country, and we don’t like it.

So it is not surprising that the American low-life constituency’s political and moral hero, George Bush, should declare: “I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English, and I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English.”

Never mind that the American Constitution says nothing about language. Never mind that waves of immigrants from Europe about a hundred years ago founded countless private schools and cultural institutions in the United States where German or Italian or Hebrew were the languages used and promoted. Never mind that after a generation or two, minority immigrants always end up adopting the language of the majority, something which is close to an economic necessity. And never mind that xenophobia in a land of immigrants should have no place.

An entertaining historical note here is that Francis Scott Key did not write the important part of The Star Spangled Banner, its music. Key wrote a breast-swelling amateurish poem whose words were fitted to an existing song. The existing song, as few Americans know, was an English song, To Anachreon in Heaven, a reference to a Greek poet whose works concern amour and wine. The Star Spangled Banner, in any version, only began playing a really prominent role in America during my lifetime, that is, with the onset of the Cold War. In Chicago public schools during the early 1950s, we sang My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, another breast-sweller, written not many years after Key’s, by another amateur poet, Samuel Smith, sung to the music of the British national anthem, God Save the King.

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone in an advanced country that things change, and they change at increasing rates. Even in the remote possibility, a century or two from now, Spanish or some blend of Spanish and English were to become the dominant language of the United States, what would it matter to today’s angry and intolerant people? After all, the English language came from another land, and it grew out of centuries of change from Latin to early versions of German and French layered onto the language of Celtic people.

Throughout history, fascism is closely associated with xenophobia, but then we find many other unpleasant aspects of fascism – from illegal spying to recording what people read in libraries, from torture to illegal invasion – feature in George Bush’s America.

JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Ontario.



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John Chuckman lives in Canada.

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