[Oh say, can you see] Xenophobia in a Land of Immigrants?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed May 3 13:12:45 UTC 2006

Xenophobia in a Land of Immigrants?

By John Chuckman

"One of the important things here is that we not lose our national soul,"
	George 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.

[N.B. Le titre original de l'article a ete reduit pour des raisons
graphiques.  Le titre original est : Oh, say, can you see xenophobia in a
land of immigrants?.]


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