Sunday, December 4, 2011


Here’s something strange: neither the fans nor the players sing the national anthem at football games anymore. As a matter of fact, they don’t even bother mouthing the words. Instead, a local or national celebrity is brought in to perform an operatic (or rock, or country, or R&B) version of the national hymn while the crowd looks bored, munches hot dogs, and drinks beer. They stand, but not at attention.

This is odd to me.  I’m not overly (or underly) patriotic. I live in the US and often find myself defending incomprehensible French interests, and when I’m in France, I am always cast in the role of supporting perplexing American actions. I know the first stanzas of both the Marseillaise and Star Spangled Banner, and all in all, I really prefer the wording of the former. The imagery is quite vivid—impure enemy blood coursing French furrows and irrigating wheat and such—and the music more stirring. Francis Scott Key’s ballad, it’s widely admitted, is perhaps the most un-singable anthem of them all, even worse than, say, Italy’s  Inno di Mameli (Mameli's Hymn), or Egypt’s Biladi, Biladi, Biladi (Egypt! O mother of all lands, My hope and my ambition, How can one count The blessings of the Nile for mankind?)

When I was a kid in Paris, patriotism was a given, though in both far subtler and more obvious ways than is now current. We did not sing our anthem in school, but we learned all about its author, Rouget de Lisle, who not only wrote La Marseillaise but also served in the American Revolutionary War. We attended the giant veterans’ marches on Bastille Day, the 14th of July on the Champs Elysées and saw firsthand the wounded survivors of World War I and II. The gueules cassées, men with terrifying, war-caused disfigurements paraded down the street or were pushed in their wheelchairs by volunteers. There was no escaping the harvests of war.  The reality of conflicts was never far away—here a plaque to commemorate the execution of a hundred youths by German firing squads, there a monument to the men and women killed in a dozen conflicts. War and its aftermath, I suppose, are closer to the surface in nations that have been conquered and seen the enemies march past their homes.

Perhaps as a nation gets more diverse in its make-up, as it embraces more cultures and mores, the simple things that might originally have symbolized unity, such as a national anthem, have a tendency to become less important. I suppose this is particularly true when a oneness of language is not sought, when the most simple demands made of citizens are made not just in English but in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean or Arabic. Because lets face it, the Marseillaise would lose as much impact in English as The Star Spangled Banner would in French…

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