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July Froth
Our Star-Fanged Bomber

Spiraling out of control

Asked by a reporter last year if he thought the American national anthem would have the same value in Spanish as it does in English, Mr. Bush said, flatly: “No I don’t, because 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.” It’s not that he doesn’t have a faint point somewhere on both counts. It is the national anthem, but English isn’t quite the national language, nor is there an inalienable reason why people who want to be citizens should speak English. Must Swiss citizens, in whose country French, German, Italian and Romansch are all national languages, speak all four? Early settlers, whether Slavs, Scandinavians, German or French, certainly didn’t feel compelled to learn the local language. That didn’t stop them from being mythical-sized, hero-worshipped pioneers we see them as today.

Besides, isn’t it the height of nationalistic flattery to have one’s anthem translated? Wouldn’t Bush want the Star-Spangled Banner translated in every language possible? Maybe then fewer nations would hear it as the Star-Fanged Bomber. Besides, isn’t music a universal language, hummable whatever the language and national origin of the hummer?

We all know the story of how Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the anthem. It was September 14, 1814. The War of 1812 was in its third year. Key, was aboard the HMS Tonnant, a British vessel, negotiating the release of an American hostage (Hezbollah has nothing on those Brits) while the Brits were bombing Fort McHenry near Baltimore. Either legend or Key’s projected illusions have it that the American flag kept flying through it all, even though it was a nighttime bombardment and Key couldn’t possibly see rags from ripples. But so goes nationalistic myth-making. Key turned his anti-Brit hatred into song, though we seldom hear the nastiest of his verses these days (“Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution”), and an anthem was half-born. Only half, because it wasn’t until the 1890s that the military took a shine to it on official occasions, and not until 1931 that Congress enshrined it as the national anthem.

These days, it sounds more like a bombastic call to arms, more Mussolinesque than Jeffersonian. So on this July 4, maybe it’s just as well to give a listen to the Internationale, that easily, freely and happily translated anthem that did, after all, say all the right things (even if those who used it did all the wrong things).

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