Monday, May 01, 2006

I'd like to teach the world to sing "Nuestro Himno"

(Originally posted at The Carpetbagger Report. This version has been modified.)

Should America's national anthem only be sung in English? Or is, say, a Spanish version acceptable? That's what the recent debate over the anthem is really all about. It's an offshoot of the debate over illegal immigration, but, more to the point, it's about how America conceives of itself as a nation. In other words, it's about identity.

The new Spanish version is known as "Nuestro Himno". According to
The New York Times, it "was released on Friday as part of the growing immigrants' rights movement".

The backlash has come from far and wide, but let's start in the Rose Garden, where (the bilingual and Latino-vote courter) President Bush said this: "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."

I'll dispense with the first point, which has little to do with the second. Yes, prospective citizens of any country should speak the language(s) of that country. Community depends on communication, after all, and a healthy civic society is impossible where its members can't communicate with one another in even the most basic ways. Whatever its legal status, English is the language of the United States. I would expect people to be able to speak it, just as I would expect Canadians to be able to speak English and/or French. When I lived in Germany as a teenager, I was expected to speak German. And I did.

But what about the anthem? This is a tougher question. On the one hand, every political community needs its inviolable symbols. The flag, for example. It would make little sense for a national flag to be subject to individual self-expression. Think of Grandpa Simpson's 49-star flag. He simply refused to recognize Missouri. On this basis, shouldn't The Star Spangled Banner always be sung in English and with its original lyrics?

Perhaps in its official capacity (at the Olympics, for example), but it seems to me that the spirit of "Nuestro Himno" is quite American indeed. As our co-blogger Vivek K.
put it the other day: "Since when did America become an ethnic nation defined in terms of a dominant linguistic group, rather than a land built on the grand ideas of freedom and liberty? (After all, the Founding Fathers toyed with the idea of making German the official language so that the linguistic memory of English tyranny would be erased from the young nation.)"

America should be a strong enough political community to withstand diverse expressions of its national symbols, including its anthem. I'm concerned when the lyrics are translated loosely or otherwise changed, but surely different communities should be permitted to sing the anthem in their own language. Besides, does President Bush intend to make it a federal offence to sing the anthem in Spanish? Consider how such a nativist pander would be received anywhere outside the America-first fanbase of a
Michelle Malkin. (Although I do not mean to paint all conservatives this way -- see, for example, my friend Sister Toldjah, with whom I often disagree but whom I respect greatly).

If you want political communities based on language, which seems to be what these conservatives want, go (ironically enough) to France, where citizenship and nationhood have historically been defined in such terms. (To be French, you need to know French and to assimilate into French culture.) America, lest we forget, is a political community based on ideas, on political philosophy. As long as new Americans and prospective citizens accept the grand ideas of liberty and democracy that form the core of the American experiment in self-governance, and as long as they are able to communicate with their fellow Americans, why not let them wave the flag and proudly sing the anthem in their own native languages?

Simply put, America transcends language. So should its anthem.


As you may know, the Canadian anthem is sung officially (so to speak) in English, in French, and in both. Given our own long and tumultuous history with language, given the deep linguistic divisions within our federation, I wonder how the Quebecois would feel if, say, the anthem were sung in English and Italian. Or how we Anglophones would feel if it were sung in French and Chinese. Would we feel anything at all? Would it matter?

I wonder.

Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment

<< Home