Friday, February 20, 2009

National Anthems and Patriotism

When I first moved to Canada, co-workers and other new acquaintances liked to quiz me (see my Jan. 12 post), and one of the questions I was asked more than once was whether I knew the Canadian national anthem O Canada. As with the other questions, I assured them that I would not move to a new country without doing my research first. Sarah and I actually taught ourselves O Canada a couple of years before we moved here.

Many moons ago when I was in junior high, I read a story about a black American who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He did not feel that he could say the words “liberty and justice for all” because he didn’t believe that liberty and justice existed for all Americans. I never forgot that story or the feelings of admiration I had for him standing up for his beliefs even at the risk of appearing “unpatriotic.” Years later in the late 1990s, when I realized that I myself was a second-class citizen in the US, I refused to say the Pledge as well, on the few occasions it was recited, for the same reason. Naturally, my refusal to sing The Star Spangled Banner soon followed as I could not convince myself to say “the land of the free” without following that line by belting out a sarcastic “and the home of the STRAIGHT.” I decided it was best to sing nothing at all. And, if I could do it without appearing too disrespectful, I would go get a beer or popcorn just before the anthem was to start to avoid the situation altogether.

When GW Bush came into office, followed by the Iraq war, followed by the fortification of the “patriotic” and anti-gay conservative “christians” [intentional lowercase as I don’t believe that a majority of christians actually follow the teachings of Christ], The Star Spangled Banner became even more sinister in my eyes as all things considered patriotic became tools of the conservative right.

Knowing O Canada came in handy many a time while we were still living in the US, especially at AHL and NHL hockey games between Canadian and US teams. Because we had already been approved to immigrate to Canada, we felt somewhat Canadian ourselves, we were happy to join in the song. At events where a large number of Canadians and Americans were present, I noticed a huge difference in the way the songs were sung by the respective citizens. Americans would belt out the Banner with loud voices, teary eyes, hands on hearts, and blatant pride. Canadians sang their anthem with quieter and softer voices that I firmly believe conveyed affection rather than pride. Perhaps it is the key and tonality of the songs that makes them come across differently. Certainly the lyrics (the Banner a song about fighting a war, and O Canada (English lyrics) a song about love of and commitment to country) support my observation.

The pride patriotism vs. affection patriotism dichotomy can actually be seen on many levels. I don’t know if pride is a always bad thing, but it certainly is one of the seven deadly sins (affection is not). Unbridled pride leads to culturocentrism, selfishness, assumed invincibility, and the belief of superiority, all of which have been exhibited often by the US, especially in the past few years. Even the difference in an ordinary expression of patriotism, bumper stickers, substantiates this cultural difference. American flags paired with bold, capitalized lettering declaring that the driver is “PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN” are usual as are “GOD BLESS AMERICA” and “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN.” Canadians are not prone to slapping their opinions on their vehicles, so bumper stickers aren’t as common. But, I couldn’t help but laugh the first time I saw a patriotic bumper sticker on a car in Kitchener that looked like it was designed by a 10 year old! It was glittery, covered with cartoonish hearts and said “Canada." I actually found one of these and bought it and the scan is below.

In July of 2008, weeks before Sarah first moved to Canada, we attended a Toronto FC soccer game in Chicago. We sat with the TFC fans who are widely known for their exuberance. As is customary, before the game began, the away team’s national anthem was played first. We sang our hearts out with our neighbors in the stands knowing that they would soon be our actual neighbors. However, regardless of how loud we sang, O Canada is the type of song that just cannot sound aggressive or forceful—again, the affection came out in all of our voices. Next up was The Star Spangled Banner. I thought the Chicago fans would really sing loudly to try to show us up. Instead, a crackly and quiet version of the anthem began playing through the stadium’s loudspeaker system. No one was singing along. Some of the Canadians around me looked at each other and said, “Wow, they’re not singing. We should help them out!” Before I knew it, the whole section of TFC fans was belting out The Star Spangled Banner. When it finished, I overheard someone nearby remark, “Hmpf, they didn’t sing our anthem!” Someone else replied, “Well, they don’t know the words, eh?!”

I found myself actually quite embarrassed that the Canadians knew the US anthem, but I also knew that what I’d just overheard was correct—the Americans don’t know more than the first two words of O Canada. There’s probably a logical explanation for this discrepancy, such as Canadians hear The Star Spangled Banner more often than Americans hear O Canada (NHL=24 US teams + 6 Canadian teams; Major League Baseball=29 US teams + 1 Canadian team, etc., etc.) However, I still believe that Americans are so proud that they don’t have the inclination to pay that much attention to or learn that much about their neighboring countries. And, after the game, which Chicago won, some disdainful Chicago fans were heard telling the TFC fans that the loss showed that they “shouldn't be singing other countries’ national anthems!”

(We did find out later that the reason that The Star Spangled Banner was so poor quality on the loudspeaker system and the likely reason that no one was signing was because it was the debut of a disabled person’s computer-generated voice singing. We TFC fans did not know this. However, I think the same events may have transpired in any case.)

Earlier this month, Sarah and I made the trek to Joe Louis Arena to see the Detroit Red Wings play the Edmonton Oilers. She and I both sang O Canada. Neither of us sang The Star Spangled Banner. As much as I’ve been adamant that I will not contribute to the propaganda of patriotism and the fallacies in the anthem by singing it, I still felt a bit of guilt because I actually do feel some affection (ironically) for the US. I truly don’t hate the US—I feel horribly betrayed, disillusioned, and disenfranchised by the country of my birth, but I believe in what the US was meant to be.

Well, any feelings of guilt I had didn’t last too long. After the game, Sarah and I decided to walk back to our car by way of the walkway along the Detroit River, as we have done many times. We stopped, as we always do, at the statue along the riverwalk that is part of the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad. The statue, by Ed Dwight, is called “Gateway to Freedom” and depicts a group of slaves pointing to Windsor, Ontario. Clearly my life as a second-class citizen in the US was nothing compared to what the lives of slaves was like, but I can’t help feeling somewhat of a kindred spirit in that the people in the sculpture are pointing across the river almost directly to the building where Sarah and I were married in Windsor. The sculpture's counterpart, “Tower of Freedom,” is in Windsor just blocks from where Sarah and I were married and depicts Canadians welcoming and helping the newly-arrived escaped slaves. A picture of me by the statue is here, and you can see other pictures by doing a simple Internet search or by going to .

I will always be grateful for the freedoms given to me by Canada, and I will always sing O Canada with affection! Whether I’ll ever be able to bring myself to sing The Star Spangled Banner again remains to be seen.

For my American friends reading this post, you might want to take note of the lyrics below—you might need to know them someday!

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

No comments: