x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Oh say can you see, why so proudly we hail our national anthems?

The NFL kneeling controversy has stirred fierce debate in America. Colin Randall investigates the sometimes thorny history of patriotic music

Indianapolis Colts players kneel during the playing of the US national anthem earlier this month. Brian Spurlock / USA Today
Indianapolis Colts players kneel during the playing of the US national anthem earlier this month. Brian Spurlock / USA Today

If there is a single act that stirs more indignation among loyal citizens of any country than burning or otherwise defiling its flag, it is showing perceived disrespect for the national anthem.

People quarrel over classical symphonies, rock and rap. But it is national anthems that cause, the world over, some of the fiercest arguments about music.

The capacity of patriotic compositions to arouse competing emotions has again been demonstrated, in the United States. Witness the furore over some black athletes sitting or kneeling, rather than standing, when The Star Spangled Banner is played before National Football League games.

For the players concerned, this did not amount to disrespect for flag or country. In the vaunted land of the free, they wished freely to register concern about issues of race and justice.

An undeniably divisive president, Donald Trump, sees it differently. He says NFL teams should fire anyone making such a gesture.

Controversies over the marches and hymns that typically represent nations in musical form are as old as anthems themselves. Commonly regarded as the first, the Wilhelmus dates from 1572 even if it was not officially adopted by the Netherlands until 1932. Just as today’s football supporters adapt rivals’ songs (Liverpool and Celtic fans, for example, with their versions of You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Fields of Athenry), 16th-century Dutch protestants had hijacked an anti-Protestant French song and made it their own.

In general, anthems command respect. No one attending an event where the UAE’s Ishy Biladi (Long Live My Nation) is performed doubts its importance not only to Emiratis but also to others who have made the country their home.

The anthem, marking the foundation of the UAE on December 2, 1971, was intended by its Egyptian composer, Saad Abdel Wahab, as an instrumental. Lyrics were added by the Dubai poet, writer and imam Dr Aref Al Sheikh years later.

Other national songs divide opinion, sometimes in surprising ways. Many loyal British subjects are unimpressed by God Save the Queen and would prefer Jerusalem, with the poet William Blake’s uplifting references to “England’s green and pleasant land”, or Land of Hope and Glory in its place. By contrast, a committed socialist friend of mine has stood dutifully from girlhood when it is played before Queen Elizabeth’s traditional Christmas Day televised speech.

God Save the Queen is not embraced by all in the UK. Scottish supporters prefer to sing their own Flower of Scotland, a contemporary folk song, at sporting events. Now the Scots’ de facto anthem, it may herald a victory by Scotland’s Robert the Bruce, over an English monarch, Edward II, at the 1314 battle of Bannockburn. But that has not stopped the queen’s daughter Anne, the Princess Royal, singing heartily along at rugby games, her excuse being that she is the patron of Scottish Rugby.

With evocative force, as if hundreds of male voice choirs were singing in harmony, Welsh rugby supporters belt out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. The anthem, better known as Land of My Fathers, also serves when translated to other Gaelic forms the English county of Cornwall and France’s Brittany, both regions rather than countries. There were raised eyebrows in the past, but few in the UK now object passionately to the choices made by the Scottish and Welsh. Indeed, Jerusalem is the official anthem or hymn of England rugby, cricket and Commonwealth Games teams.

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There are anthems that people of all nationalities seem to love. The appeal of the glorious melody and thundering chorus of La Marseillaise reaches many with little or no French. Some are disconcerted when learning of its intensely warlike lyrics, the chorus ending with an exhortation the barbarians of ISIL would relish: “Let an impure blood soak our fields.”

Yet in France, not everyone warms to the bold patriotic theme. French-born football supporters of Maghrebin origin have whistled in contempt when it is played before internationals between France and Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Conservative French viewers become agitated when sportsmen representing France, but having roots in the Caribbean, Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa, struggle with the words or remain silent. Watching the lips has become almost a national sport in itself.

What this leads to is a question that seems straightforward enough but provokes the angriest of exchanges. Does it really matter if some people are uncomfortable with their anthems and give vent to their feelings?

The answer would have been simpler up to a few decades ago. The movement of people, whether to escape conflict or in search of better lives, complicates matters.

If the West wishes to be seen as a bastion of free expression, it may need to rise above demands for anthems to be blindly observed as if no grievances existed.

French-Algerians feel as entitled to view with disgust the methods France used when clinging to North African colonies as are the French to deplore the appalling terrorism carried out in the cause of independence and with other motives since.

Each nation makes choices on how much dissent it will tolerate. From the outside, we may disapprove and even lobby if repression occurs, while ultimately having to acknowledge sovereign rights.

But a country that proclaims itself leader of the free world, lecturing others for failing to match its lofty ideals, cannot have it both ways.

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The US sports broadcaster Dale Hansen, a Vietnam war veteran, is damned by Trump supporters for his liberal views, but has encapsulated this sentiment in a video clip seen by hundreds of thousands. He points out that the president has spoken “against Mexicans who want to come to America for a better life, against the Muslims and now against the black athletes”.

“But he says nothing for days about the white men who marched under a Nazi flag in Charlottesville except to remind us there were good people there. And when he finally tries to say the right thing, not one of them was called an SOB or [told he] should be fired.”

America’s forefathers, he said, made freedom of speech the first of their constitution’s 10 amendments, none imposing an obligation to stand for the anthem.

“Those men,” Hansen said, “respected the country they fought for and founded a great deal more than self-proclaimed patriots who are simply hypocrites because they want to deny the basic freedom of the great country they supposedly value and cherish.”

Hansen’s words are persuasive. They might be more persuasive still with one logical addition: that freedom extends to the right of people to take offence if they feel their anthem is gratuitously and disloyally insulted.