A Yankee Notebook, Columns

What in Hell is Going on Here?

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – It’s often characterized as a British officers’ drinking song, but it’s hardly that. “The Anacreontic Song” was the official song of an 18th-century club of London “wealthy men of social rank” that met monthly for banquets, musical performances, and group singing. Their patron saint, if you can call him that, was Anacreon, an ancient Greek poet known for his drinking songs and odes to romance. The club dissolved in 1792 after the Duchess of Devonshire attended a meeting. Members began resigning in embarrassment at the racy lyrics to which the duchess had been exposed. Imagine, if you will, the horror of it!

Forward about twenty years. The fledgling United States is again at war with Great Britain. A prominent Southern lawyer (from a formerly prominently Loyalist family), Francis Scott Key, was sent to the British fleet to negotiate the release of American hostages, and was detained overnight while the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. At daylight, the sleepless Key spotted the stars and stripes of the American flag still “gallantly streaming” over the fort, which inspired him (he was an amateur poet) to write “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” The patriotic poem quickly became popular, and was shortly set to music, lamentably that of the Anacreontic Song, with its impossible range and penultimate measure and high note very few can achieve handily. Some 117 years later, in 1931, it was adopted as the United States’ national anthem, to the everlasting distress of those who assay to sing it. As a side note, it’s now in some circles considered unpatriotic not to sing it, or at least try to.

Francis Key, a slave-holding district attorney, cradle Episcopalian, prominent member of the American Bible Society, and sometime prosecutor of “abolitionist(s), according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the negro,” wrote four verses of the “Defence.’” The first and fourth aren’t bad; the second and third are, to be kind, execrable. But the last line, repeated in all of them, is meant to stir the stoniest bosom of any patriotic American.

“O’er the land of the Free, and the home of the Brave.” How lustily we sang those words as kids, and with the battles of the Second World War dominating the news, devoutly believed them, too. We were one of a kind – brave and invincible. Our subsequent victories on opposite sides of the globe only affirmed that.

It appears that we’re still one of a kind, but nowadays a kind that lives in such existential fear that we keep loaded firearms handy in our houses and on our persons to protect ourselves from imagined dangers and insults. Just this past week, in four separate and widely scattered incidents, homeowners have injured or killed innocent people whom they apparently perceived as threats. A child chasing an errant basketball, a car pulling into a wrong driveway by mistake, a cheerleader opening the door of car she’d mistaken for her family’s, a teenager on an errand to pick up his kid brother ringing the doorbell at the wrong address. They were all met with gunfire and at least wounded; one was killed.

Pete Buttigieg (how I wish he had a chance in a general election!) has it right: If more guns make us safer, the United States ought to be the safest country in the world. Clearly it isn’t; and in the aftermath of one deadly shooting after another, firearm sales continue to rise. The solution so many of us seem to be gravitating to flies in the face of logic and common sense. What in hell is going on here?

I daresay most mature citizens of the home of the brave consider themselves immune to propaganda and misdirection. They may not have heard of the brilliant success of Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany. He believed that any lie, repeated often enough by apparently responsible spokespersons, becomes a popular truth. It’s estimated that between his lies and Heinrich Himmler’s death camps, the Nazi Party was responsible for the murders of over 12,000,000 people.

Some of our political leaders have been putting worms into the American apple for decades. All of us have problems. Ronald Reagan told us that our government was responsible; Donald Trump has expanded on the theme: “They” are out to get us, and they’re attacking me to do it. The gun lobby’s patsies, ever fearful of a sudden attack by an evildoer or, perhaps worse, embarrassment at not being able to protect themselves in a mugging, stalk our supermarkets and coffee shops armed for deadly firefights. We’ve become afraid of our fellow citizens – in effect, of our own shadows. Can you imagine, in this current atmosphere, being a door-to-door pollster, census-taker, or Fuller Brush man? It’s time to retire not only the terrible tune of our national anthem, but the words, as well. The home of the brave is now a fortified castle. If I may suggest an alternative to lyrics so obviously out of date, at least we’ve still got lots of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.

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