Friday, October 17, 2008

The Universality of Blue Skies and War

This month my Humanist group's movie night featured Michael Moore's latest film:Slacker Uprising. The documentary follows Moore's tour to energize the young and politically apathetic to vote for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. It is mostly a series of speeches and musical performances by Moore and other celebrities who participated in his tour's rallies.

I was most moved by Joan Baez singing "Finlandia" not least of all because she said the song was the Finnish National Anthem, and yet the lyrics talk of how the skies in other lands are as blue as in "my land" and then goes on to wish for peace in and between all nations.

Alas, Baez got it wrong. I did a search for "lyrics Finland national anthem" and kept finding a song with completely different lyrics. I then found this comment about the performance on YouTube:
Hate to put a damper on a touching performance, but not only is "Finlandia" not the national anthem of Finland, its original Finnish lyrics are in fact made up of very traditional patriotic sentiments of a small nation's struggle against tyranny.

Joan Baez is in fact singing a Methodist hymn composed to the same tune. Even us Finns can only dream of saluting our country with such universal sentiments of solidarity and peace between nations.
This disappointment aside, I contemplated the lyrics of the USA's national anthem - a beautifully-worded poem about war. Beautifully-worded poems about war are a lot like beautifully-painted art about war: they romanticize and glorify that which should never be romanticized or glorified.

Washington Crosses the Delaware byEmanuel Leautze

Ever come across the entire lyrics of Star Spangled Banner? Check 'em out. Throughout the poem, there's images of death: havoc, blood, gloom, grave. And yet these are intermingled with the ever-present and triumphant image of the waving flag (victory not only justifies the carnage, it exalts it), and the reassuring message that a Higher Power wanted the new nation to triumph and thus made it so. We end with:
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust":
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wa
O'er the land of the free an
d the home of the brave.
How reckless and arrogant must people be to assume not only that a just God favors their nation over others, but that this favoritism justifies one of the worst of man-made horrors: war.

Paintings which glorify war often do the same. They present the "good guys" in a way which makes them seem supernaturally fated in their struggle (note the glowing light around Washington as he towers above his companions) and even when there is the depiction of dead or mutilated bodies, they are prettied-up caricatures, which distance us from the disturbing realities of war violence.

Thank goodness more contemporary artists such as Francisco Goya and John Singer Sargent, and countless journalistic photographers, broke from this absurd and harmful tradition by presenting images of war as the gruesome and frightful reality that they are.

Francisco Goya,
Los Fusilamentos del 3 de mayo en Madrid

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Harvest of Death

John Singer Sargent, Gassed

As I contemplate the lyrics of my own country's national anthem, I can't help be reminded of other songs about America, and wonder if there aren't some far more appropriate than a big glorification of war and claim that God is firmly on our side for an official national anthem.

Probably the most popular is "America the Beautiful" (sung amazingly by Ray Charles.) This song, like our anthem, has a lot of beautifully-worded and descriptive poetry, but instead of being about war, it is about the landscape. And while it does mention God, at least it doesn't assume God is on America's side, but rather, it asks for blessings. Sadly, if you look at its lyrics in their entirety, not only is the song largely a prayer (not exactly a choice anthem for the most religiously diverse nation in the world - including 15% nonreligious - and the first to establish church-state separation,) but at some point it, too, romanticizes the Revolutionary War as little more than a glorious battle between victims and tyrants:
O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

Whether the Revolutionary War caused more good or ill, war is never something to celebrate, and the circumstances of war are never so purely noble, or black and white.

Back to the movie. For a liberal like me who is depressed-to-the-point-of-feeling-numb by the longterm negative impact the Bush administration's War on Terror and Iraq, watching
Slacker Uprising was more bitter than sweet. I went door to door for MoveOn in 2004 and spent all day at the polls. When I saw Philly carrying Pennsylvania for Kerry, I rejoiced and truly believed he would win. The loss just put me in a state of emotional deadness, which is how a lot of political apathy starts.

Michael Moore must have a clear understanding of the apathetic, because as the film came to a close, all those speeches and musical performances had actually got me to feel again. As if Kerry were losing the election all over again, for the first time I felt tears start to whell up in my eyes. Worse yet, while I felt sad, I also felt helpless and hopeless, and it was just at that moment that Moore ordered his audience to buck up, and with a smile on his face said,"There's no crying in politics!"

If only that were true.

But hey, even if it isn't true, hearing that made me smile instead of cry. And I signed up today to work the streets on election day. Whether there is crying in politics or not, there should always be hope.

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