September 10, 2003

Independent's Man in L.A. Can't Hack America

ANDREW GUMBEL, The Independent's man in Los Angeles, may have done more to damage Anglo-American relations than any incident in recent memory with his latest essay on life in the United States.

Mr Gumbel, it would seem, does not like patriotic songs. Specifically, the patriotic songs being sung in his first-grader's elementary school classroom. These offend Mr Gumble because -- shock fury horror -- they actually portray the United States in a positive light. He finds this disturbing because to his point of view, the United States is usually in the wrong.

But let's turn to the videotape, as they say. Let's see what Mr Gumbel has to say on the matter:

Sooner or later, anyone who lives abroad reaches a defining moment when the desire to understand and fit into the foreign culture hits a brick wall of absolute resistance. In my case, living in California, it came a few weeks ago at my son's elementary school open house.

We leave it to our readers' imagination as to why Mr Gumbel did not hit this moment when he was forced to cover the recording industry for the first time, or when he was undoubtedly caught in a traffic jam on the Santa Monica Freeway, or when he was given an obscenely expensive parking ticket, or found he always had to valet-park his automobile.

The first-grade classroom was transformed into a showcase of art projects, spelling bees and mini-science workshops on the life cycle of insects. So far, so good. But then the children of Room 63 started to sing, and my internal refusal mechanism went haywire. In unison, they launched into "America I Love You": ...

We have no words to describe our fundamental incapacity to understand how any sane human being could be disturbed at this development. We mean, we have none.

Granted, I'm not a big fan of patriotic sentiment in any context. But this got my goat in ways I just couldn't shake.

Kids, this is Mr Gumbel, the trans-national socialist!

First, there was the niggly matter of historical accuracy. (What are black, Asian or Native Americans supposed to make of that line about welcoming all the races?)

We are going to give Mr Gumbel the benefit of the doubt and assume that those two sentences were written without either racial animus or sly cleverness. We are also going to say how surprised we are that the sub-editors at The Independent did not catch it. If you're wondering why we wrote that, read the above selection again. Closely.

However, to address his point: the Asian, American Indian and black children singing the line are first-graders, i.e. six years old. Hence, they probably still haven't had adults like Mr Gumbel fill their heads with empty nonsense yet!

One also had to question the dubious taste of singing about a "do or die land" in the wake of a controversial war in Iraq that many parents in our liberal corner of Santa Monica had passionately opposed.

No, one does not have to question it. It's a children's song. CHIL-DREN'S SONG.

What really riled me, though, was that the song had absolutely nothing to do with education. The words were lousy, and the music wasn't a lot better. It bore no relation to the rest of the classwork on display. So what was it doing there? I might have understood better if my son's teacher were some raving flag-waving patriot, but she isn't. She, and the other parents, beamed proudly and generally acted as if the song were a normal part of the American school experience.

Mr Gumbel -- please take note that you're living in Santa Monica, Calif. You are living in a city where the people are considered flaky and weird by other Los Angeles-area residents. If the other parents don't have any problems with it, maybe you ought not have any problems with it either.

Which, as I quickly discovered, it is. Patriotic songs are sung up and down classrooms at Grant Elementary, just as they are at every other school in the land. Mostly, they go without challenge or critical examination.

Well, having lived in the United States for 27 years compared to Mr Gumbel's five, we'd say they always go without challenge or critical examination, except when some moron foreign correspondent decides he wants to write a feature.

In third grade, for example, the daughter of a friend of mine merrily sang her way through "It's a Grand Old Flag", which includes the lines: "Every heart beats true/'neath the Red, White and Blue, /Where there's never a boast or brag ..." Her father, an old Sixties radical who doesn't like to keep quiet about these things, gently asked her when they got home whether the whole song wasn't in fact a boast and a brag. His daughter went very quiet as she thought through the implications of his question. Challenging received wisdom in this way is something she never encounters in the classroom.

She's in third-grade, you wretched old fool. She can challenge received wisdom when she's a teenager, like everyone else.

Even after five years in the United States, I continue to be surprised by the omnipresence of patriotic conformism. This phenomenon long predates 11 September. When my son started playing baseball this year, he and his friends were made to recite the Little League pledge which begins: "I trust in God. I love my country and respect its laws." What has that got to do with sportsmanship?

What does your essay have to do with journalism? Oh, and for that matter, last time we checked, the United States did not force youngsters to Take Part in the National Pastime. If you don't want him to take part in a privately-sanctioned baseball league with rules that have been in place since God knows when, don't have him play.

When, a few weeks later, he and I went to see our first ball game at Dodger Stadium, I was flabbergasted all over again when the crowd rose to sing the national anthem. This was just a routine game, not an international fixture. So what was with all the flag-waving?

The man has been in country five years, yet had not, apparently, attended one single professional sporting event before that game. (Not even an NFL game, which is really how you learn about America, but never mind). We can deduce that because the national anthem is sung before every game in every major sport. It's tradition.

But what, we wonder, would Mr Gumbel think when he learned that at routine contests between U.S. and Canadian teams, they play both "O Canada" and "The Star-Spangled Banner?"

There's more to it, of course; it is a lengthy essay. All of it, to use the common American expression, is crap. We here at The Rant are not amused in the slightest. In fact, we are rather appalled. We feel it unjustly slanders our great nation. We further feel that it would be no different than if we moved to Britain, and wrote that the people there were all skinny-toothed pasty-faced materialistic atheist alcoholic old-thinking Keynesian demand-siders. Which is, of course, not true.

But enough. We figure that if Mr Gumbel gets ticked off at patriotic songs, we may as well give him one to be ticked off about:

by Julia Ward Howe

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Chew on that, Mr Gumbel. Chew on that!

(link via Tim Blair)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at September 10, 2003 12:18 AM | TrackBack

Awesome. 8)

Poor Mr. Gumbel.

Posted by: Kevin White at September 10, 2003 04:48 AM

Yes, it's so shocking that they play the (insert country name) national anthem at (insert national sport) games!
I'd like Mr Gumbel to go to Argentina and tell them they can't play their national anthem at soccer games. The reception there should be... interesting.

Posted by: Jon at September 10, 2003 04:02 PM

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Posted by: Haleh at September 13, 2003 01:45 AM