July 14, 2012

Bastille Day: What we could learn from France

Rouget de Lisle, composer of La Marseillaise, sings it for the first time./Wiki
KMFA, the classical radio station in Austin, reminded me it was Bastille Day today by playing a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. This one was by Hector Berlioz, with  soloist and chorus, even a children's chorus for the "children's verse," and is simply excellent.

Has there ever been a modern national anthem quite like it? Yes, The Star Spangled Banner can sound more martial, God Save the Queen/King more stately and O Canada more ... "spiritual"?

But, none of them is as stirring as La Marseillaise. And none tells the story of creating a modern republican nation.

The call to "citizens." The resistance to invasion and monarchs/tyrants.

And, the French Revolution's background of "liberty, equality, fraternity."

The U.S. Founding Fathers, certainly those of the Constitution, focused on only the first of those three words. Even Jefferson, with his Jeffersonian yeoman farmers, wasn't exactly interested in too much fraternity, and certainly not in equality for non-white folks.

Indeed, for those whites, even (and just males at that, of course), the first real de facto nod toward equality and fraternity had to wait until the time of Andrew Jackson.

And, the legal nods toward that, and for blacks, at least (Indians still not in the mix) had to wait until Lincoln and then the three great post-Civil War amendments.

However, equality and fraternity still have a sometimes precarious purchase in the American social psyche.

Many Americans deny the existence of socioeconomic classes in our country,  even as study after study shows less social and income mobility exists here than in old Europe. Fraternity? An Ivy League degree sets you apart, no matter your political leanings. (That's not to say that France and Britain, at least, don't still have some issues with this today, too.) We're well behind Scandanavia, Holland, and some other European countries on these two issues.

And yet, the myth gets peddled, in part as part of the larger myth of American exceptionalism, that we're doing just fine on these two words, to the degree we think about them at all.

We're not.


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