Remember the laughs the slippery slope argument about used to generate among liberals?
When Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues were being removed across the South over the past few years, conservatives protested not out of any great love for the Confederacy — its been 155 years now and we’re all pretty happy it’s gone, I’d like to think — there was a worry that, if problematic figures of the past were going to canceled, it was only a matter of time before we started applying the standards of today to the giants of yesteryear, people like Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.
“Thomas Jefferson?! Guffaw, guffaw!” we’d hear from some random politico or late-night comedian. “Yeah, OK. They’re coming for George Washington, guys! Can you believe these wingnuts? We still say wingnuts, right?”
Washington and Jefferson aren’t the only targets anymore. Now, it’s the national anthem.
The laughs were forgotten this spring and summer when the cancel culture actually came for Jefferson (a slaveowner), Washington (same) and Teddy Roosevelt (he wasn’t particularly fond of Native Americans). The argument: Times had changed. This was the great reckoning with our past sins — which we knew about before, but thanks to the events of the past few months, we really know about them now.
With all due respect to the memory of Mr. George Floyd and those who took to the streets to ask for justice for his death — amid a panoply of other issues — this is the very definition of the slippery slope.
So they came for George Washington — inarguably the greatest American in history — and Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence. It became clear to conservatives this was hardly the end. No part of Americana that didn’t pass the wokeness test of the new far left — the only moral generation of political activists and thinkers that has ever lived — would be permitted to remain without heavy shade being thrown in its direction.
All of which is to say that one of America’s most respected newspapers has published a piece arguing “The Star-Spangled Banner” needs to go.
Jody Rosen, in the first paragraph of a Tuesday Los Angeles Times piece that bids adieu to the national anthem, begins with a profoundly unflattering description of Francis Scott Key’s sculpture in Golden Gate Park — a statue that no longer exists because the mob decided it shouldn’t be occupying space there.
“The Francis Scott Key monument in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is one of those old-fashioned pieces of public art that, shall we say, lays it on thick. It is imposing and fussy, a 52-foot-tall chunk of travertine and marble loaded up with classical trimmings,” Rosen wrote.
“There’s a fluted colonnade, four eagles with majestically fanned-out wings, swags and stars, and, at the very top of the big pile, the figure of Columbia, the traditional female personification of the United States, clutching an American flag.”
Apparently, Carl Andre wasn’t available for the commission, so we got this meretricious representation of Francis Scott Key instead.
There’s a bit of scarcely contained delight the statue is no more (“On June 20, protesters lassoed the statue with ropes, heaved and hoed, and down came Key, somersaulting off the pediment, head o’er heels”), an explication of the fact Key was indeed a slaveowner and there’s a contentious verse buried deep in the song that almost nobody sings: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”
(The meaning of this line is hotly debated by historians, many of whom argue “slave” was an insult to the British as opposed to a description of actual slaves.)
The L.A. Times’ article is, given the number of words apportioned to it, an impressive catalogue of every. single. thing. Key did that qualifies as morally awful by the standards of July 2020.
So now that the anthem is canceled, what do we replace it with?
“The writer and critic Kevin Powell proposed John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’ (Powell called it ‘the most beautiful, unifying, all-people, all-backgrounds-together kind of song you could have.’),” Rosen reports. “’Imagine’ is less stodgy than ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but it’s no less British, and I’m not sure that its drippy utopianism — a multi-millionaire’s daydream of a world with ‘no possessions’ — strikes the apt note.”
I’m also not sure the line “Imagine there’s no heaven / no religion, too” will go over that well in a country where Gallup found in a 2017 survey that only 21.8 percent had no religious affiliation. Uniting! I don’t think that anyone’s going to be belting that one out before the Super Bowl, not even if they got Gal Godot to sing it.
Oh, speaking of problematic individuals, Lennon was also known to abuse his romantic partners and children. This was far more recently, mind you, when this definitely wasn’t a cultural norm. If Rosen cares about this, it goes unmentioned.
“Then there are the usual suspects, from the canon of American civic-secular hymns,” Rosen writes. “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ the poem written in 1900 by the Black writer and activist James Weldon Johnson and set to music five years later by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, has an impeccable pedigree and centers the Black experience in the national story.”
The problem? Apparently, for a song written 120 years ago, “‘Lift Every Voice’ is out of step with the 21st century, with a prim melody redolent of Victorian light opera and a lyric sheet full of antiquated poesy.” Until Miley Cyrus brings poesy back, that one’s out of the running.
Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is also out, according to Rosen, because — I so wish I were making this up — “its uncomplicated patriotism (‘God bless America / Land that I love / Stand beside her / And guide her’) doesn’t wash in 2020.”
And then there’s the hard-left’s horse in this race, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” But no, even Woody’s out of step with the times: “Yet Guthrie’s song has its own blind spots: to indigenous Americans, the refrain ‘This land belongs to you and me’ may sound less like an egalitarian vision than a settler-colonialist manifesto.”
Even. Woody. Guthrie. isn’t woke enough. Let that marinate for a bit.
Rosen’s choice? “‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers.” a song he admits is “not, explicitly at least, a song about America.”
“The song’s exalted status has been underscored in recent months. In the early weeks of the coronavirus lockdown, quarantining residents of New York and Dallas sang ‘Lean on Me’ at their apartment windows to pay tribute to essential workers,” Rosen wrote.
“The song has been inescapable during the Black Lives Matter protests, sung by demonstrators across the country, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Orlando to Morgantown, W.Va., from New Jersey to Tennessee to Missouri to Illinois.”
And so on. The article quickly moves into Bill Withers hagiography, which would actually be fine under normal circumstances — Bill Withers is one of the great, underrated artists of the past century, after all. He’s an American icon.
That said, he didn’t write a song that will become our next national anthem — not that we’ll have a next national anthem. For that matter, his song has nothing to do with America. If a song moves you and you can plug it into a temporal context in American history, that doesn’t make it American. It just makes it on-the-nose, at least in that context.
The kind of person who wants the national anthem replaced for the reasons Rosen does would be well advised to go with “American Idiot” by Green Day. Why not? It summarizes their points quite nicely: It’s a song about the bovine, jingoistic average ‘Murican, the kind who would get angry about the protesters who sent the Key statue “somersaulting off the pediment, head o’er heels” and who want to replace the national anthem. It sums up how those who want to replace the national anthem feel about the other half. I’m guessing that has about as much chance of happening as “Lean on Me,” but I figured I’d throw it out there.
However, the problem with all of these songs is that, much like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and all of the other rejected replacements, they’ll age the same way our current national anthem has. Time marches on and mores change, and not necessarily in a linear fashion. We can still be united around the national anthem while acknowledging some elements of the life of Francis Scott Key are considered abhorrent today. In 200 years, Bill Withers might meet the same fate.
Either way, the message is plain — for those who laughed at conservatives over the idea the slippery slope would ever reach Washington and Jefferson, it’s gone far beyond that. We shouldn’t be surprised The Great Reckoning™ is now lurching its way toward the ultimate symbol of unity and patriotism.
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