Let’s stop singing that silly song at Baccalaureate

By Walter Hatch, Associate Professor of Government and Director of Oak Institute for Human Rights

I haven’t attended the Baccalaureate for several years. Well, I do show up when it’s over to help form the friendly faculty gauntlet hailing graduates as they march back to Miller. I really enjoy that opportunity to show my great respect for the hard work and achievements of Colby seniors. But I no longer can bring myself to sit through the ceremony.

It’s that song: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

Why does an institution that justifiably prides itself on globalism and multiculturalism require (or at least expect) students and faculty, many of them non-Americans, to stand and sing such a jingoistic and historically tone-deaf song?  I understand that the man who penned the lyrics, Samuel Francis Smith, once taught at Waterville College. Whoop-de-doo. I also understand that he wrote them in 1831, when our “sweet land of liberty” still allowed whites to own black people as slaves. He wrote them when our “land of the pilgrims’ pride” was pushing 100,000 Native Americans out of their ancestral villages to make room for European-American cotton farmers.

Yes, times have changed—often for the better. But has the United States really become a beacon of “freedom’s holy light” in the world? During the Cold War, the U.S. backed some of the most brutal military dictatorships on earth; now it props up the authoritarian regime of Saudi Arabia. In just the past dozen years, the U.S. has illegally invaded another country; it has tortured detainees; it has mobilized armored vehicles and other military equipment against its own citizens; it has restricted the voting rights of poor people and even college students; and it has incarcerated more of its own population (including an extraordinary number of young black men) than any other country.

So I cannot help but question our collective wisdom as we stand and sing, every May in Lorimer Chapel, this gushing praise of America.

Of course patriotic gestures —from flag salutes to national anthems—are not unique to the U.S. In Bangkok, for example, one must stand in honor of the King before every film screening. In Moscow, citizens are being pushed to trade t-shirts with Western logos for those with pro-Russian themes or pictures of President Putin. But we are an academic institution in a longstanding democracy, not a Thai movie house or Russian clothing store. We should be committed to critical thinking, not knee-jerk impulses like blind nationalism.

As Benedict Anderson (“Imagined Communities”) has shown, nationalism is not a natural or organic feeling; it is constructed by the powers-that-be to unite otherwise disparate, disconnected peoples. In some cases, I think nationalism has been a force for good. In the Global South, for example, nationalism has helped some poor countries mobilize scarce resources for ambitious projects of economic development. But in too many cases, nationalism has been used to justify military aggression against other countries and the suppression of domestic groups, especially minorities, clamoring for rights, or just a greater voice in the political process.

When we sing a song like “My Country Tis of Thee,” we reaffirm the political mythology of American exceptionalism, even though most of us know, when we actually engage our brains, that the U.S. is not uniquely virtuous. We also know that thoughtless patriotism is divisive. From conversations with non-American seniors and faculty colleagues, I have learned that many members of the Colby community squirm under the pressure of standing to sing this song. And so do some Americans who actually think about the lyrics, and do not find themselves pictured in the gleaming portrait of white pilgrims.

I understand that the intellectually vapid, socially schismatic singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is not the biggest, most vexing issue roiling our campus today. But unlike, say, the wages paid to Sodexo servers and Colby janitors, this problem can be solved rather easily. We could, for example, just stop singing it. Or we could sing the verse added by abolitionists in 1843:

My native country, thee,

Where all men are born free, if white’s their skin;

I love thy hills and dales,

Thy mounts and pleasant vales;

But hate thy negro sales, as foulest sin.

Or we could sing the least ridiculous verse of “My Country Tis of Thee” (for me, that’s number three), and then sing a verse of a patriotic song from a country of one of our “international” students or faculty. Maybe introduce a new verse from a different country every year: A rotating, United Nations of Music.

Or whatever. All I’m saying is: Let’s be thoughtful, creative and inclusive. Let’s stop being the mindless, rah-rah puppets from “Team America.”

For several years, I tried to persuade then-President Bro Adams to rethink our tradition of singing this song at the Baccalaureate. He was polite, but unmoved. Now, David Greene is in charge, and he has shown a willingness to shake things up. God Save the King!

I mean that ironically: The melody to “My Country Tis of Thee” is actually “God Save the King” (or Queen, depending on who sits on the throne), the national anthem of the United Kingdom. So when we sing our silly song, are we paying tribute to the rich complexity of the U.S., a country I actually do admire when it is striving to live up to its promise? Or are we just saluting Anglo-American whiteness? Or are we, perhaps, proclaiming that the U.S. today has a right to “rule the waves,” just like Britannia did? You tell me.

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