Sunday, March 12, 2017

National Hymns and Patriotic Anthems

Marian Kester Coombs
September 2016                   

National anthems originate as paeans to a people’s self. At the very least anthems inspire solidarity and express a people's self-image or -concept. They serve as the soundtrack of nascent nations and established empires as well as of smaller human cohorts. Their form and content range from the most bloody-minded of fight songs to the most Utopian of hymns to the Creator.

In modern times the massive expansion of global self-consciousness has led in some cases to anthems-by-committee being superimposed on native musical traditions, so a given anthem may no longer characterize a particular nation any more than all the people in that nation may belong to one original nationality.

But most modern national anthems began as hymns and were then transformed by political upheaval or nation-building. Nations – from natio, Latin for clan, race or tribe related by birth – are born believing in their own divine origin: that their people were fashioned by gods who condescended to descend to earth, or who at least continued to consider their creatures the unique "people of God." As such, the national hymn confidently invokes divine aid in smiting the foe and gaining victory on the battlefield.

The Old Testament is full of such accounts of the deeds of  Yahweh – Deus Sabaoth, Lord God of Hosts – all of which are anthemic for the people of Judah. "Rock of Ages" (“Ma’oz Tsur”) is an ancient hymn common to both Jewish and Christian faiths since at least the 14th century. It was translated from Hebrew to German in the 19th century, and to English not long after:

Thou amidst the raging foe / Wast our shelt'ring tower.
Furious they assailed us, / But Thine Arm availed us,
And Thy Word / broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.

"Rock of Ages" is a classic example of simultaneous prostration at the feet of divine providence and of militant self-worship common to the root anthems of earth's peoples. In the Western tradition we can also begin with the paeans of ancient Greece, songs of triumph and thanksgiving that preceded, accompanied and followed battle. Paeans were as likely to be sung by private armies like Achilles's Myrmidons as they were to represent an entire city-state. The root of the word seems to be related to “healing”: a shaman’s chant to the gods for restoration after the stress of battle. Achilles has his men sing one after the slaying of Hector in the Iliad.

Before most Western peoples awoke to their nationhood, however, there was the greater body of Christendom, and Christian hymns that functioned to all intents and purposes as anthems. One of the earliest was "Fairest Lord Jesus" (Schoenster Jesu), also called the Crusaders' Hymn, sung to the tune well known today as "Morning So Fair to See." Its history is of interest in light of Islam's renewed attack upon the West.

When Muslim armies recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, Pope Innocent II called upon Europe's knights to answer that grievous provocation. But the knights were battle-weary. In the spring of 1212, however, a 15-year-old shepherd boy named Stephan inspired thousands of French children to follow him to the Holy Land. At the same time a German 10-year-old named Nicholas was rousing thousands of his own fellow boys and girls. "These unsuspecting lambs of Europe began to gather in flocks to begin their pilgrimage southward," records the Christian History Institute. This was the Children's Crusade. By tradition these young soldiers, "escorted by butterfly and bird," sang "Fairest Lord Jesus" as they marched – to slavery, starvation, disease and death.

Centuries later this hymn was finally collected in the 1677 Muenster Gesangbuch. Still later, in 1842, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the poem “Deutschland ueber alles,” heard Silesian peasants singing the hymn and recorded it in his Schlesische Volkslieder. The first known English translation was by Richard Storrs Willis, the Bostonian composer of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," who published it in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies (1850).

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God to earth come down,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul's glory, joy and crown.

The verses go on to extol fair meadows, woodlands, sunshine, moonlight – than all of which is Christ more fair – which presage the degeneration of the text into the bland nature-worship of Vincent Silliman's 1934 version:

Morning so fair to see, night veiled in mystery,
Glor'ious the earth and resplendent skies!
Great God, we march along, singing our pilgrim song,
As through an earthly paradise.

As befits an ancient nation, Britain boasts the earliest and most varied national hymns and anthems, although to this day she has resisted picking an official one. Perhaps her first was the paean sung at a famous medieval victory. In Shakespeare's Henry V, after the English miracle at Agincourt in 1415, the king instructs his band of brothers, "Do we all holy rites./Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,/The dead with charity enclosed in clay ..."

Non nobis was the Latin version of Psalm 115, a prayer of humble thanksgiving:

Non nobis, Domine, Domine,
Non nobis, Domine,
Sed nomini, sed nomini tuo da gloriam.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to your name be the glory.

The victory soon afterwards inspired its own popular lay, which has become known as The Agincourt Song, Hymn or Carol, or simply as Deo gracias. The words' author is unknown but the melody is attributed to John Dunstable (? – 1453). As in a topical calypso number, there are six verses recounting the history of the campaign, of which the first is:

Our King went forth to Normandy
With grace and might of chivalry.
There God for him wrought marvellously,
Wherefore England may call and cry:
    Deo gracias, Deo gracias, Anglia redde pro victoria!

In 1740, it is well documented, "Rule, Britannia!" was written by Thomas Arne, a close colleague of Handel, and first performed at a masque for the Prince of Wales. While not quite an official anthem, it fit the bill beautifully, being born in bellicosity (that wildly emotional naval episode with Spain dubbed The War of Jenkins' Ear), oozing confidence in divine favor, and boasting the best fight-song chorus ever:

When Britain first at Heav'n's command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
            Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves;
            Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!

But it is "God Save the King," whose roots are much older than the War of Jenkins' Ear, that bears the distinction of being the world's first proper national anthem, although its musical and lyrical histories are murkier.

Two key lines date from a gathering of the fleet at Portsmouth in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII; the watchword was "God save the King" and the reply was "Long to reign over us." This song too was first performed in 1740, at a private royal dinner to celebrate the victory at Portobello. Thus 1740 would seem to be the year that Britain woke to national self-awareness, a pearl formed painfully by the constant irritation of rival empires. The first verse:

God save our gracious King! / Long live our noble King!
God save the King!
Send him victorious, / Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the King!

The second verse, no longer sung:

O Lord our God arise, / Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics, / Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all!

The earliest public performances of "GSTK" were at Drury Lane and Covent Garden in 1745, this time in a welter of rage and fear after the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had landed in Scotland with his band of doomed romantics. The lyricist is unknown. Traditionally a "John Bull" is cited – so perhaps the words were never formally composed but simply popped out of the popular subconscious. But it's in the music that the real controversy lies. An original melody is music’s Holy Grail. Lyrics: a dime a dozen. A good tune: priceless.

Handel, Purcell, Arne and Henry Carey have all been all credited with the melody, but the most specific evidence points to Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giambattista Lulli), Louis XIV's court composer. Lully supposedly was commissioned by the King's mistress to write a song for the opening of the St.-Cyr military academy in 1686. He based it on a paean already sung whenever French royalty put in an appearance, "Domine salvum fac Regem." The song was not heard again until 1745 – ironically chosen by the Old Pretender (James Stuart) as his own anthem as he prepared to invade England from France. The outcome of that exercise determined which force would claim the anthem for its own.

A dozen years later, an anonymous lyricist (thought to have been Charles Wesley) set new words to the melody, creating the hymn "Come, Thou Almighty King." Wesley’s motive was to counter the deification of royalty so pronounced in "GSTK." Yet it was not so long before that no one batted an eye at the identification of the mortal king with God himself.

Come, Thou almighty king / Help us Thy Name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious, o'er all victorious,
Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days.

Lyrics do matter, on occasion. When a band of British soldiers demanded that a Long Island congregation sing "GSTK" during the Revolutionary War, the colonials defiantly sang "Come, Thou Almighty King" instead. Nor would any Scot worth his salt ever submit to singing the verse of "GSTK" that exhorts His Majesty to "sedition hush, and like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush."

Lyrics matter, music matters, anthems matter. When the British conceded defeat at Yorktown, their band famously played "The World Turned Upside Down." And when the British handed Aden over to Egypt in 1967, the band played Lionel Bart's Cockney plaint "Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be."

The adoption of "God Save the King" kicked off a craze for national anthems that has never abated. Many nations simply took over the tune and translated the lyrics into their own tongue. Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Liechtenstein all did so, and the latter continues to use it. As one musicologist wrote, "There is something alluring in the fact that the best-known tune in the world should have no known composer." Words come and go, political sentiments ebb and flow, but a great tune is forever.

Take Germany's anthem, "Deutschland Ueber Alles." This beautiful theme originally belonged to Austria-Hungary; it had been adapted by Haydn from an old Croatian folk song and set to a poem, "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" ("God Preserve Emperor Franz"), which poet Ludwig Haschka had modeled on the lyrics of "GSTK," and dedicated to Kaiser Franz II on his birthday in 1797. (The wee sovereign was five years old.) Haydn also employed it for a set of variations in one movement of his "Emperor" String Quartet #62 in C major, Op. 76 No. 3 (Poco adagio, cantabile).

All for naught: once the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to be in 1918, it lost its anthem to Germany, which had been lusting for it all the while (though it remains in hymnals as “Austria” or “The Austrian Hymn”). The song became the official – if stolen – Deutschlandslied in 1922 during the Weimar period, in a conscious effort to allay political doubts about the Republic. Hoffman von Fallersleben’s 1841 nationalist poem urging Germans to place the unification of the German people “above all else in the world” fit the melody like a glove.

Today only the third verse is sung; the others have been suppressed.

Unity and right and freedom / For the German fatherland.
Let us all strive to this goal, / Brotherly, with heart and hand …

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has also been much coveted as an anthem. The European Union snagged it in 1972. Not if but when the EU finally folds, Joy will again be a free agent.

Meanwhile, Austria was in want of her own anthem. A nationwide contest was held in 1946 to procure one. The Austrian poet Paula von Preradovic, born in Vienna of an old Croatian family, contributed the winning verses, and the tune chosen is either by Mozart or his close contemporary and fellow Mason Johann Holzer. “Land of Mountains, Land on the River” eschews patriotic religiosity in favor of high-minded generalities – just what the postwar world wanted. Thus Austria’s anthem has gone from a Croatian melody with Austrian lyrics to an Austrian melody with Croatian lyrics.

The borrowing continued as Italy too gathered her forces for the leap to nationhood. As early as 1769, Felice de Giardini composed music explicitly for “Come, Thou Almighty King,” contrary to the usual practice of hijacking a tune by injecting it with new lyrics. His beautiful melody promptly became known as The Italian Hymn.

But it was a battle hymn that Italy’s patriots needed just then. That need was filled in 1847 by the poem “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”) by Goffredo Mameli, a comrade in arms of Garibaldi, which was immediately set to new, vigorously rhythmic and Italianate music by Michele Novaro. Sung around the country, it helped spread the fever for unity and independence.

When it comes to Italy, arguably the most musical nation on earth, we expect to hear an impassioned cascade of arias. But musician and philosopher Balint Vazsonyi once described Novaro and Mameli’s hymn as “mind-boggling triteness.” The poet Giusti wrote to Verdi as early as 1847: “You know that the tragic chord is the one that resounds most in our soul, but … the kind of sorrow that now fills the souls of us Italians is the sorrow of a people who feel the need of a better future.” Mazzini importuned Verdi to write “an Italian battle hymn – the Marseillaise of Italy.” But the great composer, whose operas were full of characters, plots and lyrics that patriots hungrily seized upon, never explicitly wrote such a hymn.

Mazzini was brilliant to ask for an Italian Marseillaise. No other anthem is more bound to the political fate of a nation than this masterpiece written in a white heat one night in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Revolutionary troops sang it on their march from Marseilles to Paris, and all France went mad for it, singing it over and over until their voices gave out. (Abel Gance’s film “Napoléon” immortalized this phenomenon.) The song practically forces you to start shouting and pumping your fist, especially when you arrive at

Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu’un sang impur abbreuve nos sillons!

Dutifully from time to time French politicians and do-gooders (but I repeat myself) cluck over “impure blood fertilizing our fields” and a few other lines, but so far even the French Communist Party refuses to “meddle with our heritage.” The Marseillaise was banned in Vichy France and all Nazi-occupied lands, and if it was good enough to drown out the Germans in “Casablanca,” it’s good enough to be whistled menacingly and offensively at France-Algeria football matches …

Singing the Marseillaise was and still can be a thrilling act of resistance. But it never invokes God’s help against “tyranny’s bloody standard” – rather, it calls upon “children of the fatherland” to defend Liberté in lieu of the discarded Dieu. La France catholique remains the secular, godless nation par excellence. Perhaps this explains her astounding difficulty in standing up to Muslim aggression.

In anthems of the Swiss type – the Austrian, Scottish, several of the American – there is almost a reversion to pantheism. God physically dwells and manifests Himself amid the sublime beauty of the homeland’s mountains and valleys, pools and groves, just as the Greek gods dwelt upon Olympus and Ida.

Few peoples have had a fiercer ride on the rollercoaster of history than the Russians – invasion, Oriental despotism, liberalization, world war, sectarian coup, forced industrialization, terror, collapse, rampant Westernization – and their anthems reflect this. From 1816 to 1833 it was our familiar old "God Save the Tsar!" From 1833 to 1917, a somewhat more individuated hymn prayed to Russia's Bog (God):
And should dread war arise, stretch forth Thy Hand,
To guard from wicked foes our dear, dear land.

Come 1917, the situation was obviously a free-for-all. Alongside the nationalist hymn "How Glorious Is Our Lord in Zion" and the Marseillaise itself, sung in French, there was a "Workers' Marseillaise" ("Rabochaya Marselyeza"). By 1918 the winner was the Internationale, sung with clenched fists. The Internationale, still the official anthem of the international Communist movement, has a great Marseillaise-like march melody composed in 1888 by Belgian socialist Pierre De Geyter to lyrics penned by Eugène Pottier eighteen years earlier, during the Paris Commune: "Arise, ye pris'ners of starvation,/Arise, ye wretched of the earth!"

By 1943, Stalin had decided that the Internationale's Russian lyrics, such as "Let's denounce the old world! Let's shake its dust from our feet!," made it sound as if the USSR had not already achieved these goals; moreover, like any grand artiste, Stalin had a better idea about nearly everything. With typical verve he rounded up twenty or so poets and composers and ordered them to create new words and music that "people will sing both in joy and in misfortune" (well, in misfortune at least!). At first the Poet of Steel planned to force Prokofiev or Shostakovich to cough up the melody, but he finally settled for a tune already used by the Bolshevik Party's own anthem.

The resultant "Hymn of the Soviet Union" lasted from 1944 to 1992, with a time-out in 1977 to remove all references to Stalin. After the break-up of the USSR, this hymn was retitled "Hymn of the Russian Federation" and given very different back-to-the-future lyrics:
Russia, our holy country, / Russia, our beloved country,
… You are unique in the world, inimitable,
Native land protected by God!

Having now arrived at the Putin era of revived Russian nationalism, we note that a major share of that effort involves bringing Russian Orthodoxy back from the dead – if possible.

Keeping in mind that true anthems are basically religious hymns to a people themselves, we can scan the rest of the globe rather quickly.

China’s anthem was written in 1935 by a jailed poet – a surefire method of producing heartfelt lyrics! – and “chose” as its object of worship none other than Chairman Mao.

India’s “Jana Gana Mana” was introduced

The United States has the largest number of competing anthems. Our country’s youth, deep religiosity, diversity and democratic vigor combined to make it a hotbed of hymnody. All told there have been least ten real contenders, eleven if you count the Johnson brothers’ anthem for black America “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Between the earliest introduction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its adoption in 1931, Americans poured forth their belief in our nation’s special pact with Almighty God in such wonderful compositions as “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”), “God of Our Fathers,” “America the Beautiful” and last but not least, “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin, 1918).

“The Star-Spangled Banner” has a melody that was composed in 1775 for the Anacreontic Society of London’s paean to wine, wine, wine; the tune was popular in the U.S. even before it was chosen by Francis Scott Key for his acclaimed 1814 poem. “TSSB” was alternating with “Hail, Columbia!” as America’s national hymn by the beginning of the Civil War. The latter piece (music 1789, lyrics 1798) is set to a rather undistinguished march and deifies George Washington while also exalting “Columbia” as a goddess of Liberty like Britannia or France’s Marianne. Among its more noteworthy lyrics are “With equal skill, with God-like pow'r, / He governs in the fearful hour / Of horrid war ...” As the war dragged on, the North eventually adopted “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” while the South went with “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie.”

In 1861 a group of Manhattan businessmen calling themselves the National Hymn Committee recognized that the severely riven nation had better choose a formal unifying anthem, or rather hymn. The group nixed “Yankee Doodle” as “childish,” and many others as “pretentious” or various species of “boring.” It was not until the Great Depression that “The Star-Spangled Banner” burst through the ambivalence and finally gave America a paean of her own. At least up to this point.

I conclude with a lost verse of “TSSB” that gives voice to what any nation needs to survive: legitimate authority, belief in itself and in a power greater than itself, faith, ideals, a moral compass. Once gods are lost, they are not easily recovered.

O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us as a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just;
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Middle Class?

by Marian Kester Coombs
The American Conservative, September/October 2015

"She says we are bourgeois."
"It means 'common,' but in a nice way."
                                  - "This Happy Breed," 1944
Everyone loves the middle class. Everyone claims to be middle class, some to put a gloss on their sketchy escutcheons, others to dodge chastisement for their awkward riches. But in fact both the socioeconomic reality and the concept of middle class have been turned on their heads, turned into their opposites, and at the same time trivialized into a mere lifestyle choice.

Economically, the middle classes were once proprietors, self-employed owners of property and their own labor. Morally, they were once the equivalent of “solid citizens”: decent, hard-working, law-abiding, temperate, proper, stable, staid, virtuous, and - well, moral. The qualifications for being middle class have gotten a whole lot looser, to say the least.

The European term “middle classes” originally served to describe merchants, tradesmen, investors and skilled craftsmen. The habitat of these classes was the walled City – the burg, bourg or borough – whence came their appellation, les bourgeois. The bourgeoisie occupied a middle ground between the nobility and the lower classes of peasants and servants.

As historian and professor Eugene Genovese used to say, “The bourgeoisie has been rising for about 500 years. They basically had to muscle in on the lords.” Two major traits defined this new class as it emerged from the chaotic end of feudalism: a close association with money (capital), banking and investment, and social independence. Their city walls, their gold, their commercial alliances, their education and their skills defended them from the rapacity of the nobles to the point where they could evolve into the leading citizens of a different kind of society.

G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, in The Common People: 1746 – 1946, describe the aftermath of the battle of Culloden:

This extinction of the older society completed a process started long before, a process which alone made it possible for Britain in the next hundred years to become the workshop of the world. There were now no feudal lords to be conciliated or cajoled by the rising employing class. Land-owners, bankers and employers, each with their own type of property to support them, made their political bargaining and conducted their trading without any semi-baronial powers, private jurisdictions or infeodated supporters camped threateningly in the countryside.

Prior to the Revolution, France’s Etats-généraux (Estates-General) comprised the clergy, the aristocracy, and the People (everyone else). After 1789 the bourgeois element of the People – a serious and truly revolutionary class – came to the fore and used the rage of the sans-culottes and the foule to wipe out the aristocrats. George Rudé’s The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England 1730-1848 relates many instances of the doomed peasant and cottage-industrial classes – “the hard and black hands” – rising up to demand restoration of their ancient feudal rights, only to be suppressed by the bourgeoisie once Property itself came under attack. “Il faut en finir!” Order had to be restored. It was time for Louis-Philippe, the bourgeois king, to unfurl the banner of “Enrichissez-vous!

By the time Marx and Engels came along, the new antagonistic classes of capital and wage labor were well established. According to the Marxian model, just as the bourgeoisie had overthrown the absolute rule of church and noble, the working class (wage-earners, laborers, common people, lower classes, plebeians, the people, the mob, the masses) was destined to overthrow its new masters, the capitalists who capitalized upon its alienated labor. “Property is theft!” declared Proudhon. “We have been naught,/We shall be all!” “The middle class owner of property,” declared Marx in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, “must be swept out of the way and made impossible.” Prophetic words.

At its height, this original middle class radiated dominance, competence and rationality. It religiously embraced the sciences and their derived technologies and was swept upward with those powers into a world beyond the wildest Utopian dreams. In the words of Charles Morazé’s The Triumph of the Middle Classes:

The year 1900 was a wonderful one, when men were proud to be middle-class, and to be Europeans. The fate of the whole world was decided around green baize-covered tables in London, Paris or Berlin. … Mobilized by steam, the planet’s riches were being shifted … on orders flashed by telegraph in two or three minutes. … Not a single detail escaped the notice of Europe’s financial capitals: they fixed the price of a tram ticket in Rio de Janeiro, and the working hours of a coolie in Hong Kong.

The world the bourgeoisie made opened countless paths to wealth and self-reliance for even the humblest chrétien, as Paul Johnson documents so well in The Birth of the Modern. The greatest elevation of human beings in history had fashioned, out of “little men,” architects, engineers, shipwrights, road builders, agriculturalists, inventors, lawyers, bankers, brokers, journalists, industrialists, manufacturers, trader/adventurers, doctors, pharmacists, shop owners, highly educated theologians and natural philosophers, and pursuers of a hundred other useful professions.

Class Notes

Volume after volume has been devoted to the anthropology of class, its trappings, its contradictions, its “tells” and secret handshakes. Here it is enough to remind ourselves that today’s obsession with the middle class is rooted in the old, old story of human self-classification. People sort, grade, gauge and rank each other all day and all night.

Everyone wants to be middle class because human beings need to think well of themselves, or else endless misery and retribution ensue. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb called their book The Hidden Injuries of Class, but most of these injuries are either quite noticeable or hidden in plain sight. Sennett and Cobb discovered that the most marginal of America’s working class would rather be perceived as middle class than revolt and overthrow the rule of capital altogether – or even make more money.

Entire nations suffer class anxiety. Adam Nicolson quotes unusually candid Greek sources in National Geographic (March 2015):

When the Greeks joined the EU in 1981, we felt like a ship arriving in port, … that we were being treated as a proper part of Europe for the first time. The euro crisis was a moment of guilt, shared by all of us, a sense that somehow we were all responsible for the bad things that were happening to us. It was a huge, national blow to self-esteem, a confirmation of the Greeks’ worst fears, that we didn’t really belong in Europe at all.

Naturally such humiliation is intolerable, and accounts for the continuing “violence of shame” in Greece – herself, ironically, the birthplace of classical culture, sedulously aped for centuries.

Older societies are still processing their ancient class systems, which were actually castes: defined conditions into which people were born and where they remained all their lives. The New World posited itself as a classless society, although it never was one, even at the outset. But in place of the Old World’s “better than thou,” America’s mantra was “as good as thou.” Classes in the colonies founded by Great Britain were fluid and porous; for example, the bourgeois cult of romantic love, as opposed to arranged marriage, enabled many to “marry up”; and the still open frontier permitted little men to grow grand, liberated from the constant sucker punches of class.

The Center Cannot Hold

In contemporary usage, “bourgeois” has decayed to mean square, unfashionable, boring, ordinary, lowbrow, narrow-minded, suburban, etc. The exclamation “How bourgeois!” is not intended kindly. The word’s fate is similar to the way chrétien migrated over time from “Christian” (a fellow soul) to “cretin.” H.L. Mencken had this decay in mind when he invented the terms “booboisie” and “Boobus Americanus.” Paul Fussell’s Class ridicules their petty, shallow status fixations. From captains of industry back down to “little men,” the bourgeoisie has crumbled both linguistically and economically.

Circa 1800, 80% of Americans were self-employed. By 1870 it was 41%. By 1940 it was 18%. By 1967 it was only 9% (from Victoria Bonnell and Michael Reich, Workers in the American Economy: Data on the Labor Force). Now – we are told it is only One Percent. What once was an ideal – self-employment – is now damned as villainous greed.

Middle class, meanwhile, came to mean anyone who works for a living. It is not unusual to see “middle class” and “working class” used interchangeably, which has led to the cheesy equivalence of “white collar” and “blue collar.” Even the hardcore unemployed are now eligible for elevation to the great middle. Anyone who has clung to a part-time job or might get one via state largesse is potentially middle class. Only “the rich” don’t qualify.

Middle class, in other words, has completely lost its socioeconomic bearings. “High-end” signifiers are fetishized as much by the wanna-be middle classes as they are by the One Percent. The very concept of middle class has become confounded with global issues of modernization, imperialism and cultural hegemony. It is José Ortega y Gasset’s “revolt of the masses” on steroids.

The Muddled Middle

Everyone agrees that the middle class pays the lion’share of taxes. It is deep in debt – illiquid. It is “endangered.” It is being “squeezed,” “crippled,” “hollowed out.” It suffers from erosion of net worth. Its atrophy is blamed for the widening income gap. It is courted by both left and right with great vigor during election years, each striving to outdo the other with violent praise for its attributes. It is “the backbone of our economy.” The American middle class is tasked with lifting the entire world out of recession.

Taoist philosophy observes that the more a quality is spoken of - for instance, filial piety - the less it is found in real life. Obsessive talk of the middle class is everywhere. Opening a newspaper at random (The Washington Times of February 20, 2015), we read:

As he pushed a $500 billion federal investment in infrastructure, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said: … “The middle class has been slammed. They are in worse shape than they have ever been at any time since the ‘20s … What’s the way to grow the middle class? Jobs. What’s the way to get jobs?”

Biden’s answer: “Generate” jobs via the magic of Keynesian government spending, a repeat of the New Deal’s CCC and WPA.

A Google search on “Biden speech middle class” returns 702,000 hits; “Obama speech middle class” returns 19.3 million. According to Mr. Biden, the middle class is “the fabric that stitches together this country.” But it’s “currently being killed.” During one of the 38 mentions of middle class in his 2014 stump speech, the VP notoriously thundered that the middle class has been “left behind” and “buried” – by the Obama administration’s own policies.

Meanwhile, in his 2015 State of the Union address, the President preached the gospel of “middle-class economics.” According to his Marx-haunted ghostwriters, that means “Everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and plays by the same set of rules.” The actual meaning is another tax increase on those who still have enough wealth left to be worth swiping.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell gloated that the billions of dollars in subsidies disbursed to low-income people who sign up for Obamacare were “further proof that the Affordable Care Act is working for the middle class” in Food Stamp Nation. Robert Reich has said over and over that “inequality is bad for everyone, not just for the middle class and poor,” and that income redistribution must be engineered to raise the income of the middle class to “middle-class levels,” whatever those are.

Just after the 2012 election, Howard Dean revealed the left’s “radical” program to save the middle class by destroying it when he said, “This is, initially, gonna sound like heresy from a progressive. The truth is, everybody needs to pay more taxes, not just the rich.”

Elizabeth Warren talks the new class war better than most. She’d love to just be able to come out and yell about “the working class!” But she’s fanning the spent flames of a fantasy. André Thirion’s book about impotent red intellectuals in Paris between the wars was called Revolutionaries without Revolution. What Elizabeth Warren keeps jabbing her forefinger at is a workers’ movement without workers.

Like all other cynical champions of the mythic middle, Warren deliberately mischaracterizes it. Middle class is not an income level but a material relationship to society. What have vanished from all these leftist analyses are the key middle-class elements of freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, ownership, entrepreneurship, leadership and real social power. To echo Cole and Postgate, the essence of the once-great middle class was that they possessed “their own type of property to support them.”

In any event, the 24/7 spin cycle has finally gagged on the term middle class. Its untenability suddenly dawned on even the most zealously ideological political operatives. All at once it was only too obvious that there was no substantial middle class to rhapsodize over or pander to. As Amy Chozick writes in The New York Times (May 11, 2015):

The once ubiquitous term “middle class” has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.

A family living paycheck to paycheck, heavily indebted and sometimes even “food-insecure” – that’s not a middle class family. And nearly half of Americans don’t even bother to pretend that’s what they are any more. So instead let’s call them “ordinary Americans” (Bernie Sanders). “Everyday Americans” (Hillary Clinton). “Hard-working men and women across America” (Ted Cruz). “Hard-working taxpayers” (Scott Walker). “People who work for the people who own businesses” (Rand Paul). Or simply “people who aren’t rich” (Marco Rubio).

Everyone wanted to be middle class, but the word that best describes our country now is proletarianization. In ancient Rome the proles (“offspring,” as in “prolific”) were “the class of society that had no wealth and didn't own property. The only things proletarians had to offer were their hard work and their children” ( The overall scheme is to force what’s left of “the backbone of America” to pay for its own dispossession and disempowerment. Then our understandable class anxiety will be tranquilized by government transfers to give us an illusory “leg up” classwise.

The middle class could only be destroyed in the name of the middle class. Everyone loves the middle class, and everyone kills the thing he loves.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Bible of Hell

Reporter: "Are you a Mod or a Rocker?"
Ringo: "No, I'm a mocker."
("A Hard Day's Night")

Now that Je suis Charlie has trended to its end, Je ne suis pas Charlie can safely re-emerge. The column below summarizes well the views of the push-back:

Joseph Curl is a columnist I usually agree with, but in this case he has simply reverted to the Muslims' own justification for violent jihad. He asks several questions which he expects to be answered submissively. Here are my retorts.

1. "Is it really the job of journalists to belittle religion, to mock the faithful's beliefs?"

Hell yeah. The satirical weekly CharlieHebdo is not a "newspaper of record" like the Grey Lady, but the viciously cynical bane of every religion, faith, belief system, idol, hero, god, shibboleth, sacred cow, golden calf and "unexamined life." Anything that can't be ridiculed, that is "unfit to print," has a depressingly inevitable tendency to become tyrannical. The Frenchman Voltaire said it best: "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." His admirer Thomas Jefferson added, "There is not a truth existing which I fear ... or would wish unknown to the whole world."

2. "Should we ridicule and demonize those of other religions simply because we can?"

Who is "we"? There have been individuals in all eras and places who deride the tender sentiments of their fellow man, and there always will be. Free speech doesn't mean pain-free, shock-free speech. Free speech is either an absolute right or a dead letter. It is not to be stripped away bit by bit by hounds baying for its blood.

Have some humility, humans. What deity is harmed or angered by Man's mockery? Only the tin gods of intolerant belief systems like certain sects of Christianity and Judaism and most of Islam. (Currently Hinduism is displaying a greater urge to dominate under the Bharatiya Janata Party in India. Which leaves Buddhism - maybe.) The mockers among us do not "demonize," however: They themselves are demonized, considered demons. They rouse and raise doubt and most humans are mortally offended by doubt. People are clucking over the post-attack drawing of murdered CharlieHebdo cartoonist Georges Wolinski being comforted in the afterlife by one of Allah's mythical virgins, but it is just that hardcore relentless irreverence that he championed.

3. "If CharlieHebdo wanted to anger Muslims, it succeeded. But was there ever any higher purpose, any constructive goal, in doing so? ... And, quite simply, what is the point?"

Fortunately in America we don't have to go before tribunals that demand we justify our "higher purpose" or "constructive goal" or "point." If the government were turning a blind eye to and even subsidizing hate groups that advocate ethnic cleansing, say, of "infidels," then we might well object. Wait - the government is doing that. Using our tax money to finance terrorism against our nation. Moreover the government itself provokes far more jihadi rage by lording it over the Middle East than all the satirical magazines put together.

Charlie's cartoons are "infantile" and they are "vulgar" - both Al-Jazeera and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League agree. Too bad. Infantile vulgarity is protected under "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" - AKA the Bill of Rights - from being infringed upon by the state or any other power. As Tony Soprano would say, "[Forget] you if you can't take a joke."

It is not the Charlies of the world who bomb and slash, hang, behead, imprison, lash and burn. It is they who do the ugly but necessary work of keeping us free whether we like it or not. They are the scribes of what William Blake called "the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no." The flame they insist on fanning brings enlightenment to the dark places of our minds. They instinctively know that intolerance, the entropy of consciousness, must constantly be pushed back. They know that laughter is the sane response to human folly. It is they who hear the laughter of the gods.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Last of the Americans: Rockwell Kent and Our Times

by Marian Kester Coombs

Whatever time it is, it’s time to appreciate Rockwell Kent. Americans of his kind are so rare we have to keep punching ourselves to believe they ever existed. It took me five chance encounters with this semi-forgotten figure – three in used bookstores and two in art museums – to realize how odd and wrong was my ignorance of him.

Rockwell Kent was one of America’s best-known, most popular painters and designers in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Born in 1882, he hailed from Tarrytown, New York, heart of the Hudson River School of painting, and showed artistic ability from an early age. His ancestral Kents and Rockwells had come ashore more than two hundred years before; in his second autobiography, It’s Me O Lord (1955), Kent traces his ancestry back through a long line of carpenters and fierce freedom-lovers who built fortune upon fortune in the New World. He grew up a member of America’s founding generations: privileged, ingenious, self-confident, and liberal, as in free-thinking. That masterful sense of self got Kent through many a scrape and ordeal as he blasted lustily through life.

Kent’s cohort missed having to serve in the two world wars, and were too canny and well-educated to be raptured by jingoism; nonetheless they may have felt the need to test themselves physically and mentally in more extreme ways than normal precisely because of that lack of opportunity to soldier. Surely this may account for some of the wild risks Kent repeatedly ran. He exulted in surviving close encounters much as warriors glorify war, having come through it unscathed. Nonetheless, he was a lifelong pacifist, a lover of Peace, a hater of War and its perpetual lobby; and if he was never in a position to conscientiously object to induction, Kent made up for it by refusing to kowtow to HUAC and having his passport revoked by the State Department.

Rockwell Kent loved painting and drawing and the making of all things, from instruments to dishware, books to houses. His graphic illustrations, employing pen and ink, dry brush, lithography, wood engraving (xylography) and block prints, reveal the training in architecture he received at Columbia. But oil painting was his “first love,” and by 1903 he was pursuing it at the New York School of Art, where he encountered both the elegant William Merritt Chase and the raw Robert Henri of the art-for-the-masses Ashcan School. Henri encouraged him to get out and paint Nature and The People en plein air, suggesting Kent move to rugged Monhegan Island off Maine to get started.

The Monhegan years kindled Kent’s fame. His contact with the island’s fisher folk profoundly affected him, and thenceforth he felt the need to become what he was painting: lobsterman, laborer, house carpenter, furniture maker, well digger, lighthouse keeper, sailor, farmer. When his Maine landscapes had their New York debut in 1907, The Sun’s art critic raved, “The paint is laid on by an athlete of the brush.” Fellow painters were awed by his power to capture the spirit of land and life in so many media. Guy Pène du Bois (with envy) called his work quintessentially “American.” Canada’s Group of Seven were profoundly influenced by him. He had a beautiful hand.

Monhegan also led Kent to the first of three wives: Kathleen Whiting, niece of grand eccentric painter Abbott Thayer. Their union lasted from 1908 to 1925, and saw the birth of five surviving children. Kent’s constant impulsive or perhaps compulsive flights to the ends of the earth – the Alaska Territory, Greenland, Iceland, Tierra del Fuego – where he could paint in peace, engorged with exotic new subject matter (like Thomas Cole at Mont Désert or Frederic Edwin Church in the Andes); live simply amongst the hardy natives (like Tommy in “Brigadoon”); confront his true self, which he (like Zane Grey) believed could be encountered “in the wilderness alone”; and, a bit less airy-fairily, gather material for books to sell to support everyone – inevitably distressed his marriages.

A classic Rockwell Kent situation befell the family when Kent decided in 1914 to expatriate and paint in Newfoundland. They’d been there scarcely a year before being deported on suspicion that Herr Kent was a German spy: he yodeled and sang German songs as he strode about, named his second daughter Hildegarde, and refused to wallow in anti-Kraut vituperation. But Kent was simply a convinced contrarian. Ideologies meant nothing to him. He was as enthused by Teddy Roosevelt’s exhaustive vigor as he was by the Wobblies’ selfless camaraderie. His notion of being an American was to champion “the little man” – the man for whom America had been invented.

Another typical “situation” was his sojourn on a remote Alaskan island with eldest son Rocky, then nine years old. “In quietness the soul expands,” wrote Kent; wilderness held the seed, the evergreen promise of freedom, a promise that even democracies continually betrayed. Anxious to provide for the family as well as slake his growing passion for ascetic and aesthetic liberty in a Northern landscape, in 1918 Kent rented and rebuilt a lean-to on Resurrection Bay where the two of them explored and beheld and communed. Although they both nearly perished more than once, Kent returned after several months with the stuff of two best-sellers (Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska and A Northern Christmas) profusely illustrated with vivid ink drawings, but more important, with a trove of canvases and sketches that have been called the most successful effort ever to reproduce the beauty of the far North – the cold gold glare of the midnight sun, the glacier ice that absorbs red and yellow spectra and reflects back purest blue, the infinite tones of white – what Douglas Brinkley calls “the kaleidoscopic radiance of wild Alaska” and Kent called its “luminous abyss.” Monet expressed the plein air painter’s struggle well: “I want to grasp the intangible. It's terrible how the light runs out. Color, any color, lasts a second, sometimes three or four minutes at most.”

In 1913, Kent was up in Winona, Minnesota, constructing a mill when the Armory Show suddenly detonated without him in New York. The snub stung him, but four years later, he himself broke with the avant-garde by resigning from direction of the Society of Independent Artists show over entries like Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal. Along with Hopper, Bellows, Wood, Curry and Benton, among others, Kent was not buying the self-serving modernist myth that deliberate ugliness and nihilism were the destiny of art.

In 1929, after returning from yet another near-fatal but excitingly written and brilliantly illustrated adventure – yachting with two other men from Newfoundland to Greenland, where they wrecked on a barren coast and were rescued by Eskimos and Danes – Kent embarked upon yet another career as a book illustrator. Moving easily in New York society, he designed colophons for Viking Press, Random House and the Modern Library, logos still in use today. This hectic urban phase included illustrations, influenced by his own memoirs of Greenland (N by E) and Tierra del Fuego (Voyaging) for a three-volume limited edition and Random House trade edition of Moby-Dick, which revived the fame and fortunes of that nearly forgotten classic. The 30s saw him much in demand by the publishing world: for Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, the complete works of Shakespeare, the memoirs of Casanova, the Decameron, Candide, Faust, Leaves of Grass and many more. Kent also produced a spate of satirical drawings for the likes of Vanity Fair and Harper’s Weekly under the name “Hogarth Jr.” During this period The New Yorker was able to tease, “That day will mark a precedent/Which brings no news of Rockwell Kent.”

Diva Renée Fleming believes that the most important quality for a voice is that it be “distinctive” – think of Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Callas. Kent’s work was certainly of its time (and we all know the style of one’s own time is “transparent,” invisible to those who are within it), and yet is instantly recognizable as his, rippling with individual energy; his kinetic, confessional writing style prefigures New Journalism.

Meanwhile, there was politics.

Kent’s career bestrode the Age of the Manifesto. The mad intensity of the ‘20s, the “almost complete breakdown of our whole industrial machine” in the ‘30s, and the escalating slide toward war of the ‘40s forced artist to become activist. As he explained in This Is My Own (1940), the first of two formal autobiographies (though all his writings are autobiographical),

I believe in Peace and, as a clear and never-failing voice for Peace, in Art. … I am ashamed of it; ashamed, … of my childlike innocence, my adolescent credulousness, my fatuous belief. Roosevelt and the New Deal – can’t we recall what faith we had in them in ’33? … Just let us live in peace. … Deeply and from my heart, in utter reverence I pray: God damn them all.

Pacifism and noninterventionism were about to be criminalized when in 1939 Kent was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain his views and associations. He denied, honestly, being a Communist Party member, but would not disavow his red friends and associates, who were legion. For instance, he had designed posters for the IWW, contributed graphics to The Masses, slipped rebellious slogans into his WPA murals, and served as an official of the International Workers Order insurance society. In 1950 the government revoked his passport; and in 1953 the Orwellian-named “Permanent Investigations” Subcommittee tried to sweat him again on the subject. Senator McCarthy interrupted the artist’s defense by snapping, “I’ll not hear a lecture from you, Mr. Kent.” Kent retorted, “You certainly won’t – I get paid for my lectures!”

Emerging from this inquest, where he had refused to answer “Are you now or have you ever been?,” Kent was accosted by reporters who asked the same question. This time he chortled scornfully, “No I am not and have never been … and practically everybody knows that!” It was not until 1958 that the Supreme Court in a landmark decision ruled his passport be restored immediately.

After all the bad PR, however, Kent underwent what critic Edward Hoagland calls “steep neglect of his work.” Galleries and shows were closed to him, collectors no longer collected him. In 1960 he defiantly donated eighty paintings and ten times as many drawings and prints to the Soviet Union, where they repose to this day, in the Hermitage and Pushkin museums, among others. In 1967 the Soviets awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize, most of which he gave away to charities … in North Vietnam.

Rockwell Kent was a gadfly, and a bit of a crank, who “just wanted to be left alone”: an egotistical socialist, cosmopolitan isolationist, patriotic globalist, home-loving adventurer, Christian nature-worshipper, avant-garde antimodernist, philandering family man, “deeply misanthropic” humanitarian (per Hoagland), democratic individualist, ecstatic engineer, bon vivant laborer – in many ways the painterly equivalent of resistance poet Robinson Jeffers.

Between us moderns and men like Kent and Jeffers there is not just a cultural but an anthropological difference. The right-wing individualist of today is the social liberal of yesterday. But the likenesses between Kent and William Blake, born 125 years earlier, are so great that the former seems almost the latter’s reincarnation. Both were mystics, worshippers of Liberty, yearners after the natural and elemental Life, artists as well as philosophers, believers in Free Love, calligraphers as well as painters, illustrators of their own writings, accused of sedition, and hauled before tribunals. In addition Kent learned from Blake how to draw the “Human Form Divine.” Unlike Blake and most other Symbolists, however, Kent was adept at rendering individuals body and soul. His portraits of Greenlanders in Salamina (1935) are alive. Unlike fellow landscape artists Maynard Dixon and the Group of Seven, he caught not only that last thin yellow ray of Arctic sun on the shoulder of the mountain but well-wrought parties of humans and their gear. Kent’s vision of man in nature was an unusually balanced one, reflecting his own Renaissance balance of gifts.

Quoth a Renaissance proverb: “A cat may look at a king.” It is understood that feline nature disdains servility. British law goes so far as to define cats as “free spirits,” “wanderers” – unlike dogs, which are property that can stray and even trespass. Cats “are allowed to roam outside” and “are not considered domesticated animals” under American law as well. A Kent too may look at a king. His story, like the story of resisters such as Edward Snowden today, demonstrates the necessity for multiple power centers, especially as the world continues to massify into a smothering, elite-ridden globaloma. It is not necessary that the center chosen for refuge be 100% righteous – merely that it exist. The enemy of your enemy may not be your friend, but at least he differs from your enemy.

Rockwell Kent, the erstwhile communist, reposes beneath a stone that reads “This Is My Own” (from Scott’s “Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said,/’This is my own, my native land?’”). He died in 1971 on his Plattsburgh farm, called Asgaard after Nordic myth, just up the river from his New York birthplace, near the Vermont and Canadian borders.

A friend of Blake wrote after his death, “His aim single, his path straightforward, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy. He was a man without a mask.” Rockwell Kent, too, lived a free man - one of the last of the Americans.