Jewish World Review May 5, 2006 / 7 Iyar, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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It's a grand old flag . . . | You would think that people capable of organizing massive demonstrations in support of the country's illegal immigrants would have a lot of political savvy.

But if there's been anything more impressive than the size of the crowds, it's been the tone-deaf quality of those organizing these marches.

An observer of the first such rallies might have been forgiven for thinking the demonstrators were out to undermine their own cause. Why else the sea of Mexican flags?

Why would people who want to become American citizens fly a foreign flag? What better way to demonstrate their foreignness? And confirm all the fears of their critics?

Powerful things, flags. There's nothing quite like the sight of one's own in a foreign land. All the things it represents are suddenly thrown into sharp relief.

I'll never forget walking onto American soil, specifically the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, after spending three depressing weeks in the fall of 1983 touring the late and unlamented Soviet Union. It was as if an iron gate had been raised and you'd been allowed out of your cage for the evening. You could almost taste the freedom.

The folks who'd decorated the embassy that evening had done a masterful job; they'd chosen reproductions of signs that once had identified New England inns. My favorite was Live and Let Live. No sentiment could have been more un-Soviet.

And there outside the embassy was Old Glory, spotlighted against Russia's leaden skies, flying like a beacon of hope. No wonder so many for so long have wanted to be Americans. Que bonita bandera! What a beautiful flag!

Ah, famous flags I have known! It's an assurance to see the French tricolor outside a good restaurant a la francaise. Lafayette, we have arrived! And we're hungry.

Nothing complements a Jaguar dealership better than a Union Jack, and all of us are Irish on St. Patrick's Day, when the Chicago River runs green courtesy of whichever Daley is mayor at the time. And when the Brazilians win the World Cup, it always brings a smile to see their national ensign waving above some soccer fan's house in American suburbia.

The Mexican flag makes the perfect backdrop for the mariachi bands at Cinco de Mayo festivities. And back in the fearful summer of '67, when Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that his mighty legions were going to drive the Jews into the sea, I can remember waving the Israeli flag like mad at a rally in Chicago's Grant Park — an all-day affair that seemed to last only a little less time than the subsequent war did.

But if you're going to demonstrate for American citizenship, companeros, then wave an American flag for goodness' sake.

It's a grand old flag; why would anyone demanding acceptance as an American want to fly any other? The obtuseness of it. At least those demonstrating soon learned better. These days Old Glory tends to far outnumber the Mexican flags on such occasions.

But no sooner is one lesson learned than another has to be. Now we are treated to a Spanish version of the national anthem ("Nuestro Himno") and, if that's not unsettling enough, the translators have taken the liberty — no, the license — of changing some of the words.

Por que? Why on earth would anyone out to win the rest of us over start playing games with the national anthem? What better way to declare a language war a la Quebec v. Canada?

Granted, "The Star-Spangled Banner" may not be the most appealing of musical numbers; it's unsingable except by operatic stars, and most of the verses are well forgotten. Let's face it: With all the stirring anthems available to Americans — "America," "America the Beautiful, and "God Bless America," not to mention "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" — our official anthem has to be the least appealing.

No wonder every self-styled artiste is tempted to ring a few awful changes on the anthem at ballgames. (Jimi Hendrix and Roseanne Barr have been among the many who've messed with "The Star-Spangled Banner" to no good effect.) If words and music were the only considerations, the national anthem would have been changed long ago.

Ungainly as "The Star-Spangled Banner" is, there's still something offensive about others deciding to improve it. It would be like an American telling the French how much better the "Marseillaise" would sound in English, especially if we changed an awkward phrase here and there.

Dangit, it's our national anthem, and has been officially recognized as such since 1931. So hands off. Want to share our country? Share our traditions, screechy as they may be.

When you're a guest in someone else's house, and maybe an uninvited guest at that, you don't go rearranging the emotional furniture. And what besides its flag and national anthem could have so much emotional resonance for a nation? Which may be why the American flag is so easily abused. Protesters know they can provoke others by desecrating it. Demagogues know they can promote the most un-American of causes by waving it.

Powerful things, flags and anthems. They need to be employed with care. When they aren't, the false notes are obvious.

It shouldn't be necessary to spell out why a foreign flag is out of place at a demonstration for American rights and liberties, or why the national anthem just isn't the same when sung in Spanish.

Context can be all in these matters. I once heard "Dixie" sung in Latin, which was a kick. "The Star-Spangled Banner" sung in Cajun French to zydeco accompaniment might be just the thing to get the French Quarter back on its feet down in soggy New Orleans. There may even be a place for a Spanish version of the national anthem, namely on the campaign trail down in the (Rio Grande) Valley. But not at a mass rally that's supposed to be about E Pluribus Unum — from many, one!

It's all a matter of taste, the clearest of qualities yet the most difficult to explain to those who don't have it. Perhaps the first requirement of belonging to this one nation indivisible is sharing a national intuition about these things.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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