America, Music, Travel

#5. July 4th | Nationalism | Woody Guthrie

Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. “Mankind.” That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!

– President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day (1996)

“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

I happened to be in US during ‘Fourth of July’, last year. Though somewhat acquainted with the traditions through pop culture, I was quite excited to check on how the Americans celebrate their ‘National Day’.  I was living in Lafayette- West Lafayette area, which was a small campus township in Indiana. From my lab-mates, I came to know that celebration there was not so spectacular like that in bigger cities. However, anything was still better for me than nothing. I had my day-off and probably was the last person who could sit idly for a sufficiently long time so I checked the schedule of the events and arrived at the venue on time!

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July 4th celebrations, Downtown Lafayette (2014)

As I reached there, the ‘Indian’ in me immediately had his head hung low. Here in India, a country with population surpassing a billion and with a rich heritage of thousands of years hardly observe our independence day with enthusiasm. And there I was standing in a rural township whose streets remain hardly busy during normal days had her crowds pouring into the down-town area, elegantly dressed in ‘stars and stripes’ attire! Some head-over-heels love these Americans have for their country, I wondered! In a way, I was ashamed and envied their passion; but later when I pondered over it,  I rather felt a tinge of creepiness.

I am not a political theorist. Neither a student of social sciences. Being a layman, I appreciate that nationalism is a great unifying force. It enables people of a country to come under a common banner, harmonize with fellow citizens and take up collective responsibilities towards welfare of their country. But since this is such a motivating rallying cry, it is possible to distort the orientation by the force that dictates it, which is in most cases, the government. It becomes a weapon of mass mobilization in times of war, an opium to mask people’s consciousness of socio-economic problems and a propaganda tool to alienate all dissenting opinions and fringe groups.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

-Woody Guthrie, This land is your land (Original lyrics, 1940, excluded from 1944 recording)

Woody Guthrie, the celebrated American songwriter-musician recorded the song “This land is your land” in 1944 which till date is America’s one of the most famous folk songs. The song gives a passionate commentary of the American ethos in its verses like “This land is your land, this land is my land, From California to the New York Island” and was covered by numerous artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio to Bruce Springsteen. But what makes it most interesting is the fact that the song was penned by a musician who used to carry a guitar with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”. He apparently wrote this song  frustrated with the unrealistic, complacent lyrics of “God Bless America”. But even he shied away from including the subversive stanzas with its strong political overtone, in the recorded version. Probably he wanted to limit his opinion to give the song an anthemic character. We never know. 

 

woody_guthrieA key aspect of nationalism is the conviction about the superiority of one’s own country when compared to others. But a thinking along this route blinds us of the shortcomings and what can be done to address them. It ceases to be love and becomes an obsession; if anyone dares to swim against the tide of mass hysteria, they are greeted with censure. It gives news agencies the power to scathe, “It’s just those liberals who hate America.” In India, the ruling party leaders don’t hesitate to warn, “opposition to Yoga amounts to anti-national and anti-social acts”.  We discriminate against North-easterners, joke about their ethnicity but don’t fail to bask in the glory of Mary Kom, a sports icon of the same ethnic origin and bash people if they don’t stand up in respect to the national anthem at end of her biopic. Our nationalism is so cryptic!

Inflexible systems and intolerance are few of the most frightening things in the world.  We take our opinions too seriously, without bothering to lend an ear to others. We compartmentalize the world by viewing it through our tinted glasses and promptly pass on a judgement. We spend hours in comment wars on social media when we find ‘Someone is wrong on the internet‘. The action of the government is just a scaled-up version of our individual tenacities. People like us, not aliens constitute the ‘establishment’. And those whom we condemn as ‘anti-establishment’. And patriotism is nothing but love. But it shouldn’t be blind. It shouldn’t be beyond recognition of flaws and respect of differences. And that is why, I felt a little scared when I saw the Americans with their baggage of national pride that day.

 

Happy Birthday Uncle Sam! And may you remember Guthrie’s song in its totality. The different beliefs and different banners with which people gather behind it. Because protest and patriotism differs only in the way we interpret it.

I will be visiting you again soon. Till then goodbye! 🙂

Guthrie’s picture source: http://gregwalcher.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/woody_guthrie.jpg 

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