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National anthems all too often celebrate a dark past

ByElizabeth Greenberg

Oct 18, 2016

One of my favorite parts of international football tournaments (besides the match) is listening to the different national anthems of all the countries. I’d usually look up the lyrics, and be shocked, dismayed, but ultimately entertained at how gruesome some of the European anthems sounded. Obviously tied to either ancient grudges or imperialistic intentions, nationalism screamed from the mouths of passionate male footballers, whose zeal for their country was (hopefully) not tied to crushing their enemies anywhere off the pitch.

I like to think that those footballers and their singing fans did not share the same values of their out-of-date national anthems. And for the most part, they probably don’t. So why bother keeping such politically incorrect, violent, and nationalist songs harkening back to a day where white people tried to conquer the world, half of Europe wanted to kill the other half of Europe, and the rest of the world hoped both sides of Europe fell.

That’s what I imagine went through the head of Mahamed Abdullahi, the Vice President for Education and Community at King’s College London, when he posted a status on Facebook calling for the removal of the national anthem from the graduation ceremony. Claiming that the song was “not reflective of the ‘global’ values that the college espouses,” Abdullahi called on fellow student voices to strengthen his argument. While KCL initially said that a discussion was in the works, the University quickly backtracked and said that they will keep God Save the Queen at the ceremony.

Student backlash was strident, and a petition even called for Abdullahi to “respect the traditions of the university and the country in which we study,” according to the Huffington Post. Abdullahi is a student from the Netherlands, and so to me, an American and therefore also an international student, calling on a foreign person to respect a tradition they find outdated and nationalistic, is a bit offensive, not to mention a double standard.

We are asked to respect the British traditions of nationalism by playing a song that calls on a higher entity to “scatter her enemies/and make them fall.”  The song should even be found offensive by UK citizens, particularly the Scottish, simply for the line “rebellious Scots to crush.” No wonder the entire anthem is rarely played.

Even a somewhat ‘friendly’ line at first glance becomes horrendous once you recognize Great Britain’s history: “Lord make the nations see/that men should brothers be/and form one family/the wide world over.” It’s not saying that everyone should get along peacefully – it’s saying that the Queen should rule over everyone, under one family, i.e., the royal one.

Yes, this song is outdated, and nationalist, “and it doesn’t even bang,” as Abdullahi wrote so eloquently on his Facebook post. The traditions it keeps in its lyrics relate to a monarchy that has lost all its power and an empire that oppressed a lot of the world and no longer exists. I’m not saying that the UK’s anthem is the only one guilty of nationalism (looking at you, France.) But in light of the refugee crisis, Brexit, and the rise of many far right politicians in much of Europe, maybe taking a step back and evaluating traditions as byproducts of imperialism is a good idea. When challenging these traditions causes people to order foreigners to accept the traditions of the country, it’s a fairly clear sign that those traditions still cause subliminal nationalism.

Image credit: Vaughan Leiberum


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