Malcolm Gladwell’s Stunning ‘Oops’ Moment

August 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

Malcolm Gladwell was on the BBC recently picking his Desert Island Discs.  For the most part, it’s hard to argue with Gladwell’s choices, given his age and his Canadianness.  I’m about a decade younger than him, and his choices look like the selections of someone’s cool older brother c. 1989, there’s BIlly Bragg, and Gillian Welch. Brian Eno’s there, so is Marvin Gaye.  Gaye actually appears twice, with Gladwell choosing the classic deep cut, ‘Piece of Clay.’  But he also picked Gaye’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, which was allegedly the reference point for Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 45-minute version on The Simpsons.  But, none of this really matters so much as Gladwell’s sheer, utter ignorance in introducing The Star Spangled Banner.

He claims that the American national anthem is an ‘insight into the heart of the American soul.’ Why?  Because ‘[t]hey’re blowing stuff up. This is their national anthem, it’s about rockets and bombs.’

Gladwell is referring to the first verse of the song:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

See?  There’s the red glare of the rockets, bombs bursting in the air?  All that nasty stuff, this deep insight into “the heart of the American soul.”  Except.  Gladwell is so wrong it’s embarrassing.  The Star Spangled Banner is about the British attempting to level Baltimore the night of 13-14 September 1814 during the War of 1812.  The author of this song was a lawyer named Frances Scott Key, who was stuck on a British frigate that night, watching the British attempt to reduce Baltimore’s defences to rubble.  He was there because he had negotiated a prisoner swap with the British.  The next morning, he was shocked to see Old Glory in the ‘dawn’s early light.’  Somehow, Fort McHenry survived the night and the flag still flew.

Scott was so overcome with emotion, he wrote The Star Spangled Banner almost on the spot.  He set the lyrics to a common British drinking song that every American knew.  Understand the irony: The Star Spangled Banner arose from the War of 1812, when the enemy was the British.  It also had three more verses that, thankfully, have long since been forgotten.

There are many problems with The Star Spangled Banner.  The major one is that anthem singers in the United States think that they must stretch their vocal chords to the breaking point (or quite often beyond) in singing the song.  Interestingly, when the campaign to make the song the official American national anthem picked up steam in the era around the First World War (it finally happened in 1931), newspaper editors complained the song was ‘unsingable.’

But this is all beside the point of Gladwell’s stunning mis-step here, as he descends down into stupid, knee-jerk anti-Americanness.  He should know better.

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§ 3 Responses to Malcolm Gladwell’s Stunning ‘Oops’ Moment

  • Dave Schurman says:

    Of course you are correct about the original reason for the writing of this anthem and maybe good old Malcolm forgot that. BUT he is correct about the reading of this in the modern 2014 context. The governments of the USA have been very good at blowing things up and creating lots of chaos in the world. I hope most US citizens do not condone this but the record is not a pretty one. So it is really not an embarrassing as you make it out to be…Dave S

    • It’s massively embarrassing, Gladwell is getting the entire history of the anthem wrong, and you know as well as I do that a government does not speak for its people, if it did, we’d all be lining up behind Harper.

      Of course the US has blown stuff up, it’s messed stuff up, but it’s also the hegemon of the world and when things go awry, people turn to it to help, whether it’s Libya or Syria, or anywhere else, including right now in Iraq. In most situations today, the United States is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.

      As for Gladwell, he’s flat out wrong.

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