G-d Bless America or Is Our Flag Still There?
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
What voice do you hear singing this song? Do you hear your own voice, as a child, singing it in your classroom? As a Yankee fan, I hear the unmistakable voice of Kate Smith. After 9/11, Smith’s rendition of “G-d Bless America” was heard during every seventh inning at Yankee Stadium. I remember being at the Stadium for a playoff game with my son Josh right after 9/11; when we all sang along with Kate Smith, it was a moving tribute to the American spirit.
But this year, in April, this custom stopped. The Yankees announced that they would no longer play the Smith soundtrack because, early in her career, she had recorded two songs with racist lyrics. A Yankees spokesman claimed Smith’s “G-d Bless America” was being dropped because the team “take[s] social, racial, and cultural insensitivities very seriously.”
Before I tell you what I think of this decision, and what I think this tells us about the time we’re living in, let me tell you about this song and this singer.
“G-d Bless America” was written by a Jewish man named Irving Berlin. It’s 1938, a horrible time. Nazis savagely attack thousands of Jewish people in Germany and the Holocaust begins. It is a very frightening time for America; America is weak, broke, and divided. Berlin revises the song, and on November 11th, 31-year old Kate Smith sings “G-d Bless America” for the first time on national radio. It becomes the prayer that helps unite and inspire America at that terrible point in history.
Kate Smith was one of the most popular American singers of her time. She recorded around 3,000 songs and sold 19 million records in her long career. When the war came, she traveled more than 500,000 miles to entertain the soldiers, and sold an astonishing $600 million in War Bonds to help finance the war effort. Her recording of “G-d Bless America” was so influential that both of the Presidential candidates in1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, made it their official campaign song. It was such a unifying song that both parties wanted it. That was a different time.
Was Kate Smith a racist? No. If Smith had been newly exposed as a bigot, I would understand this whole controversy. But no one has suggested anything of the kind. In fact, we know a lot about her and it all points in the other direction. For example, in 1951, Smith invited Josephine Baker to appear on her popular TV program, the first time the controversial black entertainer was seen on American television.
Until last April, almost no one remembered that Kate Smith had recorded two songs with what seem to be offending racial stereotypes. By 21st-century standards, the songs do seem, at first glance, to be expressions of racism. But as I always say, you have to study these things for yourself. So I looked at the song and read the lyrics. What I found was that the song was a biting satire of white bigotry. The song was also recorded by Paul Robeson, the great African-American baritone, whose father had been a slave. You remember Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” in Showboat, an anti-racist Broadway show. Paul Robeson was a great spokesman for the suffering of blacks in America and sang this same song because it was a condemnation of racism. Kate Smith sang this song because she was anti-racist.
As a company that wants to make money, the Yankees worry about public relations. It decided to treat Kate Smith as a pariah.
But they didn’t do any homework. It only took me a few minutes to check this out and to realize that they were simply wrong.
Why did they throw Kate Smith out the window?
Because they’re scared. Everybody’s scared.
They’re scared of being called racists.
We talk about racists and white supremacists and I take their emergence into a more public stance with the utmost seriousness.
But right now I’m saying that at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a tyranny on the left. In June, I watched an assembly of California progressives who were listening to Democratic Presidential candidates, and a very respectable liberal governor with a fine liberal record was booed when he said that socialism was not the way to go. You boo because someone says America should not become a socialist country?
Those boos are the tyranny of the left. There is a politics of resentment, in which people are so angry because of injustice and discrimination that they set standards and create a rigid vocabulary and if you don’t meet every one of those standards and if you have any deviation at any point in your life from those arbitrary standards and if you don’t say every single word the way that they say those words, you’re a bad person. They will go through your record with a fine toothcomb. If you have sung 3000 songs but one of them uses a word that they don’t like, they don’t look at how that word was used; they’ll just ban you from the ballpark. In Philadelphia, they removed the statue of Kate Smith, like she was a Confederate slave-owner.
If you’re Kate Smith, and you sing 3000 songs, there will be a couple of songs that will be misunderstood or the times will change and make it seem like they were bad songs.
But what about the other 2,998 songs?
And what about your famous rendition of G-d Bless America?
I called a woman I know who has strong left-wing views; I’ll call her Josephine. I said that I was thinking about a sermon about the divisions in our country today and I asked if we could talk. She said, “You can’t talk to me.” “Ok,” I said, “Just remind me what I did wrong.”
Josephine said, “I heard you talk about the immigration crisis, and you think it’s terrible what’s going on at the border, but you still think there should be laws and you don’t agree with completely open borders, so that means you’re a racist. And besides,” she said, “I’ve heard you say that abortion is a really complex issue, which makes you anti-feminist. And besides that, I’ve heard you have questions about how we should get to the best health care system, which sounds like a line from the big pharmaceutical companies. That makes you a tool of Big Pharma.” I was starting to get a little irritated, so I said, “The only Big Pharma I know is Old Macdonald.”
The phone went dead. “Good talk,” I said.
This tyranny of the left smashes all dialogue.
Now let me talk about the tyranny on the right. I want to recite a song you know even better than “G-d Bless America”.
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 through 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?
You know these words and you think that you know the story. Here’s how you think of it: It’s the War of 1812, when the British, after losing the Revolutionary War and its thirteen American colonies, want to get America back, so they invade. At the Battle of Baltimore, Fort McHenry is shelled by British cannon fire, and an American, Francis Scott Key, watches all night, and at dawn, the American flag is still flying. He writes “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I want to tell you why that battle and that poem were even more important than you think.
It’s 1811. There’s tension with England. The British are harassing our ships. President James Madison is talking about going to war. But America only has six thousand soldiers, and the British have a half a million well-trained regulars. America only has sixteen ships; the British have the world’s biggest navy, six hundred warships. Americans understand that war is a really terrible idea and in the spring of 1812, go to the polls and vote against Madison’s party, the Republicans. The people are against war. It is a very bad idea.
But President Madison claims that the war is already going on because the British are harassing our ships. And in a secret session, he gets the Senate to approve the war by a vote of just 19-13.
At that very moment, in England, the British order that their ships should stop harassing Americans. The very reason that America is going to war does not exist. New England governors, including the governor of Connecticut, refuse to send troops. The governor of Massachusetts is willing to go to jail rather than send men to the war. Some even talk about New England becoming a separate country.
But the war rages, and as you might guess, it is a disaster for America. In 1814, the British invade Maryland, come to Washington and burn the White House. Madison flees for his life and goes into hiding.
Just when everything is about as bad as it can be, the British lose the Battle of Baltimore, the battle immortalized by the Star Spangled Banner. That song stirs America. Everything starts to turn in America’s favor. After a great victory at the Battle of New Orleans, peace talks begin.
The war is remembered as a great victory for America.
But we should think of it as an important lesson for our time.
Let’s take a step back and think about America. The American system of government is based on the principle of checks and balances, so that no person should ever have too much power over the country; no person should ever be above the law. The Founding Fathers, so angry at what they saw as the tyranny of King George III, knew their Bibles. They saw parallels between the oppression of King George III against the American colonies and the oppression of Pharaoh against the Israelites.
There was no law code in Egypt. The other ancient societies all had law codes. But in Egypt, there was no law code because anything Pharaoh said was the law.
Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, but they kept growing, anyway. So Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill the baby boys as soon as they were born and to lie that the babies had died in childbirth. But when those midwives refused to follow those horrible orders, Pharaoh told all the Egyptians to go after all the Israelite baby boys and throw them in the river.
That’s how tyrants work; at first they pretend to do things in what seems to be an acceptable way, and if that doesn’t work, they throw away the pretense and just do their evil in plain sight.
Again, there were no laws in Egypt; Pharaoh was the law. There was no legislature or court system to stop him. But Pharaoh’s own daughter couldn’t stand it, and she saved one of those Israelite boys from the river. She gave the baby an Egyptian name, Moses, which means “Child of.” By calling him “Child of _____ (blank),” the princess pretended that she didn’t know that the baby was an Israelite.
But that baby knew who he was, and when Moses grew up, he saw the evil that was being inflicted on the Israelite slaves, and he became the leader who would save them.
The Founding Fathers, including James Madison, knew the story of Moses and Pharaoh well and they wanted to make sure that no one, especially the President, could become a Pharaoh or a King George III. They brilliantly, carefully, constructed one of the great systems of government in the history of the world.
The Founders, especially James Madison, did not want a President to be able to lead the nation into war without the agreement of the people, represented by Congress.
And yet it was that very same James Madison who led us into an unnecessary war that no one wanted. This is what happens; people get into power and they forget their principles.
This is what happens when one person has too much power.
This is what happens when there are no checks and balances, when Congress goes along with a President’s ill-formed policies.
Those midwives who saved the Israelite baby boys were heroes. Their names were Shiphrah and Puah, Those midwives would not go along with evil fictions. At the risk of their lives, they would not go along with the inhuman dictates of their ruler.
Why not? Because they knew that they could not live with themselves if they would become part of the evil. Those women dedicated their lives to life and they would not be party to murder. For some people, there are things that are more important than themselves.
For those midwives, this was their moment, the moment that defined their lives.
And maybe this moment is the moment that will define America.
I bombed with Josephine, so I called my friend Joe. Let me tell you about Joe. Joe does very well; he ‘s comfortable and he makes a living. But when Joe voted for President in 2016, he wanted to shake things up. He wanted to improve the economy so that the average person could do better. And he voted for a candidate who he thought would do that. As far as Joe is concerned, the President has done a lot of good things for the economy and for America. He would very happily vote for him again.
I sat with Joe the other day and I told him about Kate Smith and G-d Bless America. He’s a Red Sox fan so he liked bashing the Yankees. He liked my phrase, “the tyranny of the left.”
I asked him how he was feeling about what was going on in Washington.
He dismissed most of what he sees on the news as a hoax and fake news.
In my mind, I pictured Fort McHenry, with the bombs bursting in air. But this time, the enemies are all Americans, shooting at each other. If the right and left are shooting each other, there must be a center. I wanted to find that center. So I told Joe about James Madison and the War of 1812.
But Joe did not see any parallels. Joe saw the tyranny on the left. But he could not see the tyranny on the right, when one person has too much power.
So I ordered him a bagel and lox, and I took out a pen and paper, and I said to Joe: “We’re Jewish. We like to talk. Here we are Joe, just you and me, and we can agree on some things and not others. Let’s emphasize what we can agree on.”
So we talked, calmly and respectfully, about the values we share.
Here was our list:
Value #1: No one is above the law. No American Pharaohs. No one should be able to obstruct justice.
Value #2: As Jewish people, who believe that the United States is the greatest democracy in history. We believe in the Constitution and the system of checks and balances. Congress and the courts have the sworn duty to check and balance the Presidency. If Congress or a court wants to see a record, or a tax form, it should see that document.
Value #3: This one was very important to Joe: Every person should be presumed innocent until proved guilty. Joe asked me to refrain from judging anyone until all the facts are in. Joe said: ‘Just because you don’t agree with someone does not mean he’s guilty.” I readily agreed to withhold judgment.
Value #4 – Joe and I believe that if a foreign nation attacks us, and our government’s agencies prove it, we shouldn’t take the word of the enemy leader who dictated the attack over the evidence from those agencies.
Value #5 – We should defend and help our allies, not our enemies. We should not hold back our aid for our allies for one person’s political gain.
Value #6: What is good for the country is more important than one person’s self-interest. What is good for the many is more important than the self-interest of the few.
And Value #7 – We’re In This Country Together. We need to be able to talk to each other. Our country depends on it.
Joe is a bright guy, and understood exactly what I was doing. Joe supports who he supports. I did not change his mind about anything. I think that there is a tyranny on the right, aided and abetted by spineless politicians who are only thinking about themselves, who, unlike Shiphrah and Puah, have forsaken their principles.
Joe disagrees. But he liked being able to talk. He said: “I have had a rule that I can’t talk politics with anyone who does not agree with me. Everyone is so angry. Both sides think that they have 100% of the truth. On both sides, everyone is so smugly self-righteous.”
In turn, I told him why I am not smug. I know that I can be wrong.
Do you know how this moment in America feels? It feels like one loud night of bombs bursting on the airwaves. And so we in the center have to quiet things down, and help others to stop being so angry at each other.
We have to find a middle ground. The Middle must not be a Muddle that bends to the extremes. The Middle must not be a muddle.
The country desperately needs a strong center, a middle that has values, the kind of values Joe and I put on our list. We must fight against all tyranny, on the left and on the right.
I’m asking you to find ways to talk with each other. Don’t be so quick to call each other names. The Yankees were wrong: Kate Smith wasn’t a racist. Josephine was wrong: The closest I ever got to Big Pharma was when I bought Johnson and Johnson Bandaids for my granddaughter Leah when she skinned her knee.
I think that there is a test right now of the American system. I think that this is a Constitutional crisis. Joe can’t see it, which I can’t understand, but we’re talking. And we have a bet about who’s right, because the truth will out, and the loser has to buy the next bagel and lox.
On this holiest of days, we ask G-d to bless America, just like Kate Smith sang, and we hope that He will stand beside us and guide us with the light from above.
There are all these bombs bursting in air, all these rockets flying in red glare, and sometimes I can’t see America anymore.
On this holiest of days, I am hoping for a dawn when we will see that the flag is still there, waving proudly, as a symbol of this country we love so much.