HETRICK: O say, can you see, by democracy's dimming light?

January 7, 2012

As a high school senior in 1976, I wrote a speech about our nation’s bicentennial. It wasn’t rah-rah, flag-waving, aren’t-we-wonderful oratory. On the contrary, it was in-your-face, learn-from-our-mistakes-to-improve-the-future rhetoric.

Among several historical lessons I incorporated was our nation’s mistreatment of the environment. To make the point with a touch of humor, I sang comedian George Carlin’s version of “America the Beautiful”:

Oh beautiful, for smoggy skies, insecticided grain.

For strip-mined mountains’ majesty,

Above the asphalt plains.

America, America,

Man sheds his waste on thee.

And hides the pines,

With billboard signs,

From sea to oily sea.

Much to my surprise and to the chagrin of a few judges, my speech won the state championship in original oratory and I advanced to the national competition.

Although the rules said the judges were to evaluate speeches based on writing and delivery—not on their agreement or disagreement with the content—some judges, especially at the national level, didn’t like what I had to say. At least one tried to throw me out on a technicality, going so far as to phone the National Forensic League to determine whether it was legal to sing during original oratory competition.

This ancient history came to mind last month when state Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, called for legislation requiring the Indiana Department of Education to set standards for singing and playing the national anthem. Change (or forget) words, or alter the tune, and the musical miscreant would face a fine of $25.

Had we applied such rules to “America the Beautiful” in 1976, George Carlin and I would, presumably, have owed the piper.

One of many reasons I love this country and argue for its improvement is the right to free expression. When I put my hand over my heart and pledge allegiance, as I did during that speech in 1976 and on every occasion since, I advocate “liberty and justice for all.”

That liberty includes Jimi Hendrix’s freedom to jam the national anthem on an electric guitar, Christina Aguilera’s freedom to botch the lyrics, and the freedom of pacifist collegians in Goshen to select an alternative song equally patriotic but less violent than our national anthem’s “perilous fight” and “bombs bursting in air.”

But here’s the bigger question: At a time when we need to create jobs, increase earning power, improve school performance, enhance citizens’ health, reform local governments and otherwise boost our state’s reality and reputation, why must Indiana officials delve into the divisive? Regulating the national anthem, restricting who may marry whom, reducing access to women’s health services, imposing barriers to voting, weakening workers’ freedom to organize, limiting citizens’ rights to peaceably assemble, etc.

No wonder Hoosiers here at home and Americans nationwide are disillusioned with the political process.

On Jan. 3, I e-mailed a friend in Iowa to ask if she’d be participating in the Republican caucus that night.

“Yes, as much as I hate the process,” she replied. “With a primary, I could do my civic duty in under five minutes … but with the caucus, I’ll have to go sit for a couple of hours listening to people droning on, before I can cast my vote.

“We’re taking [our son],” she said, “since he can vote in 2012, so I’m trying to set a good example.”

I watch and read the national news, the Facebook posts and the Twitter tweets, and I wish Indiana would set a good example.

Instead, I see us lampooned for inane issues like the singing and playing of the national anthem.

I see us grabbing national headlines for “right-to-work” legislation that’s apparently failed to create jobs or boost workers’ incomes elsewhere.

I see us mocked for trying to mandate “creation science” in our public-school classrooms, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional in 1987.

I see us cast as Wild West cowboys seeking guns and ammo to keep our college students safer, while concurrently capping peaceful protests to keep our legislators safer.

I see us closing the door on much-needed job-filling, business-building talent when we propose and pass laws that tell immigrants, same-sex partners and people of color “this is not a progressive place.”

I see us hailed as hypocrites when Statehouse crowds of more than 3,000 are deemed “too dangerous,” yet select crowds of particular persuasions and purposes are granted exceptions.

And, of course, I see us mocked when the elected head of our electoral processes, the Indiana secretary of state, is found guilty of violating election law.

The collective signal, of course, is that our government is not serious. We spend too much time on the nonsensical and even hurtful. We make it difficult to protest. We discourage participation. We make clear that counterpoints aren’t welcome.

At the risk of a $25 fine, I must sing a cautionary song: “O say, can you see, by democracy’s dimming light?”•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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