December 14, 2003

Song of the Century

Posted at 03:41 PM Written

The Afternoon Show on CBC Radio in Vancouver sponsored a write-in contest called Song of the Century. I didn't win.

Sometime in the first half of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that two emerging powers were destined to clash. One of these nations would uphold the supreme right of the individual, and the exercise of their powers through democratic forms and free thought. The other, through a rigidly centralized ideology and political structure, would promote the needs of society over those of any individual.

At the time, the United States was a fledgling nation which had not yet even spread "from sea to shining sea." Meanwhile, in Czarist Russia, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov's parents had not yet been born. Still, somehow, de Tocqueville foresaw the primary conflict of the 20th century from a half-century away.

We remember the Second World War in chilling detail. It was an event of unparalled destruction and suffering. An undeniable madness. A story we repeat to ourselves again, and again. However, protracted as it was, it was an event which established the playing field on which the real conflict would be played out.

The central concern of this century has been how we as societies and individuals organize ourselves, where power flows from and who benefits, and what those benefits are to be. We have competed on every front, in politics and sports, arts and technology, espionage and state terrorism. And at many of these competitions, flags were waved and songs were sung.

Every four years, the world would gather for the grand spectacle of the Olympics which, politically, became a competition between two teams. The whole point of this exercise was to have your flag sent aloft, and your national anthem played.

My heritage is rather mixed, and deeply coloured by this global segregation of power. In 1961, I was born on a West German airforce base, where my father flew RCAF Sabre jets as part of the NATO mission to protect western Europe from the communist threat. I grew up in the United States, where the national drive on all fronts was simple: "Beat the Russians." As a Canadian from birth, I know too of our own fervour: Paul Henderson is an unparalleled national hero, and I don't believe for a second that beating the Americans then would have meant so much to us.

It's a little hard to imagine what our world would be like without this conflict to drive us on. Would we have gone to the moon? Would we have backed so many dreadful dictators, or undermined the sovereignty of so many powerless nations? Where would we be, today, without the Soviet Union?

I am tempted to nominate both The Star Spangled Banner and the Soviet National Anthem (since 1944) as co-recipients. It's hard to imagine this century without the pair. But if it is only to be one song, then it should be the Soviet Anthem. Afterall, the century has ended and a swan song is appropriate. Besides, it's the prettier melody of the two.

To my knowledge, de Tocqueville never commented on how the conflict would end, or what would come in the aftermath. I'm no de Tocqueville, but let me observe that without the Soviet Union standing before us, perhaps the mirror is unobstructed and we'll be able to see ourselves, and our allies and agents in this struggle, a little more clearly. We are very much in need of such insight.



Presently listening to:
the history of the world - Gang of Four - (04:30)

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