‘In all thy sons command’: If the words are not important, why do so many men oppose changing them?

Just last week, an interim City Councillor in Toronto, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, put forward a motion for Toronto to call on the federal government to change the national anthem to be inclusive of women by changing the words “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” This would amount to endorsing the “Sing All of Us” campaign.

This is not the first time someone has proposed this by any means, and it is truly offensive that the national anthem, in the year 2014, is not gender neutral. Given how simple it would be to change it, it is a reflection of the ingrained resistance to equality for women that still very much exists.As, sadly, could be anticipated, her motion was met with the usual howls about “tradition” and “how is this a priority” by any number of commentators, talk radio types and drips on the internet.All of these objections we have heard before. And they make very little sense.

Most “traditions” in our society that flow from its patriarchal history, after all, are not good ones. Arguments from “tradition” are always the most reactionary and mind-numbingly stupid arguments anyway. Given that many, including even our Conservative government, use issues around women’s equality and our supposed “traditional” national commitment to them, to justify things like our military intervention in Afghanistan and to set us apart from our “enemies,” you would think that they would want this reflected in the anthem!

But also, of course, to many men (and some women) this is not a “priority.” Social inclusion, symbolic (and symbolic inclusion does matter) or otherwise is never the priority of much of the political class and population. Had many had their way, Father Knows Best episodes would still be a sanitized version of social reality. They have opposed all progress at each step of the way.

This whole thread of opposition is perhaps best exemplified by the inane article penned on Monday by Toronto Sun columnist Jerry Agar, “Silly season for ‘women’s’ issues.” In it Agar lectures Canadian feminists about how “silly” they are fighting for what he sees as such irrelevances when, you know, female genital mutilation exists and girls are being kidnapped in Nigeria. He actually — and apparently seriously — argues that Canadian feminists are spending all of their time fighting for the right to go topless and changing the national anthem while ignoring the “real issues.”

This, of course, is ludicrous. But it also reflects a truly absurd logic that is usually only applied to women’s issues or the struggles of racialized and marginalized communities and that amounts to a condescending version of: “Silly women, don’t you know there are more important things for you to be getting all worked up about?” It is part and parcel of another longstanding tradition of men, left, center, and right, telling women how they are getting it all wrong when it comes to their own liberation movement and how feminists would be much better off if they would only listen to men.

The “logic” itself breaks down with even the slightest scrutiny. First, if changing the national anthem really doesn’t matter that much compared to all the “serious” issues out there, why not just do it? Why bother taking the time and making the effort to oppose it, since surely there are more important things for you to spend your time writing columns or getting all worked up about, like maybe all of those endless pages of ink expended on baseball trades or fantasy football leagues. It seems rather “silly season” to be spending time opposing a minor change to bring the anthem into conformity with our alleged commitment to social equality. What possible reason is there for opposing the change?

Unless, of course, you really think it does matter and you really think that the anthem should exclude women.

Second, just because there are bigger issues does not mean other issues and symbolic issues are not important. This is akin to stating, by exactly the same logic, that Toronto City Council should not vote to fix up a dilapidated playground, or spend money on totally symbolic gestures like flag raisings or commemorations at City Hall because there are bigger issues like transit, housing, or poverty or because of the war in Gaza. It is simply a ridiculous excuse for not wanting to take action.

All of these various issues are not mutually exclusive. You can fight for the both the larger and smaller changes and reforms at the same time. Doing one neither precludes nor hinders the other.

Quite the opposite in fact.

Symbols matter. There is a reason, for example, that it is important to support the fight to change racist sports team names like the Washington Redskins. They contribute to a culture and a society of systemic racism and colonialism that, in fact, is part of how the conditions are created that allow people to disregard or be indifferent to extreme poverty within and historic injustice against Native and Indigenous peoples.

Similarly, the national anthem of our country, by excluding explicitly in its lyrics half of the population of the country, helps to legitimize a society and a culture that still treats women as second class citizens, where women are still sexually assaulted and exploited in depressingly high numbers, where objectification is a daily fact of life, where women are more likely to live in poverty, and so many of the other inequalities and injustices of our patriarchal civilization.

It does this by, in a song that is sung by young girls and young women in schools nationwide everyday, telling these same young women and girls that they do not matter. That they are not even worth including in one of the most basic things that many see as a part of our national identity, our national anthem.

That matters.

Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, is a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2014, and is on the executive of the Socialist Party of Ontario.
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