Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Author of "America The Beautiful" Was a Commie

Peter Dreier informs at Talking Points Memo:
Yes, indeed. The author of this iconic anthem of American patriotism was Katharine Lee Bates. In a brilliant lampoon of the bigots' backlash against the Coke commercial, Stephen Colbert pointed out that Bates was a lesbian. He could also have added that she was also a Christian socialist and an ardent foe of American imperialism.

Bates (1859-1929), a well-respected poet and professor of English at Wellesley College, was part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area, concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women's suffrage.

For decades Bates lived with and loved her Wellesley colleague Katharine Coman, founder of the college's economics department, who authored The History of Contract Labor in the Hawaiian Islands and The Economic History of the Far West. Coman was also a poet. She and Bates jointly wrote English History as Taught by English Poets.

Although they lived together for 25 years in what was then called a "Boston Marriage," they could not publicly acknowledge their intimate relationship. When Coman died, however, Bates published Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance that celebrated their love and their involvement in the radical and social reform movements of their day.

Were Bates and Coman alive today, they would probably have taken advantage of Massachusetts' law allowing same-sex couples to marry -- a law that folks like Limbaugh find appalling.

Bates' circle of reformers and radicals -- including union activists, feminists and housing crusaders -- were strong advocates for immigrants. Bates and Coman volunteered at Denison House, a Boston settlement house that worked to improve the lives of immigrants who lived in Boston's slums and worked in its sweatshops. Denison House was founded by their Wellesley colleague Vida Scudder, another radical socialist, feminist, and lesbian. It was modeled on Hull House, founded by Jane Addams in Chicago.

To honor her achievements, two elementary schools -- one in Wellesley, Mass., the other in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as Bates Hall dormitory at Wellesley College -- are named for the author of "America the Beautiful."[...]

She was a lifelong Republican, at a time when there were many progressive Republicans. But Bates broke with the party to endorse Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis in 1924 because of the GOP's opposition to American participation in the League of Nations. (Davis lost that election to Calvin Coolidge). Like many activists at the time, Bates believed that the U.S. should participate in global affairs, but that it should not be a bully against weaker nations -- sentiments she clearly expressed in "America the Beautiful."

Bates penned the poem "America the Beautiful" in 1893 after visiting Pikes Peak in Colorado, from which she saw the Rocky Mountains in one direction and the Great Plains in the other. When she returned to her hotel room, she wrote a letter to friends, observing that "countries such as England failed because, while they may have been 'great,'" they had not been "good." She declared, "Unless we are willing to crown our greatness with goodness, and our bounty with brotherhood, our beloved America may go the same way." She revised the poem several times. The most famous version appeared in her collection America the Beautiful, and Other Poems (1912).

"America the Beautiful" is both a declaration of Bates' patriotism and a protest against Gilded Age greed. It begins with the now well-known words,
“Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain; For purple mountains' majesty above the fruited plain."
Then she pivots to the lines meant as a protest against America's reckless and illegal overseas military adventures as well as the U.S. government's illegal suppression of free speech, dissent, and civil liberties:

"America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law! "
In another verse, she observed:

"America! America! God shed his grace on thee. Till selfish gain no longer stain The banner of the free! "
Bates wasn't happy about America's political leaders, either, as reflected in this verse:

"America! America! God shed his grace on thee. Till nobler men keep once again. Thy whiter jubilee!"
The poem's final words -- "and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea" -- are an appeal for social justice rather than the pursuit of wealth.
I didn't know the history of this song, but I have always hated it anyway. The anti-military adventures stuff is fine, but the rest I always found nauseating. Now, I have even more reason to hate the song.


  1. I never liked the song. Now I like it even less.

  2. The juxtaposition that is created by calling her a "commie", with the emotional, and unintellectual connotations the term brings, in the headline with the fact that she was an "ardent" anti-imperialist makes me uncomfortable. In my experience, the imperialism--making slaves out of the world--is measurably worse than communism.

    1. Philip Martin, the communists were also imperialists. Imperialists are a type of statist.

      What the heck is with people who claim that "commie" has "unintellectual connotations"??? She was a socialist -- a term indistinguishable from communist during her time. Furthermore, today's "socialists," though often condemning the Bolsheviks, support nearly all the destructive economic policies of the Bolsheviks.

      The communists killed 100 million people in the twentieth century alone. Imperialism -- a policy also inspired by socialist policies -- has killed millions of people as well.

      It is therefore absurd to say that imperialism is worse than socialism (again -- the term meant the same thing as communism until Stalin arbitrarily declared a difference in the '30s).

      Don't pretend that you're better than those of us who hate communism; we hate imperialism, too. The communists claimed to hate imperialism, but when they gained power, they carried among the most gruesome acts of imperialism in history. In his efforts to subdue recalcitrant states within the USSR and in his wars of conquest during WWII, Stalin persecuted and killed millions (and, yes, Hitler was not the only person waging wars of conquest in WWII). Furthermore, when he "unified" China, Chairman Mao committed unspeakable atrocities against provinces that did not want to participate in the communist experiment.

      Finally, the USSR cut a bloody swath across Africa and the MIddle East in its monstrous efforts to "liberate" that beleaguered continent.

      The communists believed that they had to conquer ("liberate") the entire world in order for communism to work. This theory was made most prominent by Trotsky, but all communists shared it.

      As "socialist" and admitted Marxist (not an exaggeration) Kshama Sawant, the socialist city council member in Seattle, has declared, socialism cannot work until every country is socialist. Thus, many socialists (perhaps all) still believe in imperialism, even if they do not call it by that name.

      Take your unintellectual superciliousness elsewhere, and study. What a fool you are for claiming that communism -- killer of 100 million and impoverisher of millions more -- is not as bad as something else. Shame on you. What if you came here and claimed that Nazism (which killed "only" 20 million) wasn't as bad as imperialism?

    2. That's because you've never seen communism in all its bloody glory up close. Being a slave is much better than being declared an enemy of the people and slowly starved to death in a labour camp.

    3. Apparently you don't know that communism was brought about in Eastern Europe through imperialism; i.e. that it IS imperialism.

      Yes, she claims to have been anti-imperialist. But that only goes so far as the imperialism is not of a communist but of a fascist or conservative variety. How many commies refused to condemn Stalinism at the height of Stalin's reign both inside the USSR and in its satellite states? Commies simply do not see the spread of communism across borders to be "imperialism". Today, progressives also don't see Obama as fascist. But that doesn't mean it isn't.

      And the notion that communism, wherever it is, does NOT makes slaves out of people is utterly ridiculous. Why in god's name do you think there was a Berlin Wall to keep people in? Why do you think communist nations had purges of so-called "counter-revolutionaries"? Labor camps? Famines? Secret thought police? You think these are hallmarks of a "free" society?

      You don't call all this slavery?
      And even if you didn't, do we really have to remind you of the well over a HUNDRED MILLION deaths as the result of communism in the world in the last century?

      The question is not whether Katherine Lee Bates was a commie; the question is whether she really was an "anti-imperialist".

      Really, the attempt at at least partially whitewashing communism from what it really is, is stunning.
      As if the right-wing sort of Imperialism and left-wing communism cannot be repudiated in roughly equal measure and one must be defended against the other...

    4. The only major Communist power left is China. Do you support a strong dollar policy? Strong dollar means bigger trade deficit with China and a stronger China. So if you support a strong dollar policy, you are supporting Communism and you are a Communist with blood on your hands.

    5. To some degree, I agree that communism is inherently imperialist. I would argue that it is the connection with the Westphalian nation-state that makes it imperialist, though. However, as my original comment states, in my experience, imperialism of the American/Western/Liberal variety is far worse. My experience was garnered from a four year tour in the USMC which included two combat tours in/around Fallujah, Iraq. I went to great lengths to try to explain to America, then, what it was that was happening in Iraq (see:

      The unintellectual and emotional connotations built up around the term 'commie' or 'communism' is the product of decades of explicit and purposeful fear mongering in America/the West that the "evil empire" was conspiring at all moments to destroy the entire "free" world. Especially considering our perfect hindsight, it is very sad to me that Americans have not fully understood that the Cold War was nothing but a farce designed to polarise both citizenries to accept the collectivist governmental paradigm within each territory. The red commie bastards were not the aggressors that the American/Western public was made to believe they were. Typically, they had a hard enough time in their own countries ruling with their misguided ideals to ever pose a real threat to the nominally free world.

      The more fundamental issue is that the only thing accomplished through the use of an emotionally charged moniker is to remove all positives from the author of the song's worldview--the anti-American imperialism--and purposefully throw away an opportunity to capitalise on the hypocrisy displayed by imperialists who use an anti-imperialist song to promote jingoism. While cynicism may be in fashion, focussing on positives rather than amplifying negatives will always be more conducive to spreading a political message.

    6. "However, as my original comment states, in my experience, imperialism of the American/Western/Liberal variety is far worse. My experience was garnered from a four year tour in the USMC which included two combat tours in/around Fallujah, Iraq."

      Over a hundred million deaths as a result of communism; labor camps, starvation, purges, thought police etc. and you still have the nerve to claim that what you saw in Fallujah was worse?

      What baffles me is that you can say this and expect anyone to take you seriously. Have you done a tour of North Korea by the way? I could ask you if you ever were in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China or Pol Pots Cambodia (where about one third of the population was slaughtered), but we know you obviously didn't and have the balls to pretend that what happened there wasn't as bad as a couple of Middle Eastern countries that were hardly paradise even before the invasions.

      I'm sure if a supporter of Nazism made a song called "America the beautiful" you would have told everyone not to make "unintellectual and emotional connotations" about his love for the fourth reich, am i right? Or is there something forgivable about being a commie that isn't applicable to a nazi?

      You don't fool libertarians about America's fear mongering, Mr. Martin. We don't need the state to tell us why communism is revolting and how bad it was, because it was the most murderous ideology of the last century. The enemy of our enemy is not our friend, and you are acting like a profoundly ignorant excuse maker of communism.and/or communists.

      She was a commie, a lover of a totalitarian ideology that murdered millions upon millions and yet had the nerve to claim to be an "anti-imperialist".
      Nazism did not pose anymore of a threat to America than communism did, and yet we all know what the outrage would have been had a supporter of Nazism sang this song about "anti-imperialism".

      We're not going to placate your ridiculous willful blindness and hypocrisy about the nature of communism and its supporters, just because you really really hate America's foreign policy.

      And as far as communism being imperialist when it is connected with the Westphalen nation-state: I'm sure when you're being starved, oppressed or murdered, it really makes a difference if the government that did it was domestic or foreign.

    7. Tony, if only we could count the deaths from Western imperialism throughout the last 4-500 years. From the Spanish imperial conquest of Latin America to the British conquest of Oceania and China to the European imperialist competitions that unfolded in Africa at the close of the 19th Century, I am sure that by body count, Western imperialism makes the new fangled communism of the 20th Century look like a piker.

      A simple gander at Africa, with its straight line borders and multi-ethnic states, displays the disastrous lasting effect Western imperialism has incurred on people around the globe. The legacy of Western imperialism is still with us today. Africa and the middle east are ruled by Westphalian states--an eternal gift from their Western imperial masters. These "states"--dysfunctional as they are--are now stuck inside the international state system reified in the UN. Any attempt by them to break out of the Westphalian nation-state mould incurs the wrath of the international community and subsequent invasions from neighbours and world powers alike. How dare a group of people decide against the farcical self-internalised conception of sovereign authority and set up a government built upon the principles of shared religion, customs or understandings. Any attempt at such a thing will be crushed by the continued imperialist notions of the Western élite.

      I make no apologies for the nationalistic variants of communism that the world saw in the 20th Century, but the simple fact of the matter is that destructive forces of Western imperialism not only predate communism, but still remain with us today. So, who is your enemy? Is your enemy an ideology that has had its temporal flash in the bucket, or is your enemy the antecedent strain of Western arrogance and power that still deleteriously impacts every relation between humans today?

      I, for one, am unconcerned about the red communist monster notionally hiding in the closet of history. The much more palatable and prevailing forces of Western imperialism (in all its nationalist iterations) is the present enemy of freedom.

  3. Do you like this updated version better?

  4. I don't understand the hatred so many libertarians have against this song. It talks about America's aesthetic beauty, it's founding principle of liberty, is anti-imperialist, and considered its contemporary political class as idiots.

    RW (and others), what exactly do you find nauseating? Is there a particular message in the song you don't like, or do you simply not like the aesthetic appeal of the song?

    1. "I don't understand the hatred so many libertarians have against this song."

      That's because you divorce the text from the intention of its commie singer as if one has nothing to do with the other.
      And many libertarians don't.

    2. Anon, think for 10 seconds and you might get it. Shit, I live in a country of total idiots! They can't even reason out SIMPLE tasks.

  5. I believe that "America the Beautiful" is a much better,more decent anthem than "the Star Bangled Banner".
    But national Anthems are a tool used upon nationalistic collectivist statist fools in order to fleece their respective wealth and/or make them die for imperialistic dubious reasons.
    The only cool anthems are personal anthems like mine.
    "Long haired country boy"
    If you don't like the way I'm living, just leave this long-haired country boy the eff alone.
    .(This song was written before the CDB went all Nationalistic tard).

  6. I've been thinking about it for a while Mike, I still don't get it. Please enlighten me.

    FWIW, I'm not even American.

    (Note: I agree that later versions became more statist, but I'm focused on the original lyrics.)