Who Needs Irving Berlin?

Scripps-Howard News Service 1.09.02
Balint Vazsonyi

While channel surfing on New Year's Day, I stumbled into the end of a program on Public Television and just caught actor Martin Sheen introducing the last number. He spoke of the millions who had been through the place where he was standing, and it must have been Ellis Island, for he then referred to one Isidore Baline, a young boy from Russia. Mr. Sheen extolled the accomplishment of this newcomer who, better known as Irving Berlin, had written so many of our favorite songs - among them the bestseller of all time: "White Christmas."

"It is most fitting for this program," Mr. Sheen exclaimed, "to conclude with Irving Berlin's tribute to our great country - 'God Bless America.'" There followed a rare full rendition: verse and chorus, beautifully done.

Mr. Sheen's sudden warmth for America stunned me to the point of reporting it breathlessly to my wife. "He is an actor reciting a prepared text," my wife reminded me. I countered that, if such was the case, the texts Mr. Sheen has been reciting in comparable situations sounded more as if prepared in Moscow. Growing up in Soviet-occupied Hungary afforded me extensive acquaintance with his sort of rhetoric.

But one doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Irving Berlin's words and sounds took center stage. I heard the verse for the very first time. The experience prompts me to ask, given that we have been enlightened by the likes of Herbert Marcuse, Patricia Ireland, Jesse Jackson and Oliver Stone, who needs Irving Berlin?

We all do. More than ever.

Immigrants, instead of schools, hospitals, driving tests and ballots in their own language, should be handed the first two lines of the verse to memorize: "While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free."

Minorities who are subject to persecution may proceed to the next two lines: "Let us all be grateful for a land so fair/As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer."

Stars of the entertainment industry should now join in the chorus: "God bless America/Land that I love" - once more, with feeling.

Members and supporters of the ACLU, and other church-and-state separationists, may then pick up: "Stand beside her, and guide her/Thru the night with a light from above." And swallow hard.

Finally, those who feel that Christmas offends their own religious sensibilities might ponder how it happened that someone who was not a Christian wrote the Christmas song that touched the most hearts in America and around the world.

Yes - Irving Berlin was all that: an immigrant; a minority, subject to persecution; a star of the entertainment industry; a lifelong Jew.

The one thing in the previous lineup he was not: a supporter of the ACLU's current agenda.

Presumably, every individual, every organization starts out with good intentions. But now, we are surrounded by too many who want to demolish and destroy, offering nothing new with which to replace the discarded old - many who believe in nothing, and want the rest of us to do likewise.

How about returning some honesty to the dialogue? Those who are criticizing and rejecting traditional America are among its principal beneficiaries, and they would no more give up any of their perks than move to another land.

Is it not time to ask: If you don't have faith in some higher wisdom and authority, what do you do with all that you cannot explain? And no, it is no good to answer - as did the Discovery Channel recently - that "Evolution" created all the life forms and their myriad variations. It was grotesque how, in this program, "Evolution" was treated first as a person, then as a deity. Only the statues and the sacrifices were missing.

Is it not time to ask: If you don't much care for America, what country, what society does meet with your approval? And no, it is no good to answer, "we want an improved America." There is no one alive today remotely qualified to improve upon the bequest of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and the others. The determination to do better, the tools with which to do better, are all part of that bequest.

But we have bigots among us who feel that they cannot possibly have white Anglo-Saxon protestant males as icons. This column is for them. Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant from Siberia. They can sing along with him: "God bless America, my home sweet home."