Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

A Non-Opinion on Kate Smith (That Isn’t Really About Kate Smith)

They erected a statue of her. They covered a statue of her. They removed a statue of her.

Singer Kate Smith pre-dates me, she was not a fixture of the music scene when I was a child. I knew her in a specific historical context as a Philadelphia Flyers fan. Sports, as one may well know, can tend towards the superstitious and the 1969 Flyers decided that the team played better when their home games opened with Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.”

Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in that. In 1966 the NHL consisted of only the Original Six team: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York, and Toronto. They won the championships. The league doubled in size in 1967, introducing the hard-nosed Flyers who would become the first non-Original Six team to win the Stanley Cup. If they felt they played better after hearing Smith’s song, so be it.

Because I was not yet alive, I obviously could not attend those games. I knew Kate Smith through my father’s tapes of those Stanley Cup Finals when she sang live to open the game. It became tradition in Philadelphia, and I had seen the footage of her singing before the Cup games before.

The Flyers I know today often feature Lauren Hart, a Philadelphia recording artist and the daughter of Gene Hart, their long-time announcer. It became tradition for Hart to belt out “God Bless America” before home games, especially during the playoffs, and to have Smith’s version take over during a verse to pump up the crowd with nostalgia.

That was then. We will no longer hear Kate Smith’s performance at Flyers games and the commemorative statue of her they had erected outside the arena is scheduled for removal.

As it turns out, Kate Smith has a “history of racism.”

Now one might be expecting me to step into an opinion piece about Kate Smith here. Was she racist? Is removing the statue the right thing to do? So on and so forth. However, if that is what one expects, then one obviously did not read the title of this piece.

No, the Kate Smith incident is the catalyst and metaphor for a separate topic of discussion about the rage machine of the Internet and how we feel we are to conduct ourselves in this modern world.


 

I do not know the details of the Kate Smith incident beyond the following: she had a history with synonymous with Flyers’ success, they erected a statue in her honour, they covered that statue pending an investigation of claims of racism, and they decided to remove that statue following the investigation. The investigation itself apparently involved the racist lyrics of many of her other songs.

That’s all I know. As an advocate for civil rights, a student of ethics, a Flyers fan, and as a human being, people expect me to have an opinion on this, and that presents me with several problems (no, being a Flyers fan and having to forsake an icon is not one of them).

First, that is literally all I know about her. Some of the news I have seen explained that she was a performer of exceptional note, receiving accolades at a national level from both the United States and United Kingdom. That news seems legit, I have no reason to doubt the sources on those points.

Some will speak up in the wake of this about her reputation and might even criticise that my knowledge of Kate Smith stops at “God Bless America.”

So the first point of contention on this list is the performative outrage that accompanies these stories. People knew of Kate Smith prior to this, but I doubt so many were intimately familiar with her discography. When is the last time in a discussion of music one heard Kate Smith mentioned? I do not doubt the reputation of the singer in her time, but she hardly has the lasting legacy of Cole Porter or Ella Fitzgerald.

Yet because the story became a prominent fixture, people will read more and more about her. Their cognitive bias comes into play and they will make decisions about what they read. Kate Smith undeniably accomplished quite a lot in her life, and some may regard that and conclude, “We cannot disrespect her memory this way.”

I consider that a separate point. The main point is that if this story breaks on Tuesday, one reads about it on Wednesday, and then forms an opinion about it on Thursday, one cannot pretend they were a devout Kate Smith fan on Monday.

The abundance of information on the Internet, presented with varying degrees of accuracy, can create the illusion that one has a better sense of the situation than one does. Reading about Kate Smith and having even a basic awareness of her as I do, one might conclude that they were well aware of her reputation and accomplishments because of their scale, when really it amounts to little more than post-hoc rationalisation.

Which brings us to the second item. Some situations call for a passionate response from people, but that passion derives from the emotional response to the details of the situation. In reading the story about (and reactions to) Kate Smith, I had several questions.

Are these allegations of racism tied exclusively to these song lyrics? Did she write the song lyrics? In what capacity did she record her renditions of these songs? Was it contractual obligation or a marketing decision based on the popularity of the songs? While the lyrics may be objectionable, one can hardly evaluate a song and singer of that period by modern standards. Who can expect someone singing in 1942 to be 2019 “woke”?

The coverage I have seen has done little to address any of that, and often when I do find coverage of this sort it amounts to an opinion piece rather than journalistic coverage. I cannot base my position on the opinion of how someone else interpreted the event.

Thus we see people becoming enraged about issues for which they do not have all of the relevant information. This is not to say that their emotional response is incorrect – quite the contrary. The emotional response is valid based on the information that person has available. The emotions they have are the perfect response to their position, but their position may omit critical information. That information changes the position and thus the emotional response.

We increasingly do not get to that point though, and once that initial emotional point occurs it becomes locked. People entrench and double-down on those responses even when presented with additional information that re-shapes (or should re-shape) the perspective of the situation.

And that brings me to my third and perhaps gravest concern. Do I care about racism and social issues? Of course I do. Do I care about this particular situation? Not necessarily. Am I to investigate the answers to those questions personally? Who wrote the lyrics and when? Were those people racist? Deeper and deeper one digs. To what end? To have the correct opinion about whether Kate Smith should have a statue outside the Wells Fargo Center?

The only way to have a relevant position about a topic is to have the relevant information, and I am not omniscient. The vast majority of events have nothing to do with me personally – I acquire my knowledge of said events second-, third-, or even eleventh-hand.

But society, and the Internet in particular, seems to house this idea that I “should care and take the responsibility to educate myself on the topic.”

I cannot educate myself to the requisite degree on every single topic and event that occurs in our society.

With most of these topics and events the conclusion, for me, is quite simple: I have my principled position on the outcome. That aspect of the situation does not change based on the details of the situation. If all the pieces of the Kate Smith puzzle align one way, this is my response. If all the pieces align a different way, this is my alternate response. I am not devising any new perspective on the principle – I am applying considered principles to the situation.

“Why aren’t you outraged that they are removing this statue?”

“Why aren’t you outraged that they did not remove this statue sooner?”

My answer is the same to both crowds: I do not have sufficient information to take one of those positions. The Flyers organisation investigated and concluded, for their organisation, they needed to cut ties with Kate Smith. Ultimately, that is good enough for me because I do not have the time to conduct my own investigation of the matter.

Why not?

Because the whole time I am conducting that investigation, countless other things will unfold and those same people who would chide me for not having intimate familiarity with the Kate Smith situation would want to know why I did not know these other things as well.

My single greatest source of stress and frustration in life right now is feeling that I am caught between knowledgeable people who are too greedy to take action in their respective area and those who are not as knowledgeable about the area as they feel they are.

As a human being today I am expected to be an expert on economics, politics, trans rights, climate change, the removal of statues with racist affiliations, abortion, capital punishment, and countless other topics, not withstanding specific events of note that occur like a police or school shooting, or this Kate Smith story.

The theme one observes across the board is that humans, by and large, agree on principle. The tenets of most religions, justice systems, and social structures are similar in the “don’t kill, don’t steal, try not to hurt, and be nice” philosophy. Where people disagree is the application of those principles to specific situations, and people disagree because we do not align on the details of those situations.

As we adjust details of the Kate Smith story, the people who fall on different sides of the story will shift. If we were to learn that Kate Smith were secretly a Grand Wizard of the Klan, even more people would say, “Yes, let’s get rid of that statue.” Some would persist in keeping it because of the need to preserve history, introducing a separate principle into the discussion. What we find in the latter situation is parallel to the first – broad agreement in the preservation of history and disagreement as to how we achieve that.

This does not mean that people should not have opinions about things, but we seem to be losing sight of the fact that these are opinions. People make the mistake of treating their opinion of the situation, formed off hearing the positions of experts (who themselves are sometimes stating opinion based on their understanding of the situation), as the reality of the situation. The resulting disagreement lacks civility and has vitriol to spare.

I am sure we can attribute plenty of this to the cross-section of Impostor Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger Effect, but being in this place where the experts on a particular topic are not given leave to affect the appropriate policy and the inexpert demand their time at the podium has me distressed about our collective future. At the least, we need to get back to a place where we can discuss these issues constructively.

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