July 2008 Ethics Dunces
Singer Rene Marie
A sure sign of a Grade A Ethics Dunce: doing something clearly unethical and acting as if you’ve done something admirable. That would be Denver singer Rene Marie, an African American singer hired to sing the National Anthem before Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's annual State of the City address. But Marie didn’t sing the song she agreed to sing, accepted money to sing, and that her employers trusted her to sing.
Rene Marie decided that she should sing a completely different song, a hybrid monster with the tune of “the Star Spangled Banner” and the lyrics of an embarrassing piece of doggerel called "Lift Ev'ry Voice & Sing" that somehow has been hailed in some quarters as “the Black National Anthem,” a certifiably dreadful poem (sample couplet: We have come over a way that with tears has been watered…We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered… ) that (pssst! Rene?) doesn’t remotely fit the music. So as jaws dropped all around her, she did just that. "When I decided to sing my version, what was going on in my head was: 'I want to express how I feel about living in the United States, as a black woman, as a black person,'" said Marie, her head held high, her brain fitting neatly into a thimble, her ethics IQ below freezing.
Well, you know what, Marie? You can express how you feel as a black woman on your own time, at your own concerts, on your own CDs, on your own blog, with your friends and in the public street, if you want. What you have no right to do, and in fact must not do, is disrupt a public event and ceremonies that have nothing whatsoever to do with how you feel. Did you ever hear the old saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”? It’s true, and also right. You agreed to a singing job under false pretenses, betrayed the trust of those who engaged your services, wrecked an event that was neither harmful nor objectionable to any rational person, and hijacked its purpose, form and dignity.
You accepted the job and then sang what you wanted to sing. Wrong, wrong, wrong. When I hire a man to build a swimming pool, can he build a tennis court instead because that’s what he likes to do? No. When I hire a painter to paint my house yellow, can he paint it blue because that’s his favorite color? No! When I go to a restaurant and order steak, can the chef make me a tofu dish because it’s what he likes to eat? NO! Is this basic principal beginning to penetrate your arrogant, self-centered consciousness? You had no right to inflict “your version” of the National Anthem, which in fact was no more the National Anthem than “Old McDonald” is “Mack the Knife”. It was a violation of trust, a dishonest breach of an agreement, and thoroughly disrespectful and obnoxious.
You deserved to be stopped mid-note, except that the ever-cautious Denver politicians knew that even a justifiable muzzling would be turned by some enterprising race-baiter—perhaps Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson---into a public controversy. So you got your 15 minutes of fame, while embarrassing the people who hired you to sing in good faith. Congratulations. Now the Ethics Scoreboard fervently hopes that nobody is foolish enough to hire or trust you as an entertainer ever again.
It also fervently hopes that someone writes a better “Black National Anthem” than "Lift Ev'ry Voice & Sing."