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The Humor Quotient Newsletter
Vol. 8, No. 1, February 2002, Winona, MN
Mental Humor and Preference among American Patriotic Songs
It is an ill wind that blows no one good.
The World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies of September 11th shocked the United States out of a widespread complaisance that its territory was beyond the reach of war, casualties, and physical destruction. In the aftermath, Americans quickly reverted to a unique form of patriotism, especially the flying of the American flag at every occasion, public and private. Equally, in journeys throughout the Upper Midwest, I was struck by the number of businesses, it often seemed a majority, whose changeable signage was immediately diverted to the statement “God Bless America” and similar sentiments like “United We Stand.” As the months wore on, God Bless America billboards were added.
Several weeks after the attack, journalists seemed, for a moment at least, to find the present crisis a good time to consider the American national anthem and its potential adjustment. As those who have watched The First Olympics are well aware, the odyssey by which “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the National Anthem makes an odd telling and evidently a particularly amusing one for Americans themselves. Among the journalists involved, Ellen Goodman wrote a syndicated editorial on the higher appropriateness of “America the Beautiful,” especially given the bellicose origin of Francis Scott Key’s work.
At the time, I weighed in with my own opinion in a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, but writing it, I realized that the United States actually has several songs which are nearly universally recognized as national standards―another of which of course is “God Bless America.” The fourth song that came to mind is perhaps the oddest of all as a national standard, but it does seem that “Amazing Grace,” at least for the present generation of Americans, has taken the place of a national hymn.
It struck me somewhere along the line to compare preference for patriotic songs during national crisis with humor preference. If nothing else, if there turned out to be some substantial relationship, this would be yet another proof that Aristotle was thinking in too limited a way when he consigned attention to humor as attention to the frivolous or trivial. If America in one of her darkest hours looks to these songs for its commercially and publicly-affirmed national will, and if it turns out that preference for or against that affirmation is related to humor, then it hardly seems that humor is trivial.
Thanks to the continuing good will of Winona State University students, it was possible to test out this hypothesis in three classes, largely representative of the university as a whole. The first class, a freshman composition section, is a university requirement and draws its students from every major in the university. The second, an American literature survey, is a general education humanities elective, again drawing from the entire university. The third, a senior-level course in Technical Writing, draws from English majors, paralegals, and a substantial minority from the hard sciences. Altogether 75 students took the Humor Quotient Test and/or a specially designed side-test for preference among the four patriotic songs. A total of 56 responses were complete for the purposes of this study.
The side-test asked participants for each of five questions to divide ten preference points among the four songs. The five questions were designed to consider the range of occasions on which patriotic songs are normally played or considered in the United States—it is, for example, de rigueur across the United States for all sporting events to begin with attention to the American flag and typically the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” often at professional events including a professional song leader who seems to have only a vague acquaintance with the notes of the song.
The five preference questions for the four patriotic songs were:
“At a football game, baseball game, or other sporting event, I'd like to sing . . .”
“At a solemn national observance, I'd like to sing . . .”
“In order to embody the spirit of America, I prefer . . .”
“During war time, I think the United States should depend upon . . .”
“In considering their own blessings and responsibilities, Americans should look to . .”
It should be noted that in undertaking this investigation, I had no clear personal sense that there was indeed any relationship at all between patriotic songs and humor, and I probably would not have extended the inquiry to three sections if the results from the first section had not seemed promising. In previous testing programs at WSU, however, I have been repeatedly struck by students’ abilities to “self-sort” themselves to particular sections based on such imponderables as term, class hour, university requirements, and the like. I am therefore skeptical of results from single sections, not because they don’t measure something, but because the something they measure is so complex and idiosyncratic. Results from three very different types of sections, drawing well beyond specific disciplinary limits largely negates the potential for self-sorted participation.
With no more particular hypothesis than the possibility of some relationship between song preference (as defined as total sub-scores in the song side-test) and humor preference, clearly all results should be measured by two-tailed statistical measures.
Table 1 presents the slope coefficients for 56 respondents between preference for each of the four mental humor types tested by the HQT and total preference for each of the patriotic songs.
Table 1: Slope Coefficients
SSB AtB GBA AG
Gotcha -.3707 .0024 .1961 .1945
Symp.Pain -.2572 -.0018 .6286 -.3645
Incongruity .4244 .2721 -.9945 .3645
Word Play .8145 -.3731 -.3053 -.1436
SSB = “Star-Spangled Banner” AtB = “America the Beautiful”
GBA = “God Bless America” AG = “Amazing Grace”
Now, it can be noted that Gotcha preference in humor is negatively correlated to preference for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” whereas it is positively correlated with preference for “God Bless America” and “Amazing Grace,” and almost independent of preference for “America the Beautiful. If at first there seems no possible justification for such a correlation, the negative correlation between Gotcha and “The Star-Spangled Banner” is nevertheless strong. We can measure this strength particularly well with non-parametric statistics.
Table 2 demonstrates the strong four-cell distribution dissimilarities for Gotcha against “Star-Spangled Banner” and against “God Bless America.”
Table 2: Gotcha Scores Against Patriotic Song Preference
Gotcha\SSB 13 or less 14 or more
14 or more 8 I 12
13 or less 5 I 31
Gotcha\GBA 13 or less 14 or more
14 or more 11 I 11
13 or less 26 I 8
That high Gotcha is associated with low “Star-Spangled Banner” preference, p <. 027.
That high Gotcha is associated with high “God Bless America” preference, p <.04.
Attempting to give this dissimilarity some rational verbal explanation, perhaps it is well to remember that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written when a British fleet had destroyed Washington, D.C. virtually without effective opposition and was now attacking Baltimore, Maryland, with substantial hope of success.
Francis Scott Key, an eyewitness to the night bombardment of Fort Henry, immortalized in poetic form the suspense of waiting for dawn to tell whether the United States had suffered another devastating defeat. Given the American government philosophy (see embodiment in the Great Seal) that America is an always-unfinished experiment in self-government, the suspense of Fort Henry easily becomes the symbol for the suspense inherent in the American Experiment.
Thus, Ellen Goodman notwithstanding, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not a particularly bellicose statement. It is rather a statement of sympathy and suspense for America under fire and perhaps not having the fortitude―especially the self-governing fortitude―to resist.
In this reading, there should be little positive relationship between the National Anthem and Gotcha. The British were not got when the flag at dawn was still there. Nor were the Americans trying to get the British. Perhaps the closest approximation to Gotcha is that the Americans at Baltimore were trying not to be got for the audacity to think they were a sovereign, self-governing nation. The young American adults in our study don’t seem to misinterpret the National Anthem as aggressive humor.
Consider then that “God Bless America” is associated with Gotcha. Remembering the ubiquitous “God Bless America” signs after 9-11, it may be well to think of America as both singing and in prayer. The United States had been treacherously attacked, using its own commercial airlines for mass destruction of life and property. Other successful terrorist attacks had taken place over a substantial period of time, across continents of distance, and against targets ranging from American naval vessels to American embassies. And it did not seem that America’s formidable military arsenal could be aimed in response at any particular target.
In this context, if God did bless America, if somehow America was empowered to deal with those who had attacked her, would that not also be a vast Gotcha on the theoreticians and implementers of international terror? The young American adults in our study seemed to see a connection between “God Bless America” and an aggressive response to terror.
We might next note that “God Bless America” also was highly correlated with a preference for Sympathetic Pain humor. Evidently, God Bless America signs resonated with Americans’ sympathy for their homeland and simultaneously with a hoped-for Gotcha on terrorists who, perhaps, had been too clever by half.
Finally, “God Bless America” was tremendously negatively correlated with Incongruity. Evidently, young American adults did not have their funny bone tickled by any incongruity in the thought of God blessing America in the wake of September 11th attacks.
Results for “America the Beautiful” and for “Amazing Grace” were generally more subdued.
Beyond this analysis of the relationship between patriotic songs and the four mental humors tested by HQT, it should be remembered that the original hypothesis of HQT testing was that the combination of two preferences suggests one of six personality types which we discuss under the rubrics of Crusader, Advocate, Bridgebuilder, Consoler, Reconciler, and Intellectual.
Attempting to use the rubrics to suggest meaning for combinations of highly-positive song preference, we find that “Star-Spangled Banner” is positively correlated to Incongruity and Word Play (Intellectual) while “God Bless America” is highly negatively correlated to these. “Amazing Grace” is most highly correlated to Gotcha and Incongruity (Crusader) while “America the Beautiful” has no two strong correlations positive or negative.
Thus, it would seem that “The Star-Spangled Banner” appeals to an intellectual conception of America (by Intellectual we have never meant “smart”; we do mean that Incongruity and Word Play jokes are both quintessentially impersonal and that working with words, things, and ideas as opposed to working with persons is intellectual work.) This too accords with a reading of “Star-Spangled Banner” as symbolic of the Unfinished American Experiment, with an
American intellectual understanding that it is the conduct of every American generation which will determine whether the American Experiment was a pious dream realized or an irreverent delusion.
And by the same tokens, “God Bless America,” at least in the dark hours after 9-11, was unIntellectual (and thus, perhaps also Bridgebuilder, since in our humor scheme, Bridgebuilder is the mathematical opposite of Intellectual). Instead, “God Bless America” seems to have been taken as personal and probably intensely action-oriented―the first action being to establish a common front with all other Americans, bridging any internal differences.
The fact that “Amazing Grace” best correlated with the constituent features of Crusader is in this light perhaps a significant comment on America’s hopefulness or willingness to champion basic American values and principles, attested in many polls especially those related to politics and economics after the September attacks.
It must be underscored that the literary interpretation of these research results is subjectively mine. The correlations detected in the study may be related to other variables as well or to other variables without reference to the justifications suggested here.
That said, I would argue that the results of the study are very comfortable in the company of Upper Midwestern senses of the crisis after September 11. And particularly our testing results seem reasonable in light of the overwhelming reference to God Bless America as the definitive psychological defense to the fact of terrorist attack.
Subjectivity aside, the results reported here show many high-confidence relationships between mental humor preferences and patriotic song preferences in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. This seems clearly to contradict the Aristotelean premise that attention to humor and comedy are trivial pursuits.
The results suggest that there are deep underlying relationships between our sense of humor and our entirely serious thoughts and feelings.
Paul H. Grawe
Winona State University
Special thanks to Fall 2001 WSU English sections 111-29, 120-05, and 439 for their cooperation in this research effort.
HQN Editor: Paul Grawe, Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies, 678 Sioux Street, Winona, MN 55987. Tel: 507-454-4141. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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