Last week, as political journalists looked around for things to write about besides the Mueller report, some noted that the song “Edelweiss” — from the classic Broadway musical and Oscar-winning movie The Sound of Music — was playing at the White House and described it as a Nazi dog-whistle, signaling to the alt-right.
One can imagine the dregs of Twitter coming up with such an ill-considered notion, but in this case, it was The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, Buzzfeed News’ Andrew Kimmel, and other professional writers.
The film adaptation, starring Julie Andrews as Maria and Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp, is arguably the best-known musical in movie history, but apparently some people could use a refresher. The White House playing the beloved show tune means absolutely nothing.
Here are the lyrics:
Every morning you greet me
Small and white,
Clean and bright.
You look happy to meet me.
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Bless my Homeland forever
It’s a song about a small, white-bloom flower found in the Austrian Alps. Every time Edelweiss is played or sung in The Sound of Music it represents Captain von Trapp’s love for his family’s homeland of Austria and his resistance to the Nazi regime. After the Anschluss — the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s forces — the captain refuses to re-join the navy and fight for the Nazis.
In the movie adaptation, the song “Edelweiss” is first used, more than once, to bring Captain von Trapp closer to his children. The next use is at a ball where attendees are treated to a musical performance by the von Trapp children, and the crowd joins in the chorus, expressing Austrian camaraderie in symbolic defiance of Hitler. The final time we hear the song is when the von Trapps are about to make their getaway from the Nazis, who are pressing Captain von Trapp — and presumably his sons — into military service for Germany.
It’s the very definition of an anti-Nazi song. Seeing a well-respected journalist like Maggie Haberman tweet “Does…anyone at that White House understand the significance of that song?” left anyone who actually understands its significance scratching their head.
The most generous reading of Haberman’s comment is that she has not seen the play or movie, at least not since childhood. It’s something I’ve come to realize many people can claim for many things — cultural awareness, but not experienced understanding.
Cultural awareness means you know the basics. The Sound of Music takes place in the Nazi era, Maria watches the von Trapp children, they sing together, and the Captain unwittingly falls in love with her. It also has music that’s become deeply embedded in American life, not unlike the Beatles. Even if you’ve never seen the play or the movie, you probably recognize My Favorite Things, So Long Farewell, Do-Re-Mi (“doe, a deer, a female deer”), and other classics.
The peril lies when professional reporters comment based on cultural awareness alone, especially about an administration many of them find objectionable. Part of the problem with the press in the Trump era is so many journalists have negative knee-jerk reactions to even the slightest issue and always assume bad faith. While that kind of behavior is expected of partisan political operatives or panelists on cable shows, people expect more from someone like Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times.
Trust in the media is low, and episodes like this don’t help. When reporters on social media behave more like political operatives, it gives people an excuse to dismiss otherwise good reporting in the future.
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Twitter and other social media platforms allow us to immediately broadcast our thoughts on anything. If someone has cursory knowledge of a classic American musical, but knows it has something to do with Nazis, they can misinterpret the sentiment behind a song and tweet it out as fact. Channeling it through their political biases, they can assume the song is sympathetic to Nazis, and declare that the White House played the song as some kind of wink to Trump’s alt-right supporters.
There’s more than enough valid criticism of Trump and his administration that people don’t need to make stuff up. They certainly don’t need to drag one of America’s most beloved musicals into the fray to try and score some cheap political points.