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Brian D.

What to do with the National Anthem?  Part I

What to do with the National Anthem? Part I

The US national anthem has been getting a great deal more attention these days than it would be under normal circumstances.  It is largely an absurd scandal; a gross overreaction to a quiet peaceful form of activism.  When this phenomenon had its genesis, I thought it to be a bit silly.  I expected it to be doomed to futility.  That it would provoke a backlash so out-sized and divorced from reason that the controversy ended up eating itself, was not something I anticipated.  This allowed a small gesture to grow, and now this form of protest has legs.  To the point that billionaires saw fit to cynically attach themselves to it for public relations purposes.

There are others who are better qualified to discuss the root issues involving race and excessive policing.  What I want to discuss is the simple question of why the anthem is venerated, why now, and with level of stridency.  After all, the presence of athletes for the anthem at sporting events was not commonplace in North American sports until 2009, when incentives were provided to teams to encourage displays that are pro-military.  Just as I don't want to delve too deeply into issues of race in this piece, I similarly don't want to make this a political post.

I am however comfortable talking about symbology.  This may provocative, but a flag is objectively a large piece of cloth.  Similarly, the anthem is just a song.  We attach meaning to these things because they are stand-ins for abstract ideals.  That's how symbols work.  The thing with symbols is their meanings can be inverted to express different messages.  In a civilized society this allows conflict where positions are communicated in a manner that does not cause physical harm.  This is part of the ideals that these symbols are intended to represent.  Namely the rule of law, civil liberties, and equality.  The US has throughout its history failed, or at least had difficulty living up to these stated ideals.  That is not and indictment, because these are things we are meant to aspire to.  If you elevate these symbols to a higher prominence than what they are meant to represent, you are more comfortable with totalitarianism than I am.

The Star Spangled Banner is a particularly problematic symbol.  First off, the song itself is racist.  There is a decent chance that this is a new idea to you.  The reason many people are not aware of this aspect is that the version we are all familiar with only contains the first verse of the original Francis Scott Key poem, which is original four stanzas of comparable length.  It is the third that is troubling.  The third stanza includes these line:

“Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”

Hireling here is used as a pejorative for a free black person.  The lines preceding it set the tone that makes clear that Key is mocking the death of a group of oppressed people.  Their crime was that they agreed to fight with the British, because the British offered an objectively better deal, that being freedom and self-determination that the "land of the free" supposedly espouses.  "The Defence of Fort M'Henry" as it was originally titled, demonstrates all the obliviousness irony that one would expect of a prosperous white man two centuries ago.  Leaving the race factor out, we still have to recognize that by speaking so glowingly of the battle, the Star Spangled Banner is glorifying violence.  Considering that even with a 50 or 60 year low in violent crime, the United States is by orders of magnitude more violent than other industrialized nations.

Okay, yes the song also speak to the resilience of American forces that withstood this withering bombardment.  This is an early expression of American exceptionalism.  The song embodies the most admirable aspects of the American spirit, blah blah blah.   There's just one problem with that: the song isn't even American.  Sure the words were written by an American, but the music, as you likely know, is from song for a British social club.

You want to know what my real problem with the Star Spangled Banner is?  It's just a bad song.  The sentiments are maudlin.  It is notoriously difficult to sing with its massive vocal range.  That's a bad thing for an anthem since ideally a national anthem is unifying and accessible.  That doesn't work if only a handful of people can actually perform it correctly.  Finally the accompanying music is stodgy, boring, and clumsy sounding, which makes sense because it is British and a drinking song.

As you may have guess my suggestion is to consider the Star Spangled Banner with another song to serve as the US National Anthem.  The obvious question is "What should we replace it with?"  Well, I have thoughts on that ...

What to do with the National Anthem? Part II

What to do with the National Anthem? Part II

It's Better When You Don't Understand: Prologue - Europe

It's Better When You Don't Understand: Prologue - Europe