Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Should the National Anthem Be Changed?

I watched part of the Superbowl last night, though unfortunately the experience of the Superbowl in France just isn’t like in the States (no million-dollar commercials, no commercials at all, in fact, a commentary attempting to explain the rules, etc.). Just to put this moment in context, it was 1:30 in the morning here and this hour on French public channels, they had on a rerun of the French American Idol, an old film in black and white, a live roundtable discussion on the European role of the radical, revolutionary left-wing, a documentary on Simone de Beauvoir, and a show about le Foot, soccer.
Leaving my comments about the particularity of this French context aside, I was struck by the singing of the American National Anthem. This year’s winner of American Idol had slightly remixed and styled America’s national song. Admittedly there was something phony about the version. But what mattered was that people were singing, a fact that I have personally witnessed numerous times. This is a song proclaiming the glory and courage of a patriotic United States on the moment of its birth of independence. These are passionate words with the “bombs bursting in air” as American men defend American land for American reasons and values.

But as the majority of American sporting events makes clear, these historical words continue to carry and express our contemporary values. Just by the act of repeating them, these lyrics enact values and dreams. It’s important to have words and visions to guide us and give us hope. But, as is completely obvious to us all, these are nationalistic words. Nationalism represents the ability of words, ideas, and systems of ideas to formulate a national identity or corps politique. Literally, our national anthem is part of the construction of a nation. This is a kind of banal truth, because whether, as the question is often posed, we think a nation is an inherently good or evil entity, the nation as a collective incorporation is a real thing—a real, narrative identity through which we construct our personal identities.

There are thousands of other images and words that establish a nation. Take, for example the Constitution. This document represents a legal document organizing and clarifying the nature of our personal and institutional rights, roles, and responsibilities. The American constitution and its creation is remembered as both the literal creation of these guiding roles as well as the mythical event when this seemingly divine and transcendent constitution was discussed, written, and finally ratified.

Be it a constitution or just national songs, we often forget that these documents and these poetic words were formulated in a particular place and time. And we instead imagine as though these words were perhaps written at a certain ideal or mythic place and time and, as such, were meant to service us, in their perfection, forever. This is a dangerous idea we as progressive citizens should not accept. These documents do not have the last word on our political and collective existence. They need to be—or should be—repeatedly rethought and rewritten, because as our times and ideas have changed so should our ideological written and song words be changed. This is assuming you want to think progressively about making the world a better place (economically and morally!).

With these ideas in mind, I would like to ask a simple question: Should the national anthem be changed?

The Star Spangled Banner: What the words say.

America’s national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, is a remarkable text full of victorious emotions. Putting aside the historical event that brought this text to life, let us look at what this musical text as text says to us.

The song proclaims that the flag, which “so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming”, has survived night “thro’ the perilous fight.” We as observers were worried and concerned about the survival of this fort against a difficult assault. But in spite of “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” the flag survives and with it certain values “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The rest of the text, which none of us Americans really know how to sing, continues along the same lines as the first part: we have defended our territory, our place in this world, and we are damn happy and prideful about this fact. Moreover, we’re so proud about this victory that waving our flag represents our memory of the war of independence.

The third stanza merits quoting:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

While we often forget it when we sing it, this is a bloody text about bloodily defending what is ours. In that epoch in time, the war for independence marked a freeing of one people from another and the establishing of a new nation, the United States of America. In a world at war, a patriotic victory is logically retold in the poetry of our national song.

In a world at war, certain values are more important than others. Values like patriotism, courage, bravery, etc are at the core of a society defending itself against a foreign enemy. These are militaristic values expressed by a militaristic society protecting its place in a dangerous, imperialistic world at war. But the world changes as do ideas and values making us wonder if our texts must change—err must be changed—with our times.

And so we arrive at the last stanza:

*Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand,
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that has made and preserved us as a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. *

God enters the scene because this victory is one made by men because of a divine “Power that has made and preserved us as a nation.” Many, as I would call them, actively militant atheists, would say that these lines should be stricken from all government texts, because we are a supposedly secular (i.e. Godless?) society. But I’m not sure I would go so far, because what needs to still be maintained in this nationalistic song is the binding act that “has made and preserved us as a nation.” There is a power or a force that brings us together. Whether you call this force God or not, this uniting and bringing-together force is part of our national fabric.

Atheist often forget that we still need to find a way to be-together and, as such, values that keep us and preserve a certain communal life together. This idea of “In God we trust” or “In God is our trust” is an important point, because, in my opinion, we as political and societal animals need something to trust in. Admittedly, I would prefer that our being-together not be put in the hands of religious ideals and instead be put in a trust in a particular form of communal life.

What disturbs me at the end of this text is the conquering spirit that follows any victory, defensive or otherwise. The words themselves go even farther in saying “Then conquer we must, when our cause is just.” The United States may have been, at the moment this song was written, a young nation in a “new world” but there is a chilling accuracy in the way this conquering spirit of the just must will transform what the rest of North America. Previous habitants, the native “Americans” will be killed, exploited, and placed in restrictive zones, because the just cause is really only taken from our American perspective. We can’t change the past nor the consequences, but we need to be honest about the destructive element in this just must. People were killed and exploited. We may have created a glorious nation from sea to shining sea, but our hands were bloodied.

I’m not saying we should rewrite a historically accurate version called the Star Spangled Exploitation. But certain values are being transmitted across our current national anthem. These are war values dealing with bravery and courage for our just cause against other enemy societies in a hostile world. A world with guns blaring and bombs blasting is not a place we generally want to live in. Admittedly, when we are attacked, we defend ourselves, but should these war values be praised in a world seeking planetary peace and well-being?

Why America’s national anthem should be changed

As any can see in reading or hearing America’s national anthem, these are triumphal words proclaiming the godly salvation of a just nation against unjust enemy in a hostile, warring world. But the world has changed and so must our values and perspectives. We no longer live in hostile world of clear-cut good and evil, friends and enemies. The neoconservatives have used political strategies and labeling identifications of distinctive evils and goods in order to promote a certain cultural myth for a certain society. But their vision of the world is a just one, a markedly flawed and dangerous version, but one among many.

The majority of relations in the political world, particularly between nations on a geopolitical level, are managed on a pragmatic level. George W Bush and his neoconservative friends have attempted a coup d’état mondial (au lieu de coup d’état particulier) on an ideological level, which has failed in numerous ways. The rest of world continues to be worked out on a more or less pragmatic level. And, following the coming election, the next American president will return to this pragmatic, political tradition seeking not to be right or just, be to be stable and functional.

If the geopolitical world has changed as have people’s values, wants, and needs, then we need to reexamine our political foundations including these legal and ideological documents. The American constitution needs to be rewritten and updated. An event I doubt I will live to see voir le jour. I’m not proposing a radical, institutional reframing (though that might be needed as well) but a look at our values and the kind of society these values bring to life.

Our national anthem, like certain parts of our Constitution, namely the right to bare arms, praises the values of a militaristic society claiming to have the just and divine reason for what it does internally and externally. These were values that served an important purpose in a particular society in a particular time and place. But this time and place of warring and defending, I hope, has more or less died off on a planetary scale. Wars and conflicts will continue to exist at least for some time on a local level. But let us hope that bloody, armed conflicts between nations will be restricted to the historical past.

If the world is in the process of becoming a world of planetary peace and well-being, then our values need to be reworded, our constitutions retold, and our national anthems rephrased or, perhaps, entirely replaced. I still think that we should be singing about a communal life aimed at collective goods and participative values. But our current national anthem, it seems to me, is outdated. I’m not yet sure what values should be put in their place. But the militaristic model with its military supremacy of might makes right has passed. And, as such, we shouldn’t still be singing about it as part of our national fabric. Our national anthem represents military values. These are values, I challenge, which we should be grown up enough to finally and gloriously replace.