A Tale of Two Anthems

casablanca31.jpgPatriotism is a term so long ill-used that it is tempting to propose scrapping it completely. But if it is indeed “the last refuge of a scoundrel” as Samuel Johnson famously said, this is due more to the degradation of politics in general than to anything inherent in the idea of patriotism itself.

In my view, much of the harm can be attributed to the confusion between patriotism and nationalism. The sentiment behind the former is quite ancient, while the latter notion is relatively recent—dating perhaps no earlier than the 17th century. Patriotism as I define it is love of country in the oldest sense—i.e., love of the land and the people who live on it, along with their language and culture. Nationalism, on the other hand, really has nothing to do with love. It is allegiance to a state or government, commonly symbolized by a flag. The essence of nationalism is obedience to authority conceived as a primary virtue. Its expression is most often of a military nature, because the state defines itself essentially as separate and distinct from other states. This in-group against out-group stance lends itself perfectly to racist ideas as well, and in the modern era we often see nationalist movements taking on racist ideologies of one form or another.

The two words have, of course, been hopelessly muddled together in political discourse. The common view of patriotism nowadays is most often synonymous with nationalism. When you hear someone say, as Mitt Romney said recently, that the United States is the greatest country in the world, this is an expression of what is popularly considered patriotism. It is, however, nationalistic, because it finds value only by abstractly separating the country from other countries presumed to be inferior. The idea of dissent as patriotic, on the other hand, is foreign to the nationalist mind. To criticize the state is considered unpatriotic by nationalists, and it is significant that dissent is especially frowned upon in times of war, which is, conveniently, just about all the time.

An uncanny illustration of the difference between nationalism and patriotism is presented by two American songs, The Star-Spangled Banner, our official national anthem, and the popular patriotic song, America the Beautiful.

To reprint the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner in full would perhaps only confuse the reader, since its poetry is infamously and ineptly convoluted. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t far off when he wrote that the United States had the only national anthem consisting of “gibberish sprinkled with question marks.” For those few who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the song, such at is, it can be summarized as the musings of a person observing a night bombardment against an American fort and asking, in a rhetorical way, whether our flag is still up and waving. The impression aimed at is that no matter how fierce the attack may be, the flag will always fly proudly.

It’s an innocuous piece of writing, as such things go, I suppose, although the thoughtful listener may be excused for being a trifle embarrassed that his national anthem contains the words “bombs bursting in air.” I wouldn’t normally associate the love I feel for my country with such an image. But of course, as I said before, this isn’t about love of country. This is about the pride of loyalty and allegiance to a national power, and in typical nationalist fashion, the subject of the song is the piece of symbolic cloth on a pole.

A Canadian friend once confided to me how dumfounded he was observing the fetish we have in the U.S. about the flag. Flags are of course symbolic objects—the idea is that all eyes turn toward the symbol in an almost mystical unity of purpose—but I don’t think any other country has taken the flag thing and run with it to the degree that Americans have. In any case, it follows as a matter of course that the “pledge of allegiance” would be to the flag, and the wording even says, “…and to the republic for which it stands…,” a frank admission of the simplistic nature of the symbolism involved here. The idea of a country’s citizens being told to pledge allegiance conveys a certain insecurity that underlies nationalist thinking—a person’s value is tested and conferred by the state, rather than recognized as a birthright.

Now let’s turn to the other song, and here I will actually quote from the first stanza. The other stanzas get us into troublesome territory, but almost no one knows them or sings them.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

Love of the land is the first and primary characteristic of patriotism. Nationalism is concerned only with the abstraction of loyalty to a state. The land is just the place you happen to live, a place to be exploited for all it’s worth.

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee

Well, the atheists will have a problem with this, and I understand that. However, religion is one of the main cultural aspects of a people, like it or not. And in this case, notice that God is not punishing sinners or calling us to arms against the heathen. God is being asked to shed grace on the country—a humble expression that is incomprehensible to a nationalist who believes only in pride, not humility, despite any lip service paid to such religious beliefs.

And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The reference to brotherhood clinches the case. Brotherhood (and sisterhood) is a state enjoyed by equals, and it suggests compassion, fellow-feeling, and even hints at social justice. Nationalism doesn’t want brotherhood, with its peaceful connotations, but triumph over enemies. Nationalists don’t want to be brothers with anyone except other nationalists—not dissenters, communists, homos, feminists, civil rights activists, or left-wing intellectuals. There are people in the country who represent a threat to the nation—the “enemy within.” Brotherhood is a code-word for weakness.

I’m not arguing that America the Beautiful should be our national anthem. We didn’t have a national anthem until 1931. The branding phenomenon, that plague of modern life, was unknown to earlier generations. They apparently had more important things to think about. I just find it interesting that the opposition of patriotism and nationalism, an opposition that has been purposely obscured and denied by authoritarian ideologies, is so clearly expressed by two cultural artifacts, two songs whose lyrics are recited mechanically more often than not, providing two contrasting windows into a fundamental conflict in the American soul.


~ by cdash on January 18, 2008.

15 Responses to “A Tale of Two Anthems”

  1. dashiell

    i dont know where to begin since i agree with you on almost every point.

    lets start with the “star spangled banner.” written by francis scott key — it originally was just a poem. someone (not sure if it was key) set it to the music of an old british “drinking” song, when it’s use (and i guess popularity) took off – eventually becoming the natl anthem in 1931.

    a war peom set to the music of an old “drinking” song becomes the theme of the land — only in america would this happen. in addition the words are notoriously clumsy and awkward, hard to remember and the tune is difficult to sing. forgetting about such famous ‘performances’ as jose feliciano in 1968, roseanne in san diego and robert goulet’s (goulet was canadian) flub when he sang it before the ali-liston boxing match — everyone has either mangled the music or missed the words sometime. how apropos to modern america — a bad song that is difficult to sing becomes an excuse for defining someone’s patriotism.

    second the pledge — there was a post just 2 ago about it here at jonestown (and i was actually goint to do a whole post on it). another completely ridiculous exercise to me on many levels — most obviously the words “under god” (added in 1954) and the fact that someone is actually “pledging” loyalty to a symbol as opposed to an ideal. you called the natl anthem a marketing tool — the pledge is that plus one. the anthem is just a song — the pledge is actually words of committment, a committment at the expense of yourself and your fellow planet-dwellers. also “liberty and justice for all” — i think not. we do not live in a egalitarian society – ask the 47,000,000 without health insurance, ask any gay person who cannot marry their partner.

    which leads me to nationalism, patriotism and their ugly cousin – jingoism. look at what happens at the olympics — the ultimate form of nationalism there is — the dancing with the flags, the chants of “usa usa” over everyting else. and now look at the ultimate form of jingoism — the invasion of iraq, for many (wrong) reasons, but one of the most prominent being spreading (the american version of) democracy. our govt is better than yours, our way of life is better than yours, our flag is better than yours.

    i totally believe one can love their country and (hoepfully) fellow citizens without being patriotic, nationalistic and jinogistic — which have just become excuses for self-righteousness, arrogance, and belligerence.

    however i dont think you will ever see the “star spangled banner” dropped in favor of the tamer “america the beautiful” — after all that would be an admission that is country is a bunch of wusses and we wouldnt want that.

  2. What a fantastic post ! What can i say, accept WOW –

    a tale of two anthems is right. One for the oppressors the other for the oppressed. The left, the populists, the decendents of both indentured servitude and slavery need to Dissent and Dissent loudly and in Unison. Its the Unison that is the kicker. WE the people, get played so badly and its hard to fatham exactly why nor the depth. We got fundi nutfucks infiltrated in the government. Who would think we would actually hear in our life times a presidential candidate say he wants to change the Constitution to match the bible !!! ??? It astounds me. The populist movement, otherwise known as the VAST left wing conspiracy has two focus on 3 things imHo – Restoring the Bill of Rights, The Constitution, and the Seperation of Church and state. IF we can do that, all the rest will follow..(and a corporation IS NOT A PERSON) It seems like its a tall order. But i believe we will get there. oh have you ever seen comedian David Cross’s speil on “the Flag” its freakin hilarious.

  3. the confusion between patriotism and nationalism.

    Such an important distinction.

    Nationalism gave rise to Hitler and Mao.

  4. Dash – This is a fabulous read. Beautifully done. Just yesterday, I was having a conversation with my son who had a disagreement with his social studies teacher about the difference between nationalism and patriotism. I’m going to give him this post to read.

  5. I think the national anthem should be a GG Allin’s ‘Fuck Off, We Murder.’

    Great post.

  6. it’s funny … i was just thinking the other day (monday, to be more precise) about how the language of ‘america the beautiful’ is such that it can really make one cry (guess i’m a patriot at heart). as far as your post is concerned, i like how you have held it up versus TSSB and made some really important socio-political observations and expanded out how (your post has led me to consider that) one is ultimately reflecting ‘who we are’ versus the other (i like to think of it as ‘who we were’).

    these are the kinds of the things i have moving (very … very … slowly) through my (very addled) brain on a regular basis, but for which i haven’t the attention span to think through carefully enough to explain. i’m glad you’ve taken on that task. i thank you. and my lazy brain thanks you.


  7. Ahh yes, “the bombs bursting in air” line. I wonder if we should change it to “mushroom clouds bursting in air” since we are the only ones who have ever dropped the A-bomb on a country and killed off millions of innocent civilians.

    What really ticks me off about the Star Spangled Banner is when at the ball park, EVERYTHING stops when it’s being played. You’re not even allowed to continue down to your seat, you have to stop at the top of the aisle, remove your hat if you’re wearing it and freeze like a deer in the headlights until they finish the final words “…and the home of the brave.” You can’t even buy a hotdog or a beer while you’re waiting for it to finish. It’s crazy! I usually head for the bathrooms and make sure I’m taking a piss and then I save the flush for the moments just before the song ends. Not that I don’t love my country, but I hate being forced to love it.

  8. Nicely done.

  9. The Military Industrial Congressional Complex
    Military Industrial Complex
    The Congressional part was ommitted from Eisenhower’s speech at the last moment.
    We, in America whether Patriots or Nationalists are collectively violent and warlike. We have been at war since I was a kid.
    I’m 38.
    Don’t get too caught up in semantics.

  10. I agree with the thesis statement but not all of your main ideas.

    I believe I put my discourse in another post’s comments, so I will not repeat.

  11. A “btw”: I will take this opportunity (since I can’t think of any other way to do it) to thank all of you who sent me kind and thoughtful messages about losing my dad. It meant a lot.

  12. I think American the Beautiful is a much nobler song, and I like the emphasis on the natural beauty. Maybe it would make some people think about what’s really important in this world?

    That whole flag thing is puzzling to me, too. I would rather pledge my allegiance to the Constitution, personally.

  13. very, very nicely put.

    i cringe every time i think about my son pledging his allegiance to a piece of fabric every morning at school. i hate that he has to do that.

  14. Umm, JW, are you sure you’re a wingnut?

    Without knowing you wrote this, I told a story from my childhood very much supporting your point of view in response to the cross-post of SuziRiot, although at SuziRiot’s own space. (Man, I write better in Spanish than I do in English, sorry!)

    My little interlude was about the nostalgia I have about the Pledge Of Allegiance, for all the reasons (real and specific to my life) you post about here.

    Well, whatever. I dig what you wrote.

  15. Christ almighty, I KNOW I’m buried in work and am bleary-eyed. Thanks, DASHIELL. I saw the symbols and reflexively thought “Johnny Wingnut”. Great work, anyway.

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