Are national anthems really about respect? Or repression?
Four things you might not know
- Patriotism has been recognized since the earliest civilizations but nationalism is a relatively new concept with its origins in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Nationalism is a “false consciousness” and nothing more than a well-branded veneer for economic, social and class leverage.
- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and presidential candidate Donald Trump double-down on dumb by ignoring the first amendment.
- “This Land is Your Land” was originally a 1940s protest song.
(5 minute read)
Isaiah Berlin cogently set out in his 1979 essay, Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power,
If the Star-Spangled Banner or O Canada are to be a clarion for anything, and be grounded – standing or kneeling – in anything meaningful they need to sing out for the continuing lack of freedom, the unfinished business of democracy and the ever-persistent inequality that so many people experience. Leaders need to stand up to their nations’ inability to achieve what the anthems purport nationalism to be about “… the land of the free” and “… glorious and free.” These chants of collective nationalism are, in reality, just propaganda, relevant only to a slice of the people, mainly a white slice.
Recently in the US, this myopic, double standard was hammered home by two people at the top of the nationalistic pyramid, Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Ginsburg said she thought Kapernick’s protest was “dumb and disrespectful,” For a Supreme Court Justice that’s dumb (she admitted it after the fact). And as if those at the top couldn’t get any dumber, Trump doubled-down on dumb and said: “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him.” That’s a bigoted presidential candidate and a Supreme Court Justice trampling all over the first amendment.
Nationalism, anthems, flags, presidential candidates and Supreme Court Justices spewing dumb things are just noise; kneeling in protest is action.
Colin Kapernick on his knees is not a protest against a national anthem, it is a crying out for the truth, for freedom, for equality, in a land where too many have yet to see “the dawn’s early light,” or in Canada “the True North strong and free.” Too many are still shackled by an elite-dominated, social-economic system that transforms the innate human need-to-belong in to false consciousness dressed up as nationalism.
The need to belong to an easily identifiable group had been regarded at any rate since Aristotle, as a natural requirement on the part of human beings: families, clans, tribes, estates, social orders, classes, religious organizations, political parties and finally nations and states, were historical forms of the fulfillment of this basic human need. – Isaiah Berlin
Patriotism got a boost from the American and French Revolutions, which fueled people’s sense of belonging and lifted aspirations for a better life with the promise of enlightenment and democracy. Marquis de Condorcet a philosopher and political scientist who embodied the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, went into hiding during the French Revolution and wrote Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it he sees a future society shaped by scientific advancement and intelligent and morally liberated leadership. He foretold of social order and democracy in all nations, and a “secular priesthood” that would build a path of progress to social and economic prosperity, harmony and peace. He, and others like Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, predicted the decline of ignorance and “believed that prejudice and ignorance and superstition and their embodiment in irrational and repressive laws – economic, political, racial and sexual – would be swept away by the new enlightenment.” Boy, did they get that wrong.
So what do we stand for?
Patriotism is about individual feelings and nationalism is supposedly the collective national feeling. But how can there be a collective feeling about a wide and disparate collection of peoples, origins, cultures, customs, mores, ethnicities, races, religions and beliefs? There can’t be. Unless the white majority learns to live and act the words of freedom and equality. If not, they’re just mouthing words and singing a hypocritical national anthem. Is that what we really stand for?
A false consciousness
A nation is a bordered economic and social entity and nationalism is a conceptual ideal, which, if you look at its brief history, blatantly serves only an economic purpose.
Berlin articulates that purpose, stating that nationalism is “a form of false consciousness,” created to foster support for the economic domination of one particular class over another. Specifically, to align the thinking and activities of the “bourgeois with the aristocracy” – the middle class with the upper class – in order to maintain class control of the society as a whole for the purpose of controlling the labour power of the middle and lower classes.
Nationalism is about economic leverage and populous control. It taps into citizen’s patriotic need-to-belong and manipulates that into emotional attachment. It generates it into materialistic pride in everything from flag waving and Macy’s floats to maudlin events. Worse, it is elevated into a fervor that has young people enlisting to die for freedom; compliant adults enlisting in a doctrine of business greed; obedient lemmings enlisting in the dogma of religion; and almost everyone enlisting in the submissive escape from reality offered up by the economic hegemony of materialism, sports and entertainment.
Nationalism – the elevation of the interests of the unity and self-determination of the nation to the status of the supreme value before which all other considerations must, if need be, yield at all times.… There was, of course, the rights of the various minorities in the new national states, but those could be guaranteed by the new League of Nations – surely if there was anything these states could be expected to understand, if only from their historical experience, it was the need to satisfy the craving for autonomy on the part of ethnic or cultural groups within their borders.– Isaiah Berlin
“… the craving for autonomy” has always been an unfulfilled need for minorities and yet, it has received nothing more than empty promises from nation-states, which, in western civilization, are controlled primarily by white elites serving the visible majority, whites. And these countries foster a faux nationalism by singing patriotic lyrics in a well constructed, white echo chamber.
National anthems and football
Colin Kapernick, and other professional athletes, are shouting out in history’s echo chamber as part of the human need to belong.
For minorities, Nationalism is a mirage beyond the distant horizon. A certificate of citizenship, a pledge of allegiance and an enduring inequality. There’s lots of symbolism, lots of rhetoric, a modicum of legislative change, and too much never-ending racism, xenophobia and misogyny.
The truth is: Nationalism is a well-branded veneer that covers up the bigoted reality of repression. That’s what the protest is about. It’s not being disrespectful, it’s asking for respect.
Oh Canada … you too
Canadians will claim some degree arrogance over Americans (probably a lingering Loyalist contempt from victory in the War of 1812), but what they have done to – and not done for – the aboriginal peoples is beyond shameful. The Canadian national anthem declares “… our home and native land” and yet, we’re descendants of immigrants in the very land that we took from the natives (as did the Americans), and assigned them to a purgatory existence that continues to this day. It is an evidence-based legacy that demonstrates nationalism is merely propaganda, relevant only to a slice of the people, the white slice.
This land is your land – if you’re white
Colin Kapernick gets it. But hundreds-of-millions do not – Trump, Ginsburg and the majority of people who stand up for apocryphal anthems and songs like, “This Land Is Your Land.”
In the 1940s, Woodie Guthrie got it. And he wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” Today, it sounds like a popular patriotic ballad but originally it was a protest song, apparently because Guthrie was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing, “God Bless America” on the radio. His original version was sarcastically named “God Bless America for Me,” later it was changed to “This Land Is Your Land.” It included these two refrains that are not in the sanitized version:
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me.”
“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me.”
Guthrie protest was a forerunner to a musical giant of American protest and winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan. As the New York Times recently said: “Now, Mr. Dylan, the poet laureate of the rock era, has been rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor that elevates him into the company of T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison and Samuel Beckett.”
Perhaps Colin Kapernick will one-day win a place in the Football Hall of Fame, not for his athletic prowess rather for his courage and intelligence to stand up and kneel for what he believes in.
We need a few good leaders to heed the false-flag of nationalism that supports economic, social and class leverage and pick up the baton that one athlete (now more, and someday many) is standing tall for: Equality and freedom!
- Against the Current by Isaiah Berlin: Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power, p. 333; originally published 1979
- Ibid, p. 338-339
- Ibid, p. 339
- Spitzer, Nick, “The Story Of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land'”. NPR.org. Retrieved 2016-03-14.