By Robert A. Vella
In yesterday’s editorial which examined the megalomania of Donald Trump, I highlighted the President’s current hostility towards professional sports figures whom are either using their public platform to directly oppose his politics (e.g. NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ refusal to go to the White House) or to express their concern over systemic racism in law enforcement (e.g. NFL players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem). I was somewhat surprised and dismayed to see the reaction to my post, as well as to several similar posts on other blogs, focused so heavily on that particular ritualistic song. I suppose symbolism is very important to us humans; so, I was compelled to address this heated debate over America’s national anthem.
First, let’s review its history for some much needed context. From Wikipedia:
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics come from “Defence of Fort M’Henry“, a poem written on September 14, 1814, by the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships of the Royal Navy in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the large American flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, flying triumphantly above the fort during the American victory.
The poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. “To Anacreon in Heaven” (or “The Anacreontic Song”), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key’s poem and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it soon became a well-known American patriotic song.
The song was officially recognized by the United States Navy in 1889, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 who ordered it to be played at military and other appropriate occasions as a propaganda tool to garner public support for the nation’s involvement in the First World War. However, it wasn’t until a congressional resolution passed in 1931 that the song became America’s official national anthem; and, furthermore, it wasn’t until the Second World War that it began to be played before the start of sporting events such as Major League Baseball.
In short, it’s apparent that the song was never much more than a bugle call to drum-up patriotism and nationalistic spirit among the populace – like waving a red bullfighter cape at an enraged bovine.
Since Americans are not legally required to stand, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, or sing along with the playing of the national anthem, what’s all the hubbub about? Bloomberg’s Tyler Cowen answered this question yesterday in an editorial titled Dial Down the National Anthem at Sporting Events:
We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.
Anthem practices shouldn’t be viewed as sacrosanct, and no one would think the absence of an anthem unpatriotic if expectations were set differently. Professional sports don’t start their competitions with the Pledge of Allegiance, and that is hardly considered an act of treason. Nor do we play the anthem before movies, as is mandatory in India.
Competitions shouldn’t be political events, most of all because athletics is increasingly multinational and globalized. It’s not like the baseball of the 1950s or ’60s when virtually all of the players were Americans, with the exception of a few Latino athletes. What if they start playing the anthem and you are a foreign national? Must you show full submission? Or what if you only signal halfway acquiescence, not intended as rudeness but say you are a citizen of Russia or China? Must you then worry that your home government is watching too?
The awkward, hard-to-admit truth is that the American national anthem is a form of right-wing political correctness, designed to embarrass or intimidate those who do not see fit to sing along and pay the demanded respect. I’ve been at sporting events where I’ve seen some people not sing along, and not put their hands over their hearts, only to hear that they will be punched in the face. Whether or not the threat was serious, this is classic “snowflake” behavior from the threat-makers, and should be recognized as such. For all of the right-wing complaints about left-wing political correctness, the right has long had its own version of the practice. It is time to dial it down.
In these polarized and globalized times, surely a shift in the anthem convention should be entertained. There are many other ways of showing respect for the American military.
Or, as essayist Samuel Johnson put it:
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
“This ‘problem’ seems to have a simple solution. If you don’t want to politicize football, don’t play the national anthem at games.”
The likely answer is one that wouldn’t be admitted to by the owners and administrators of professional sports organizations – their fear that such a move would anger many “patriotic” people, tarnish their image, and damage their businesses’ profitability. One of those “patriots” was President George W. Bush who uttered this phrase to launch his counter-terrorism campaign:
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
That’s the story in a nutshell. America is as polarized a country as it was during its disastrous Civil War, and any otherwise insignificant thing can turn into a national fiasco. But, I’d like to return to the megalomaniac Trump for a conclusion. That very disturbed man, as president, is a catalyst for catastrophe. He alone is responsible for inflaming this issue, and what he is capable of inflaming tomorrow is anyone’s guess. Today, however, he is focusing his anger on Senator John McCain who joined two other Republicans in defeating a bill intended to repeal one of Trump’s favorite targets – Obamacare.
Further reading: The song remains the same