Patriotizing the Arts – Patronizing the Audience

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The National Anthem and flags are everywhere in America

Richard Sahn

Editor’s Intro: The first time I went to a movie on a military base, I was surprised when the national anthem began to play, and everyone stood up.  It seemed so incongruous.  My buddy who came with me refused to stand at first, but after catching grief from a fellow movie-goer, he reluctantly stood.  I stood too, of course, but I felt silly doing so.  The whole practice just seemed to cheapen the anthem.

Nowadays, the anthem and similar patriotic songs are everywhere, especially “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” with its refrain about being “Proud to be an American.”  Watching NFL football this past weekend, I noticed every announcer on CBS during halftime wore flag lapel wins.  Easy gestures of patriotism are everywhere in my country, even at classical concerts, notes my good friend and fellow contrarian, Richard Sahn.  But are they not patronizing to the audience?  W.J. Astore

I recently attended a classical music concert in the town where I live. The orchestra began by playing the national anthem. Many in the audience sang the words. I felt like I was at a baseball game or a military parade or the moment before the fireworks at a July 4th celebration. I stood up, of course, for my own survival in the rural and conservative community where I live.

But I couldn’t help but engage in some critical thinking. What is the connection between this perfunctory display of patriotic observance and enjoying the music, I kept asking myself.  I couldn’t conjure up a rational relationship. If there was a global anthem–perhaps honoring the potential of great music to bring the people of the world together–singing such an anthem would have been appropriate. Come to think of it, great artistic works and performers have the very potential to do just that, unite humanity.   Yet all national anthems of developed countries when performed in public forums only enhance the capacity to see the social world in terms of us versus them. Depending on the government in power this division can have moral or immoral consequences if we define “immoral” as decision-making that promotes unnecessary death and suffering.

So, why play a national anthem before a classical concert featuring international music, and why stand up for it? I’ve come up with several possible reasons:

  1. One reason people rise for the national anthem is because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd and endure negative reactions. (My reason.)
  2. Another reason seems to be pure habit, which is the result of socializing and conditioning throughout one’s life.
  3. Pride in nation as such, which would apply to people of any specific nationality. This is pure love of country, an easy form of patriotism with no cost to the individual.
  4. The belief, undoubtedly a “true belief” as author Eric Hoffer would argue (“The True Believer”) that one is truly honoring those who sacrificed themselves in a nation’s wars, that one is somehow expressing thanks to the dead and their families. Or, that the nation itself is alive or conscious. Therefore, one is thanking the nation for winning its wars.
  5. Obedience to the norm of standing up for national anthem, thinking that it is an obligation to society, perhaps authority figures in general, to respect the national anthem.
  6. Finally, a cynical explanation for the musical director of the orchestra beginning a concert with the national anthem is pleasing or obeying members of the board of the orchestra who contribute financially, and who insist on the observation of “patriotic” norms.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in honoring or supporting courageous individuals who have fought in wars or sacrificed themselves for what they believed was necessary for freedom and survival.  Not just war heroes but moral heroes, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.

But I oppose national anthems because they feed nationalism which is conducive to unnecessary death and torture. I am also opposed to national anthems because there is no such thing as a country or nation; there are only people, laws, culture (material and non-material).

Countries exist in consciousness. They are abstract ideas, political constructs. Believing they exist as if they were a reality sui generis, as if they were an actual person or even a thing, is reification. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.

Instead of rising for jingoistic national anthems, people should instead rise to applaud a moving performance by the musicians and conductor after listening to, say, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.  Music is real in a way that nations are not.

Musical concerts should provide a haven for celebrating the human condition, not for anthem-singing that divides humanity. My protest that night was a silent one, but internally I raged against the conflation of the state with the arts when the national anthem began to play.

Richard Sahn is a sociology professor and independent thinker.

9 thoughts on “Patriotizing the Arts – Patronizing the Audience

  1. I think it is a little bit much nowadays, Concerts for the Arts!? And, to me anyway it tends to cheapen the National Anthem. But, what are you going to do. The powers that be I think are even feeling the pressure to go along to get along… That said I really enjoyed the most mellow renditions I’ve ever heard I think in the first two World Series games @ Fenway Park one by JT James Taylor of Fire & Rain fame, and Keith Lockart & his Boston Pops w/ a Children’s Choir accompanying. I’ve seen both too in person before, and my Wife & I both agreed these were no less stirring than the Fireworks, exploding Scoreboards & Fighter Jets in V Formation Flyovers!. Maybe even more so. I think its a question of balance. I will always stand and Doff my cap though being a Mil. Air Police Veteran, and also a member of a semi. mil. Career as a Firefighter of 20 years. I firmly believe history repeats itself, and now the scales are tipped way to the side of the “Super Patriot” even in my middle-class neighborhood everyone seems to try and outdo each other W/ Flags, Decals, and bumper stickers of varying patriotic expression. I grew up in the era of Fallout Shelters, the New Frontier, School Nuke Drills (hiding under Desks) etc. Pledge of Allegiance, etc. And whether or not I’d live to Adulthood what with Russia & the Cuban Missile Crisis. Never realizing how close we came. In closing I think all Countries are flawed and made their mistakes throughout History. No one Country is a True Shining Beacon to the World.

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    1. I agree PA, overdoing anthems & prayers “cheapens” them. Your brother’s dilemma is even more incongruous – what the hell national anthem do you play if the “classical concert” was Mozart?
      I had 2 grandfather’s – like anyone lucky: 1 Italian decent who liked Mass on Sunday, the other English decent; not much, except for weddings & funerals. The Italian loved good food, but never gave blessings. The other always gave blessings* at (only) dinner time. So they both had their own way of thanking a Higher Power. Yet I can’t remember either of them reciting Anthems at 4th July fireworks, which they both loved! It was a family day, something special for different generations & families to come together.
      *They barely lasted a minute. Trying not to get personal, he was an electrician by trade. His Dutch Reformist wife from NYC – after having 4 children – decided they must have SOME form of faith. She found a Minister she liked with bad wiring (well, dangerous!) got him to rewire the church. He did, free of charge. But claimed he: “Didn’t have to go to Service for 16 weeks, because that’s how long the job took”. (16 hours)
      True Christians – and true Patriots!

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  2. Playing the National Anthem to open any concert seems well over the top, but now I wonder, how many left the aforementioned concert thinking “my God they did a great job on the National Anthem!” What’s next, overhead parking lot speakers blasting the anthem every time Walmart opens a store?

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  3. Here’s a curious thing:

    I am a fan of Farm Simulator. It’s a video game that is very relaxing to play and was created by Giants Software, a German company. As a result, the locations have been European, though generic and not based on real places that could be identified.

    In the latest version, Farm Simulator 2017, for the first time there is a generic American location, Goldcrest Valley. While in most respects this location is not that different from the European towns that came before, there is one obvious difference – American flags are flying everywhere, whereas no flags at all were seen in earlier versions of the game.

    My assumption is this flag mania was deliberately chosen by the German designers to appeal to Americans as being authentic, telling something about how Americans are viewed elsewhere.

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  4. All this flag waving, National Anthem played constantly, fly overs, some military marching bands, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc., is what I call cheap or painless patriotism. Painless Patriotism requires no effort on the part the American Public. Unlike WW 2, the home front sacrifices nothing. The Hyper displays are also part of the Authoritarianism that has run rampant. We are no longer given any options among our elected officials to question, let alone admit our various wars on terror have resulted in huge expenditures that have accomplished nothing.

    The binary choice provided is Support the Troops, or Stab them in the Back.

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  5. Interesting. I had noticed the US obsession with their flag (planted in people’s front yards and on politicians’lapels), but didn’t realize the national anthem was such a big part of that syndrome. I agree that that trivializes it. The idea that it would be played at a concert or even a non-international football game seems incongruous to probably most Europeans, as I’m afraid it would bring back memories of coercive nazi gatherings. But it made me wonder about my own (Polish) national anthem. It was created in 1797 as a patriotic and arguably militant song (but purely defensive, no suggestion of any national superiority), which was only natural at that time, as Poland has recently been divided for the third time between its three neighbours, a division that would last 123 years until November 11th, 2018. It became national anthem in 1927, nine years after that 1797 dream had finally materialised. Its first sentences are : “Poland is not yet lost, as long as we live. What foreign force took from us, we will take back by sword.” But I never associated it with militarism and it is played sparsely, only at specific solemn occasions, official state celebrations, state burials and probably international sport events.
    It thus indeed inspires respect and basically reminds of common goals and being part of a community with dignity. I think that is the case in most European countries, while the EU in fact has a common anthem, the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which sings the ‘brotherhood of man’. That one is played at official occasions and at the start of internationally shared live radio/TV broadcasts, but no one is expected to stand for it :-).
    Wouldn’t be surprised though, if with our present right-wing government that would change and our national anthem would also become misused as a propaganda tool for exclusive nationalism rather than inclusive national unity. Nationalism as a claim of one’s supposedly God-given national superiority.

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