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.

What Will “Freedom” Mean in a Trump Administration?

Big Brother
Remember the 1st and 4th Amendments?

W.J. Astore

What will freedom mean in a Trump administration?  During his campaign, why did Trump harp on the Second Amendment but none of the others?  How did our country come to define freedom as buying lots of guns and ammo without restrictions, or flying objectionable symbols such as Confederate battle flags?  What kind of “freedom” is the freedom to spend lots of money on guns? What kind of “speech” is flying a symbol that is highly offensive and hateful to many Americans?

The “freedom” to fly a flag associated with slavery, rebellion, oppression, and racism doesn’t seem to me to be much of a “freedom.” The same is true of the “freedom” to spend lots of money on guns and ammo. What is so “free” about that?

The “freedom” of the average Joe has come to be defined as the right to carry guns or the right to fly racist flags. But what about the right to a living wage, the right to privacy, the right to good health care, the right to a decent education, the right to clean water and fresh air, the right to have a real say in the political process?  These rights are being increasingly abridged, yet so many Americans see no infringement to their “freedom” here.

Surely one of the great triumphs of the power elite has been the redefinition of “freedom” such that the freedoms that are allowed, like buying lots of guns, make no impact on the elite’s ability to rule and to exploit.

A couple of sobering facts.  During his campaign, Trump railed against the press, suggesting that he’d work to change libel laws so that he could sue and punish the press for writing critical stories about him.  Also, Trump has suggested some kind of national registry for Muslims, and members of his staff have suggested internment camps for unreliable elements, citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a laudable precedent.

What the hell?

As the Trump administration takes shape, apparently with men like Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and retired General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, Americans would do well to read and re-read the Bill of Rights, all of them, not just rights like the Second Amendment.  For what good is it to be able to buy lots of guns if you need to worry about your religion, your right to privacy, your ability to organize and protest, and your right to a press that is untrammeled by the government?

Alarmist?  Consider the following facts about retired General Flynn, according to FP: Foreign Policy:

Earlier this year, Flynn Tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” and just last month offered his support for a prominent Alt-Right writer and activist. In his book Field of Fight released earlier this year, Flynn wrote, “I’m totally convinced that, without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated, and very likely destroyed” by Islamic militants, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce noted in a story about the book.

Sitting in your walled bunker, surrounded by guns as well as the stars and bars and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, is not much of a “freedom” if the government is illegally watching you, or getting ready to intern you in a camp because you worship God in the name of Allah instead of Yahweh or Jehovah, or getting ready to deport you because not all of your papers are perfectly in order.

First they came for undocumented immigrants, and I did not speak out, for I was not undocumented.  Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out, for I was not Muslim.  Then they came for the protesters, and I did not speak out, for I was not a protester.  Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Liberty First: What an Old Coin Can Teach Us

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My dad’s half dime

W.J. Astore

When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector.  My dad, in contrast, saved old coins.  He was not a collector; he didn’t file them away in special folders. He just tossed old silver coins into a cigar box.

My favorite coin of his was also the oldest one he had: a “half dime” from 1845.  To me, it’s a remarkably simple and aesthetically pleasing design, featuring a seated figure of “Liberty” on the obverse, with the words “Half Dime” on the reverse.

half dime

Note what’s missing: the words “In God We Trust.”  This motto was not added to coins until the national trauma of the U.S. Civil War reinforced religious revivals that had preceded that war.  It made its first appearance in 1864.  (Interestingly, in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the words “under God” were added only in 1954 during another crisis, the fear of communism stoked by McCarthyism during the Cold War.)

As a nation it seems we invoke God during crises, calling on Him for support and guidance and blessing.

But I want to return to my dad’s half dime from 1845, because that coin, in its simplicity, enshrines a value that is most fundamental to our country: Liberty.

With respect to religion, liberty to me means the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, to include the freedom not to worship God, even the freedom to express disbelief in God.

Such liberty was extremely rare in the 18th century when our nation was founded.  Back then, being labeled an “atheist” was roughly equivalent to being labeled a “terrorist” today.  But our nation’s founders were of diverse religious persuasions, to include Catholics and Quakers as well as myriad branches of “dissenting” Protestantism.  A few were deists (Thomas Jefferson most famously) who rejected the Trinitarian Christianity of most of their peers, and a small number (Thomas Paine, perhaps) were skeptics to the point of atheism.

What united them was a belief in liberty.  In religion, this was expressed as the freedom to worship in any way you chose, or not to worship at all.  Thus there was no religious “test” for office, no requirement to be a Christian or to express a belief that “In God We Trust.”

That profound belief in personal freedom — in liberty first — is captured on my dad’s old coin.  It’s also captured in the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

In today’s political climate, with all of our public prayers and calls to God to bless America, with talk of Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god, we need to recall that America was founded on Liberty first.

Or as my mom put it in her inimitable way, “You worry about your soul and I’ll worry about mine.”  Jefferson and Paine would have liked my mom.