Friday, September 16, 2016

The National Anthem - Stand Up - Sit Down - A Case For Both

I guess you can start this story with Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers refusing to stand for the National Anthem.  It is important to note that the concerns he publicly expressed are current ones

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

In some progressive anti-racist circles though there is another step being taken.  That is putting forth the argument that our national anthem is explicitly racist.  This article by Jon Schwarz catches the spirit of the argument Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery.  I picked this up in part from my cousin who was upset about her son learning the national anthem at school and explained to him how racist it is.  This was on Facebook of course.  I weighed in that I thought it was rather subtle, but my cousin is pretty firm about it.

Why The Anthem Is Racist

Here is the argument.  It concerns the third verse of the anthem, which you have probably memorized, but I'll give it to you anyway. (Emphasis added)

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
That is kind of a classier version of an excerpt from the other song about the War of 1812 that we all know so well.

 Fired our guns and the British kept a-comin'
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin'
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
Yeah they ran through the briers and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
Essentially I always thought what the third verse said was that those damn redcoats tried to fuck with us and we beat their ass.  Isn't that what you thought?

By the way, I have this memory that I have not been able to substantiate that General Eisenhower banned the third verse during the war, as it was kind of disrespectful to our allies.

The Colonial Marines

It's the word "slave" that is the problem which brings us to the Colonial Marines.  The Colonial Marines were escaped slaves recruited by the British.  It is actually a pretty fascinating story.  At any rate, the idea is that that is who Francis Scott Key was talking about when he wrote "slave".

As Jon Schwarz wrote:
The reality is that there were human beings fighting for freedom with incredible bravery during the War of 1812. However, “The Star-Spangled Banner” glorifies America’s “triumph” over them — and then turns that reality completely upside down, transforming their killers into the courageous freedom fighters.
For whatever it is worth, the Snopes analysis of this claim is a kind of maybe.
In fairness, it has also been argued that Key may have intended the phrase as a reference to the British Navy's practice of impressment (kidnapping sailors and forcing them to fight in defense of the crown), or as a semi-metaphorical slap at the British invading force as a whole (which included a large number of mercenaries), though the latter line of thinking suggests an even stronger alternative theory — namely, that the word "hirelings" refers literally to mercenaries, and "slaves" refers literally to slaves. It doesn't appear that Francis Scott Key ever specified what he did mean by the phrase, nor does its context point to a single, definitive interpretation.
Also saying the Colonial Marines were fighting for freedom in an abstract sense is not really accurate.  Whatever their personal goals, they were fighting on behalf of the British Empire.  Even thought slavery was illegal in England in 1814, it was still legal in British colonies and would not be banned for another three decades.  This is quite different from the situation of black soldiers in the Union Army fifty years later.  The presidential order that authorized their enlistment also included emancipation.

It's Complicated

My own view is that it would be a very big mistake for progressives to take on the National Anthem with the same vigor that was applied to the Confederate flag.  Unfortunately in order to explain why I have to lay out my grand theory of American history which I will try to do as briefly as possible.

There is a word that I use in doing this that sometimes aggravates people and that is "narrative". The things we say about the past are of necessity narratives.  Commonly though you will find people shocked to learn that one narrative that they learned can be opposed by another narrative.  They then divide historical discourse into two categories - "the story they want your to believe" and "the truth".

It happens that any of the narratives will have a story about how they came to be. We call those stories historiography.

Another memory that I can't track down is somebody talking about the American history that his father or grandfather had to learn to become a citizen. That was the real deal.  Not this revisionist crap that the professors use to make our kids hate America.

So here is my theory for whatever it is worth.  If you read Democracy in America, which was written by a French visitor in the eighteen thirties, you will find a well formed American culture that is quite recognizable - no St. Patrick's Day Parade, pizza or bagels maybe, but recognizable nonetheless.

Even the Americans of European descent were no longer European and that culture was the result of a complex, to use a neutral term, encounter among at least four distinct groups of English settlers, a melange of Dutch and German in the middle colonies, people taken in captivity from Africa and the indigenous people.  I'm not going to try to unscramble that egg.

They All Came To Look For America

What came next was the greatest movement of people in history.  Over 100 million people from Europe going to the Americas.  Many to the United States.  In less than a century.

The common narrative of American history that supports American exceptionalism and what a great nation America is conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal is something of a cake that is baked for them -the 19th and early 20th century immigrants - with ingredients from all the various groups that created the core culture - going pretty light on the African and indigenous elements.

Each of the immigrant groups pretty well accepted the cake viewing themselves as kind of the icing and the cherry on top. In the special American history book that we had in parochial grammar school, we learned a different version of history pre-1776 in which the Spanish and the French were the good guys, but post 1776 Catholicism and Americanism were in virtual lockstep.  Two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence and Catholics were disproportionately killed in America's wars.

Things like convent burning, the San Patricios and the 1863 draft riots were kind of neglected.

The Late Unpleasantness

The most challenging part of the common narrative was the war with a whole bunch of names - Civil War, War of the Rebellion, War Between The States, War of Northern Aggression. My own preference is Late Unpleasantness, but that is neither here nor there.

In the common narrative, the first hundred years are about the making and preserving of a nation.  The notion of national self-determination rather than rule by a transnational empire and government of the people, by the people and for the people was actually pretty sketchy in the nineteenth century,  And in my mind that is what the National Anthem is reflecting.  Regardless, we achieve independence in 1783, come up with a working Constitution in 1789, survive a major Civil War incidentally abolishing slavery in the process, realize that this racial equality thing needs more time to work on it, save world democracy three times in the twentieth century and finally get around to working on the whole race thing in the sixties and isn't it great that is finally taken care of.  The thing is that though you may be freaking out either about the content of that narrative or because I call it a narrative, you can both support that narrative and find ways in which it is incomplete or maybe wrongheaded, but now I will give you the best historiography lesson I ever heard.

People Shouldn't Own Other People

It was in Dublin, Ireland at one of the two Unitarian churches in the Republic. It felt a little homey as they use the gray hymnals that we use in the United States.  This was around 2005 in the biggest family vacation we ever took - a week in Ireland. They had a guest minister, who was an expat American.  He lived in Spain.

The theme of the service was what is it that we are doing today that people will look back in a hundred years with a major WTF? To kick it off the minister talked about his great grandfather who had been an officer in the Confederate Army.  He then told us that while running through the house with a Confederate flag as he was engaged in a spirited game of Yanks and Rebs, which is what they played instead of Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians, he was confronted by the family's black maid who said something to the effect of "What are you doing with that redneck rag?  People shouldn't own other people. That's just wrong."

So here is the thing. Those of us whose origin is the"wretched refuse yearning to be free" can love the common narrative which kind of goes "Government of the people, etc.. Got that.  Oh shit. That should mean all the people not just the white ones.  Well we got that eventually", but we are the icing on that cake.  The various groups that made the cake for us have their own cakes and the African American one is not one in which we can say it was just fine to put off dealing with all that race and slavery stuff until later.

Of course there are different ways of dealing with that. One is to hold up the symbols of liberty and say this is great, it  needs to be completed.  There is a great speech that Thomas Wentworth Higginson relates in Army Life in A Black Regiment, that I won't reproduce here, because I think the dialect would be distracting in which one of his men pretty much claims the American flag, which he says the masters used to love, but they rejected when it began to stand for freedom.  After the war, blacks more or less appropriated the Fourth of July celebrations in the South.

The other approach which also has deep roots is to more or less say "This is bullshit",  Frederick Douglas reflects that tradition in his  "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech.

 I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

If you prefer the pithy thought you can go with Samuel Johnson,
How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
The bottom line is that most of us standing up with our hands on hearts and singing the first verse of the National Anthem have a pretty good narrative to support that even if it is incomplete AND  Colin Kaepernick also has a narrative that supports his decision to stay seated and it really has nothing to do with the third verse which nobody knows anyway and it is pretty clear that the Colonial Marines in that context were being hated for their red coats not their black skins.

Peter J Reilly CPA hoped to be an historian, but public accounting has been good to him. A guest post on this topic will follow soon.

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