The Flag and Anthem as National Myth

Note: This is a post where I try to avoid offending anybody and will therefore likely offend everybody. I should also say that my goal is not to share my political views or to change anybody’s mind, but to look at something that I think is really  cool.

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Our weekly apocalyptic firestorm/culture war  is brought to you by Colin Kaepernick, his detractors and supporters, with my Facebook feed being one of the many (probably less-important) victims.

Since Kaepernick sat during the National Anthem as a form of protest, people from both sides have posted countless arguments, counterarguments, and strawman-pseudo-arguments otherwise known as memes.

Among those memes, however, one actually stopped me in my tracks.

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I’ve been stuck on this meme because the messages are literally identical, but they also feel very different. The creator is obviously attributing that feeling to racial double standards within our society. And that fact shouldn’t be entirely ignored. When we ignore violent protestors because they should be more peaceful; and ignore peaceful BLM protestors because they’re too hostile and obstructive; and ignore a calm, silent protestor for just sitting, this all suggests our problems are usually with the protestor and not the protest itself. (Most overt political statement of the blog: completed)

However, attributing this difference in perception solely to race isn’t a foolproof argument, mostly because the “America isn’t Great” line-of-thinking isn’t new. Democrats have presented themselves as the Anti-Status Quo Party, illuminating America’s faults in the process, for decades. And since 2008, Republicans have branded themselves in much the same way. Many people of color have shared feelings of the American Dream, the Greatness of America, as being something unattainable for them for centuries. Langston Hughes wrote two poems to this exact effect and they read as intensely patriotic, not anti-American.

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 1968 Olympics

In the same way, I usually applaud athletes who use their platforms to help their communities and change their nation. But I can’t shake an inherent feeling that there is something wrong with Kaepernick’s message. But why? Carmello Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Lebron James opened the ESPYs with a message nearly identical to Kaepernick’s. So why the different reaction here, too?

The difference is Kaepernick isn’t just fighting racism, he’s fighting a myth, too.

The flag and national anthem have become mythologized in our society. And when something becomes mythologized it’s transcendent and untouchable.

***

No, mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has  been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth — penultimate because the ultimate cannot  be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist  Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not  told. So this is the penultimate truth (Campbell, The Power of Myth).

Joseph Campbell, the only mythologist I’ve ever heard of and therefore the most preeminent, defines myth in the most positive sense possible. Myths are stories that become symbols or metaphors and point to an indescribable, transcendent truth. In Campbell’s definition, “myths” could be historical fact or total fiction, it doesn’t matter. Myths don’t have to be true, they have to point to Truth.

So myths are stories. But society has never been content just to read myths, we must participate in them. We don’t just read about pilgrims and Indians, Santa Clause, or the birth of Jesus, we create holidays to recreate and participate in these myths.

Campbell says, “A ritual can be defined as an enactment of a myth… And it’s out of that participation that one can learn to live  spiritually.” Our clearest example of this is the act of communion. In communion, we reenact the story of the Last Supper. We use the story to reflect inwards, commune with God, participate in a communal action with the entire church, and learn how to interact with our world in a “Christian” way.

(To reiterate: myths can be true. Please no angry messages.)

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***

And when he had given thanks, he brake [it], and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24, King James Version)

The ritual  of communion is loaded with symbolism which gives the act its power. By consuming the bread and wine, we identify ourselves with the transcendent figure of Christ, and symbolically experience his death and resurrection. The bread represents the suffering of Christ. And by eating his “body,” we reaccept his salvation, are born again, and are welcomed into the Church, the body of Christ: a cycle.

Campbell celebrates the inward turn that communion creates, and how we discover that “Christ is working within you… This is a way of inspiring a meditation on  experiencing the spirit in you.” The ritual also admits us into a community. Or as Campbell says, we become “a member of the tribe,  a member of the community, a member of society.”

But most importantly, it affirms the fact of suffering in life. The whole point of the ritual is to acknowledge Christ’s suffering. And because the ritual reenacts the Last Supper and Christ’s death and resurrection, we connect our own suffering with his. Our primal and elemental needs of rebirth, community, reflection and spiritual living meet to answer the most essential human question: Why does life hurt?

***

By the 20th century, we were treating the anthem as a religious hymn, and it became counterproductive to alter the lyrics as social commentary since changes to the anthem tend to make people so upset.  (Clauge, NYTimes)

Myth, ritual, and symbol strike at the heart of who we are. They exist beyond us and beyond the power of language, yet they seem to rest in the middle of our very souls.

One pro-Kaepernick line of argument questions people’s strong feelings for the “Star Spangled Banner”: It’s only been our anthem for 100 years; it doesn’t make sense to defend so strongly a song that is so far removed from our country’s founding.  What the argument misses is the anthem’s power comes from its transformation into myth and ritual, not its longevity.

Like communion, the anthem does not hide from the world’s suffering. Perilous fight, rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air describe a Hell-scape. But in the midst of war and emotional scarring, our flag waves undefeated: a symbol for the free and the brave.

The anthem is enshrined as ritual by sporting events, where tens of thousands people participate in the same action, recognizing the same symbol, acknowledging a shared community. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociology professor writing for the NYTimes, notes that the flag and anthem “evoke emotional attachment to the nation, crystallize identity and help people feel connected to something outside of their own immediate family and community.” 

Nowhere is this purpose more evident than a Bruins game following the Boston Marathon Bombing. The city quickly became a war zone and its citizens felt vulnerable and threatened. In this environment, the pre-game ritual became a healing salve to the city’s wounds, acknowledging their pain and cementing a sense of power and peace through community.

 

The anthem also gains power through a host of connections. It’s inextricably tied to the flag, which itself stands for more then freedom, bravery, and unity, but is also linked to the archetypal Valiant Soldier (a mythic figure closely related to the Sacrificial Christ). The iconic picture at Iwo Jima crystallizes this connection and gains its power from our mythic needs, showing soldiers struggling, surrounded by the broken remains of war, yet united and triumphant.

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The flag and anthem are the most sacred, powerful, and identity-binding elements in our society, our national communion. They’re simultaneously transcendent and intensely personal. They stand for who we were, are, and hope to be. This is why our reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s protest have been so extreme. With symbols this intrinsic to our identity, we can only see Kaepernick’s protest in one of two opposite ways: as something deeply insulting and un-American or something heroic in its courage and power.

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2 Responses to The Flag and Anthem as National Myth

  1. sirwink says:

    Young Man — excellent writing. Deeply considered and well-stated. It’s ok to offend people. It’s also an excellent instinct to try not to, or do so gracefully. (We ARE peacemaking Gaucho/Mowreys, after all…) I agree that there’s something mildly troubling AND admirably heroic about CK’s mode of protest and you lay out the arguments and reasons clearly. I do fall firmly on the side of his RIGHT to protest and I love your insight into the little problem of racially-tinged double standards our “less thoughtful” (let’s call them) countrymen fall prey to. I also agree with you about Jos. Campbell — altho’ I’ve heard of others*, he is the preeminent mythologist. Keep up the good writing. Proud of you. If I had a mantle, I would pass it on.

    *you know, the lady who wrote the little book about Classical Mythology. and that other guy, french, I think.

  2. Pat Guch says:

    This essay, attached to the protest by Colin Kaepernick, expands the discussion about standing to sing the National Anthem at sports events in such important ways. As the author so rightly says, over time both anthem, and its primary symbol, the flag – have grown into mythic importance in our society. Originally, the anthem, for example, was attached to a particular time and a particular composer, but all of the facts of the anthem, while initial drivers, have paled as the mythic truths of the anthem and its flag have grown, representing America at its best: courageous, a standard bearer, on the side of good and truth – heroic in that. In fact, in all the world, courageous and good and heroic. Perhaps that is what an audience at a sports match or anywhere the anthem is sung, is standing and singing for: the ideal of America.

    But, then, because the anthem and its flag represents us mythically at our best, is turning one’s back on them by refusing to stand, an even more crucial and even courageous way to say: we are turning our backs on these symbols of what we are, because our society is failing them. In this case, by maintaining a policing system that is too often not fair to all of our people, which is neither honorable, nor courageous, nor good. How, the protester seems to say, can we celebrate the myth, when we are not living up to its truths.

    As the author so admirably and perceptively writes, myth is powerful because of its hold, even over time, on truth. In this case, because of this power, it has touched the people across the board in particularly vocal and powerful ways. That’s American, too. .

    Thank you, Mason, for your perceptive essay, giving us pause at a time that requires it. pg

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