Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Rockets' Red Glare

"And the Rockets' red glare, the Bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there

I know I'm not the first person to notice this, but our national anthem is a war song. It enshrines violence at the heart of our national symbolic representation of ourselves. Though the melody comes from an English gentleman's-club song referencing Anacreon, the greek poet of wine, women and song, the whole poem from which The Star Spangled Banner comes is phrased as a series of questions which are all answered by flag-waving.

It is the first verse that has been most often sung since the song was adopted as the US national anthem in 1931, and in that verse, the continued existence of our country is in grave doubt. The uncertainty is underlined by the form of the verse, as it contains only one statement (quoted above) framed by two questions. The only direct affirmation in the text sets up a condition: it is only the bombs going off that prove our flag is still there. The rockets' red glare tells us that our country still exists.

This is how an historical trauma becomes a performative fact about a people--every time we meet formally as Americans, we symbolically re-enact the anxious night in 1812 that Francis Scott Key spent as a temporary prisoner on an English ship. Every sporting event, every Irish Dance competition, and every school assembly begins with us reliving the battle of Baltimore and our last-ditch redemptive victory: our fragile and feisty fledgling democracy battered but yet somehow managing to hold off the mighty forces of the nasty old English Crown. At that time, everywhere we turned lay a threat to our new freedom, but as long as the bombs were bursting in air, we knew our only recently-declared independence as a country still existed. As long as we were fighting, we knew we were alive.

Well, almost 200 years of nearly continuous war later, our flag is still there, and we are still rehearsing the mindset of a righteous and threatened country defined by war victories that can only know it exists if the bombs are going off. This is how we come to mistake the mass murder of a diffuse band of religious fanatics for something the size of the hand of the old British empire: we rehearse that substitution in our song. We take that condition of threat an insecurity redeemed through victorious war and apply it to our present almost daily by singing our song. Though the actual existence of our state is threatened by no one in the world (except maybe ourselves), we still react to all threats by regressing to the reactive state our national anthem has taught us.

I just recently looked up Key's full text for the first time in my life, and I have to admit I was surprised at how current it is. In addition to establishing active war as a condition for knowledge of our continued existence as a country, the poem equates religious salvation with military victory so powerfully and so insidiously that it could have been commissioned by a contemporary political operative with a war to sell. (Did you note that in the first verse the words "Rockets," "Bombs," and "Flag" are all capitalized, the way the word "God" usually is?) The last verse of the original poem, The Defense of Fort McHenry, is particularly telling, and relevant to our current mindset. This is the verse that brings it all home and tells us what we're really about as a new nation; our "heav'n rescued land" has a responsibility to the God that saved it:

Then conquer me must, when our cause it is just

And this be our motto "In God is our trust;"

And the Star Spangled Banner in Triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

To triumph, one must triumph over someone, who then lives in defeat and subjugation. To live in triumph, one must be always in conflict, always defeating adversaries. Is this what we really want?

I know that national anthems are often militaristic, that nationalism frequently relies on defining ourselves against others and uses fear, religious fervor, and good old team spirit to exalt violence and war, but I thought that this kind of exaggerated nationalism had been discredited due to the bitter fruits it had borne in the world wars of the last century. Must we still practice exactly that brand of violent nationalism in our core national symbols?

I'm helping a friend of mine, the musicologist Mark Clague, who is doing a big project on the anniversary of the national anthem for 2011-2012, commissioning new interpretations of the song and engaging scholars on the subject. I know I'm ready for a semiological analysis on how a hymn extolling a merger of the virtues of Venus and Bacchus becomes a nationalisitic war song. We could certainly use a major taking-apart of the layers of encoded meanings of the text and music, in addition to the shifing meanings in performance and the song as a site of contested identity poitics that I believe Mark himself has embarked upon.

Right now, I'm feeling like it might be time to start thinking about a new anthem as well. How about an anthem
without war? How about an anthem, heaven forbid, with a little humility? If we really are the leaders of the free world, how about an anthem that is a bit more self-assured and kindly, an anthem that might lead us to better behavior, a touch less national narcicism--one that speaks of the responsibilities of privilege, maybe, or perhaps says something about how beautiful our land is, like America the Beautiful? (That song would be fine with me as long as we ditch the last verse about the Pilgrim's feet trodding all over the natives). While we're at it, could we have a song that took a verse to somehow express some regret at the destruction of the Native American societies we perpetrated? Or maybe some sorrow over all the damage to the environment we've caused? I nominate This Land is Your Land as a candidate--every single verse of it.

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