What the National Anthem Means

In the opening pages of Who Are We?, Samuel Huntington describes a scene indicative of the important place the national anthem plays in our national identity and of the dire situation of the country at present regarding respect for that anthem. The U.S. men’s soccer team in 1998 reached the Gold Cup final match to face Mexico before a partisan anti-American crowd who threw objects at American players and loudly booed the "Star-Spangled Banner." The game was, amazingly, played not in Mexico, but in Los Angeles, and some significant portion of those booing were American citizens who so weakly identified with their country that such scorn for its national symbols came effortlessly to them. Huntington recalls the episode as one key illustration of the erosion of respect and veneration for American national symbolic culture.

The depressing spectacle of NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem is further evidence of this cultural decay, and efforts to frame it as consonant with, or even especially archetypal of deep American values are themselves an indication of how poorly many Americans understand the meaning of the national anthem and how feebly they resonate with the emotional valence of that meaning.

The claim is made that those players who kneel during the anthem are merely engaging in a fundamentally American form of protest to draw attention to imperfections in the country, with the goal of, as Colin Kaepernick put it, hastening the coming of the day when American symbols “represent what [they’re] supposed to represent.”  Radical, perhaps, but ultimately reformative rather than revolutionary and comfortably situated in the mainstream civil rights tradition of the country. Yet these players uniformly indicate their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  Although an astounding proportion of the media figures writing about this movement cannot bring themselves to actually read what that movement’s leaders have described as its ideology and goals, they are not hard to find online. The Black Lives Matter view of American society is fundamentally hostile. The country is, in their account, “systematically and intentionally” dedicated to the genocidal “demise” of “Black lives.” Among the proclaimed goals of the movement is the “disrupt[ion]” of the “nuclear family” in favor of “black villages” that will apparently replace families in the role of child-rearing and socialization. Whatever one thinks of these ideas, they are undeniably and frankly oppositional to basic beliefs and institutions of American culture. 

So much for the idea that this is just about good old-fashioned American reform of American society.  The message should be clear:  in refusing to stand for the anthem, these players, all of them millionaires celebrated beyond the wildest dreams of nearly all humankind because they happen to play a schoolyard game well in a country where entertainers are unduly deified and paid kingly sums for running and jumping, indicate their sneering refusal of any sense of identity, gratitude, and responsibility to this society that makes it possible for them to be so richly rewarded for frivolous play.

The football players have innumerable allies in the media, at least some of whom pretend to be interested in history. But the same instinctive disdain for American history and culture of the Kaepernickites is palpable in these efforts to defend them. Francis Scott Key is dishonestly caricatured as a virulent and murderous racist, the War of 1812 is perversely spun as yet another episode of American imperialism and, still more counterfactually, a war of American slaveholders against freed slaves, and the entire meaning of the Banner is made to rest on one verse, never sung in performances, the interpretation of which is contested by serious historians. As with the Kaepernickites, the rhetoric of fairmindedness and respectability is paper-thin, and the final product is fairly straightforward derisive animus for American history, principles, and identity.

What is the national anthem for, then? Simply put, it is an aural flag. It is a series of linguistic signs composed and melodically organized with the express purpose of causing us to gaze, lyrically and imaginatively, on the actual visual symbol that is the representation of the nation. It is literally a song about the American flag as an object of national veneration. And what is an American flag for, then? Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, a brilliant book that should be read by every American, show that it most fundamentally, if necessarily secretly, symbolizes the body of the American patriot fallen in combat to defend the nation. This is why the bodies of soldiers are draped in the flag. They are the flag. In standing reverently before the flag, as the national anthem about that flag is performed, Americans worship the replenishing, saving totem of our tribe. It is that basic. It is that deep. 

This is all, of course, too much for many in the American cultural elite, who have gorged themselves on the same rotten bread proffered by Black Lives Matter, the NFL Kaepernickites, and their allies, but the truth of the symbolism is evident in the visceral reaction of the typical American to the sight of a professional athlete who kneels during the singing of this majestic hymn to national identity. These ordinary Americans, still uninfected by the toxin of multiculturalist relativism that is epidemic among the chattering classes, hear those words, invoke that image, feel that collective bond and shared identity, and therefore do not easily tolerate the contempt for all that contained in the thoughtless gesture of egotistical millionaires in football pads. 

The NFL will perhaps soon learn the perils of embracing and promoting mockery of such profoundly felt symbolic truths.