This has been the year of the national anthem. Never before have so many Americans been so passionately interested in the details of its performance.
Lengthy debates were held over whether the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was racist, most of them conducted by people who had not previously been aware that “The Star-Spangled Banner” had a third verse.
One faction decided that in a country whose Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of expression — right up front, where you can’t miss it! — refusing to stand during the national anthem was a near cousin to treason. Another argued that kneeling was extremely patriotic and yet, somehow, also an excellent form of protest against American society. A third suggested that perhaps we should just stop playing the national anthem at sporting events.
There is something to be said for the first two. But there is nothing to be said for entirely getting rid of the anthem at sporting events, except that the idea is rather shockingly naive about what it takes to hold a country together.
“Nationalism” has become a dirty word in the modern era, having become inextricably associated with repression of minorities and imperialist ambition. We’ve forgotten that the nationalists actually did start out in the 19th century with a worthy and difficult project: persuading a large group of people to think of themselves as a single unit.
This was immensely hard work that took most of a century to complete in places such as Italy, Germany and Greece. We fail to appreciate it only because their efforts were so successful that we take the results for granted.