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.
The people refusing to stand for the national anthem are trying to make an important point; so are those who argue for choosing a different form of protest. There is something to be said for both sides. 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 can now take the results for granted.
Just how much we take them for granted is reflected on the left, which utters harsh words for nationalism while also constantly engaging in nationalist projects. A welfare state, after all, is a fundamentally nationalistic enterprise, and it is frequently justified on those terms: invidious comparisons to the allegedly superior amenities offered by rival states; claims about obligations to fellow Americans that would be nonsensical without an important, and binding, national identity. We may debate whether the U.S. government should provide health care for all its citizens, but we are not arguing about whether we should open up an Obamacare exchange in Chad.
Of course, there’s good reason that “nationalism” ultimately became a dirty word; the quest for a strong national state sometimes resulted in internal purges of minorities and in external conquest. Thus the appeal of a cosmopolitan, denationalized political ethos that reified the individual over the group. There’s a lot to like about that view. As a matter of pure logic, it is hard to argue for anything else. Unfortunately, human beings are not creatures of pure logic. We evolved in the African plains, not a freshman philosophy seminar.
Our particular species of primate is, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “groupish.” Most of us do not want to think of the place we live as merely another sort of consumer choice, and of our neighbors as nothing more than fellow consumers, for the same reasons we prefer homeownership to living in a hotel.
Nationalism channeled that groupish instinct into the nation-state. Some of those nations then used the immense power of mass group-ness to commit great horrors. It’s understandable, and perhaps inevitable, that so many people rejected any hint of nationalism in the aftermath of World War II. But the current political moment illustrates the limits of that approach: The groupish instinct has not gone away, and neither has it leveled up into a mass identification with all humanity. Instead, it has leveled down, into a global outbreak of populist particularism. That particularism is threatening to tear the United States apart as rival tribes lose the ability to do anything, however trivial, together.
If we are to fight our way back from this soft civil war, we will need a muscular patriotism that focuses us on our commonalities instead of our differences. Of course, such a patriotism must not be either imperialist nor racialized. Which means we desperately need the flag, and the anthem, and all the other common symbols that are light on politics or military fetishism and heavy on symbolism. We need much more of them, rather than much less — constant reminders that we are groupish, and that our group consists of 328 million fellow Americans with whom we share a country and a creed, a song and a flag, and the deep sense of mutual obligation that all these things imply.