Monday, September 19, 2016

A Radical Idea: No National Anthem At Most Sports Events

It was Buddhist Philosopher Alan Watts in his 'Wisdom Of Insecurity', who questioned the role of conditioned behavior and responses especially in advanced Western societies like the U.S. Watts contended that if behaviors are simply adopted and practiced without reflection  they easily become habituated and mechanical, especially if tied to values like national pride. There is then the potential they can become vehicles for propaganda.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current brouhaha over the national anthem as sports events - namely pro football- and players using it as a means to protest. At the same time, their exercise of their 1st amendment rights has triggered a ferocious backlash in some quarters, namely among militarists, nativist nationalists, American exceptionalists and others who place the value of the flag itself over the rights it is intended to represent.

This additional polarization is the last thing this nation needs given it is already up to its eyeballs in religious, political, racial and cultural polarization. No one appears to recall the famous words "united we stand, divided we fall."  So that our own internal divisions may be out ultimate security threat.

One letter appearing in The Denver Post yesterday had this to say about the issue of the national anthem at sports events, and caused me to wonder whether in fact it isn't time to drop it for most sports The key part - from James Aubrey of Denver - reads as follows:

"The deep source of my disappointment is the use of the national anthem to stir up an audience before a game of sport that doesn't have anything to do with national politics. 'The Star Spangled Banner' is appropriate enough at the Olympics, which immediately pits national teams against one another - but other athletic contests should be about athleticism, not patriotism. I'd like to see more separation between sport and state."

I believe he has made a sound point. This is apart from the fact most baseball and football fans don't really sing it anyway, they just mechanically mouth some of the words.  The fans already buying brats and beer at the concession stands don't even bother with that, they're more concerned with getting their snacks. And the ones in the rest room are more invested in voiding their bladders. "Anthem, what anthem, I gotta piss!" Let's not even get into the fact the song is inherently difficult to sing (few singers do it properly)  as pointed out recently by Prof. James McWhorter on 'AM Joy'. As he noted:

"As for the Star Spangled Banner, I don't care what anyone says, most people have not liked that song very much. It's difficult to sing and in a style that's frankly outdated  And all of a sudden it becomes this totem of being a moral American human being. when one poor man makes a statement about the most important racial issue of our time."

 MSNBC host Joy Reid observed, "it was written after the War of 1812 and has nothing to do with the founding of the country"

In other nations, say like Germany Austria and the UK, you seldom hear any anthems played at soccer matches or before a test cricket match. It just isn't done, it is uniquely American  - but one wonders why. It appears that over time (and faded memory)  it just became a habit, and is now  unthinkingly accepted as a natural part of a sports event.

You don't hear it before other events like the Academy Awards, so why baseball or football games?  Historically speaking, the first documented playing of the 'Star Spangled Banner' at a sporting event dates back to 1862.  But one is led to ask,  as Alan Watts might: At what specific event did it first become part of the national sporting fabric, such that it is now mechanically repeated each time?

Well, that appears to be the first game of the 1918 World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs (the Cubbies now nearly 100 years later contending for another Series' berth).  The time, recall, was near the end of World War I which had already been beset with propaganda thanks to Edward Bernays. 

Bernays  began his career in Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information. The objective was to drumbeat millions of recalcitrants into seeing the need for War. War to 'make the world safe for democracy' - in the words forged by Bernays first PR hacks. Later, much later - PR firms and sales-marketing departments would use the CPI as a template for their own efforts to mold the American mass mind.

Of course, Bernays left much more of a foundation for manipulative deceit than merely the CPI. For example, in 1923 he published what became the official manifesto of all future public relations 'Crystallizing Public Opinion'. As the title implies, the basic goal was to drumbeat the maximum number of 'the masses' into a homogeneous and consistent consent. But do it without their awareness. The key was to frame the content in such a way the person would believe it to be 'common sense', or 'patriotism' to accept it.

In this vein, the playing of a "national anthem" at the nation's premier sporting event, fit the role nicely. A stirring song played by a band in the 7th inning, fed by sport fans' enthusiasm and swelling pride translated to fervor for World War I patriotism. What's not for a respectable warmonger to like?  Besides, the fans loved it! They sang along with gusto, and even the players stood at attention.  Observing carefully the reactions, Bosox owner Harry Frazee decided to move the pomp and pageantry to the pre-game by the time the Series switched to Boston. The 'die' had been cast.

Having beheld such a captive audience entranced by the anthem and the 'red, white and blue' it was but a small step to keep on doing it, repeating it including for other sports venues. No surprise it was augmented - literally - with the advent of World War II and loudspeakers at stadiums. In the words of Mark Clague, an expert on the 'Star Spangled Banner' at the University of Michigan:

"The ritual of the national anthem became part of the war effort on the home front and said that sport is committed to all things American. It defines sports as American."

In other words, it's good propaganda and we already know propaganda guts nuanced response in favor of engrained, single dimension reactions and beliefs. In other words, it's the ideal vehicle for the control and manipulation of the mass mind and its emotions.  Indeed, Bernays' definitive work was  'Propaganda' - whose principles were to be later adopted wholesale by Goebbels and Reifenstahl. It was in this book that the master betrayed his intent to control the minds of the masses:

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country."

And here we see for the first time the term 'invisible government', which Bernays equates to 'the true ruling power of the country. Seen in this light, the anthem is a totem for propaganda and control of the mass mind. It is such that for those affected it literally eviscerates the power of reason and sober discrimination as it upends all the principles inherent in our constitution. As an example, consider this twaddle written by another letter write also on the same topic as the earlier one in The Post:

"I encourage Brandon Marshall to take a walk through Fort Logan cemetery where white tombstones stand for what they believed. They knew that when you no longer have a flag or an anthem you no longer have a country."

But, in truth, a piece of fabric - even colored red, white and blue - and a song (one written near the end of the War of 1812) absolutely do not make a country. Rather its people make a country and their conscious articulation of their rights, as enshrined in their Constitution. Because it is that abstract  document which defines the unique nature of the country and the extent of the identity via liberties it grants to its people.

Those who fail to see that, as the letter writer above, are propagandized and likely habituated to only react in a certain fixed way. They are the ones who have spawned much of the outcry at the new protests using the anthem - and with it more polarization. Since we can't expect them to change it is why we need to cease the anthem for our sporting events. As one commentator in TIME recently put it (Sept. 26, p. 18):

"If fans are going to react so strongly to someone kneeling during the anthem - as if that somehow signals a blow to America itself - it's time to re-evaluate how patriotic the gesture really is."

Alan Watts himself would argue such over-reacting people are substituting the fabric for the country, the symbol for reality. They are taking an artificial entity and inflating it to reality in the same way a mindless person in a restaurant might treat the image of a juicy steak on a menu as the real meat- cut it out and eat it (Another example Watts gives of "mistaking the map for the territory")

We can retain the anthem for the Olympics (sung after each of our wins, like in swimming or women's gymnastics) or for military and government convocations, events, displays. But we ought to ditch it for all other sporting events, lest the propagandists end up having the last laugh and converting the rest of us into semi-conscious automatons.

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