The Star Spangled Banner as a Commons

ill you all rise, please, and join us in the singing our our national anthem?”

It doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? But, as everyone knows by now, it can be made extremely difficult and we have done that. It seems to me that at the most fundamental level, this is just the tragedy of the commons. [1]

“The commons” as  Garrett Hardin uses it is a common grazing area. All the farmers areteam 5 free to graze their cattle on the common pasture provided they don’t have too many cattle. Only so many and no more. But each farmer has an incentive to add just a few “extra” cattle—how much harm can a few extra cattle possibly do?—to the common area and when too many farmers do that, the commons crashes and there is no food for anyone’s cattle and disaster ensues.

The national anthem is a commons. All public ceremonies in which we participate as Americans—only that one status–are a commons. The inauguration of a new president is such an event. The awarding of medals to the winners of a track and field contest is such an event. The crowning of a new Miss America is such an event—or was once. [2]

About all of these, I would say that everyone who participates in the event, as a contestant or as a spectator, owes a duty to the event. That’s a shorthand way of saying that each one owes to his or her neighbors the courtesy of treating the event as if we all related to it in the same way, not as partisans, who will be guaranteed to feel differently about the outcome.

There is only one way to treat the event as a commons and that is to lay aside, for the moment, the things that divide us and to focus, for the moment, on this one thing that unites us. There are literally thousands of ways to subvert the commonness of the event and every Sunday from now on into the foreseeable future, we will be treated to new ones?

Have you seen the NFL team that stands during the performance of the Star Spangled Banner, linking arms and facing away from the field of play? I haven’t either, but surely it is only a matter of time. Have you seen the team and all the coaches and all the owners standing on the sidelines linking arms and singing the anthem together? Or kneeling together, assuming that someone will be willing to help to owner to his feet afterwards? I haven’t either, but I expect to and if I could see a replay of every NFL opening ceremony next week, I would.

At the Seahawks v. Titans game last week, both teams remained in their locker rooms until after the “unifying ceremony” was over. At the Steelers v. Bears game, one team was on the field and one was not. Here is a survey of what was done at different sites.

A Sunday afternoon football game is a special thing. It is a commons. You can’t just add extra cows to it, confident that no one else will think of it. The real question is not my cows or your cows; it is some extra cows or no extra cows.

Katharine Q Seelye and Bill Pennington   reported in The New York Times that:

At football stadiums across the country, fans seemed united in their irritation that their sacrosanct leisure hours had been hijacked by a raging, uncivil war that in their view should be confined on Sundays to the talk shows — so they could tune it out.

I think the choice of the word “sacrosanct” is absolutely justified here. And the intensity it conveys is justified by the lengths people will go to protect it. [3] These fans want football and nothing else. Well…football and tailgating and nothing else.

The singing of the Star Spangled Banner—which was once something the fans were team 2asked “to join in”—even though the word “free” with that awful tight ee- vowel comes at a high G that hardly anyone can reach. That adds a common ritual to the “sacrosanct leisure hours.” As long as you don’t pay much attention to what it says, you can just wait until the performance is over and the game starts. [4] And as long as it is common, no one objects.

Refusing to treat it as a meaningless ritual—more precisely, a ritual that is powerful because the particulars are not attended to—opens it up to varying interpretations. What does standing quietly in a reverential posture “mean?” It used to mean that you were extending a courtesy to your neighbors and affirming a bond of solidarity with them. But if it now means “Black Lives Really Don’t Matter,” then you would expect some difference of opinion.

To the division between those who want pure leisure—that’s the commons—we add people who want almost pure leisure—broken only by the introduction of the issues that are important to me. Just my cows, that is, not yours. And once there is a divisive issue, your response to it will be divided into affirming it or opposing it. Even doing nothing will be colluding with it.

team 1Now the commons is gone. Players are staying in the locker room until after our “ritual of solidarity is over.” Players are inventing combinations of ways to affirm the unity of the team amidst the different views of the players. Look at this picture of the Detroit Lions. Some are kneeling, some are standing.  All are holding onto each other.  I wish the churches could figure out a way to do that.

President Trump—His Tweetness—has not invented this issue, but he has made it markedly worse and he will certainly lose. Every Sunday, ingenious new ways to give the finger to the President will be invented and displayed on prime time television. Standing, kneeling, squatting, staying in the locker room, joining hands with the other team, wearing blindfolds, holding signs. There is no end to the ways this rebuke can be administered.

And to all the owners and coaches and players who oppose the President’s issue, add all the fans who want no issues at all to distract them from their non-NFL lives. So Trump will lose this one.

But then, how will the commons be restored? Does it ever get restored? Unlike the pasture in Hardin’s parable, the unity of a ritual doesn’t just grow back like the grass does. When you stop overgrazing the grass, it grows back. When you stop chipping away at a common ritual, it just stands there, chipped. Rituals don’t heal.

I think they can be healed. Theoretically. I don’t know how. And since we don’t really know how they can be restored, maybe we shouldn’t damage them so carelessly.

[1] “The Tragedy of the Commons” began to be a much-used metaphor when Garrett Hardin published it in the journal Science in 1968. He says he got it from a pamphlet written by A. F. Lloyd in 1853, so the image has been around for awhile.
[2] It took a little time and thought to give you three grades of illustration: undeniable, plausible, and controversial. I hope you appreciate the care with which this buffet was prepared for you.
[3] In the movie, Concussion, Dr. Cyril Wecht tells Dr. Bennet Omalu, “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week; the same day the church used to own.” You want to talk “sacrosanct,” there it is.
[4] I once imagined a protest in which the singer would refuse to sing the words “the land of the free” until the U. S. dropped out of the top ten countries that have the highest proportions of their citizens in jail. He or she would just hum those six words—“o’er the land of the free”—before ending the song.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to The Star Spangled Banner as a Commons

  1. ericinlo says:

    The tragedy of the commons occurs, it seems to me, when some of the owners-in-common of a “commons” no longer accept the idea that allocation of use of the commons is a community decision that all will abide by. Instead, those particular owners-in-common have switched to the idea that they, individually, get to decide how much of the resource they are “entitled” to use — in your example, how many cows they should be able to put on the “commons”. It’s when that switch occurs that the “commons” disappears. It’s then that the small society that “owns” the commons fragments. All the rest is consequences of that change in the fundamental social connection.

    If I am even partially correct about this, then it seems to me that either (1) that there has never been a commons of support for the “national” anthem, or (2) that it ceased to exist in the 1860’s.

    And given the internal contradictions inherent in the language of the lyrics verse and the context in which it has been used, why would we expect there to be a “commons” about it?

    And more importantly, why would we think that there should be a commons about it?

    eric =========


    • hessd says:

      I’m glad you said something about Lincoln’s view of “the union” at book group, Eric. That gives me a context for your comments here. When we shift from commons as a reality–a pasture, stand of trees–to the commons as a cultural metaphor, we have to relax the boundaries a little. There has never been a commons of any kind in the sense that all members of the society accepted it. “Good enough” has always been good enough for what is the common property of a society. So, although I agree with you that there have always been parasites on the commons, the general agreement has been enough to sustain the commons anyway. Until recently. I think Earl Blumenauer’s refusal to attend President Trump’s inauguration is a big step toward destroying the commons and positively invited retaliation.

  2. karlhess says:

    Interesting and complex problem. Since we are privileged and have never suffered discrimination, let alone police brutality, we may find it hard to understand the feelings of those who have.

    Karl >

    • hessd says:

      What you say is certainly true, Karl, but if it depends on how we all feel, the commons of our action is already gone. I think it has to depend on our intentions instead and on our hopes for the society as a whole.

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