The Star-Spangled Banner of Nationalism
Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, was very difficult for me to understand or comprehend. In fact, I think I might have spent more time looking for resources to help in this process than I did reading the book. Thanks to Trisha, this quote helped set the stage for this book for me: “Anderson’s most famous work, Imagined Communities, emerged from the crucible of Indonesian history. How do diverse nations like Indonesia, made up of many languages and ethnicities, hold together? Why do they sometimes fall apart? What keeps people in large nations from killing each other and why does national cohesion sometime fail? These weren’t abstract questions for Anderson, but were instead born out of lived immersion in Indonesian history.” This helped clear up the purpose and background for the book so I could begin to unpackaged it enough to write a half-way intelligent blog about it (not sure if this happened or not).
Anderson “believes that a nation is a community socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.” I think this idea of the origin of nationalism being something that people in communities have imagined is fascinating. This is why it took me so long to understand this concept and wrap my brain around it. It was very abstract and confusing to me until I came across the following quote: “Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance.” Of course I had to look that last word up since it is not recognized by the spell check dictionary. Thefreedictionary.com defines it as “the state or quality of agreeing or being identical in sound” This caused me to begin to understand the concept of a group of people unknown to one another uniting around a shared experience celebrating their nation.
Having experienced this phenomenon many times, I am often taken back by the power of the united voices singing with strong patriotism and the emotion evoked in many due to the power of the words of this Star-Spangled Banner…
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It has brought me to tears watching members of the military sing this with an entirely different conviction because they have been or know the brave men and women who have defended this land of the free we call America! As Anderson says, “Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” This quote actually made sense to me and resonated with my understanding of nationalism. It is also interesting to me that for most people in this country, the only time our national anthem is sung is at a large sporting event that people are attending as a fan of the sport or team, but end up showing themselves as a fan of this great country. For this, I am grateful we have created this as a traditional start to most athletic contests.
After trying to read this book, I can partially agree with Anthony Reid when he states, “this is a splendid book to read-engaging, imaginative, sweeping, relevant, humane. It should be put in the hands of students, for despite the array of learning it never wraps up an argument but challenges and provokes to further questions.” I can’t quite agree with the splendid book to read part or that is was humane, but I definitely can say it was imaginative and did not wrap up much of anything for me, and left me with many more questions. I would also say that my vocabulary has been increased and my skills in researching an author and book have been honed.
 Jeet Heer, Benedict Anderson, Man Without a Country, New Republic, December 13, 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/125706/benedict-anderson-man-without-country
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso Books, Kindle Edition, 149.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso Books, Kindle Edition, 8.
 Anthony Reid, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (Book Review), Pacific Affairs 58, no. 3 (1985): 497-99.
5 responses to “The Star-Spangled Banner of Nationalism”
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Great thoughts, I liked especially your discourse on the Star Spangled Banner. It brought to mind many things, especially timely, due to the protests that are occurring surrounding folks who will not stand for our national anthem.
I know we won’t solve it here, but I wonder if you agree or disagree with people making those choices to not stand?
I have to say, to my military friends, it is unconscionable when folks show disrespect to the flag. On the other hand, we live in a country that allows for individual expression. So it is such a tough subject…
Thanks for bringing these relevant thoughts to my mind.
I understand why many black people have chosen not to stand because of how people of color are being treated in this country, and they feel like this is a statement of not supporting this aspect or behavior in our country. I don’t think they realize they are also inadvertently disrespecting the sacrifice many men and women have made to give them this freedom to stand or kneel at will. I feel there is a better way for them to make a statement than to disrespect our national anthem.
Hi Jake! As a fellow social worker, did you feel Anderson’s conception of nationalism was at its core sociology? I feel like sociology theory is somewhat “forgotten” but actually explains a lot about what is happening in the world today. Your thoughts? I also questioned Anderson’s statements about people feeling comradeship when they are oppressed – for the sake of the whole. I think the vulnerable and oppressed would say they have no choice. Look what happens when they try to stand up and call it out. Hopping off my soap box now!
I agree it is very much sociology and the highlighting of human behavior. Yes many of the marginalized in our culture have no choice in how they are treated and I’m sure struggle to feel much national pride. Thanks for your comments.
May I comment on American politics as an outsider? (I say this because I don’t have all the background and so may be making assumptions or be wrong in my interpretations.)
I think sometimes people must be offensive to jolt others into recognizing pain and injustice. When footballers kneel during the anthem, are they not being intentionally disruptive to communicate that black lives matter and solidarity with those who are dying? It seems to me this is the same sort of offense that Jesus would have been when cleansing the temple of merchandise.