Opinion: Independence Day and Performative Nationalism

July 4th is a challenging holiday for a new, reflective America. Should we have fun and celebrate independence from Great Britain? Should we resolve to reflect on what that independence has created?

Today, as fireworks are prepared for an explosive day of patriotic celebration, we reflect red, white, and blue.

Declaring independence from Britain was the first step. 

America has a way of painting its past in bright colors and warm hues. One of its favorite tones is a passive protest and rebellion mentality. In the course of creating a thriving, rich country, American’s rebelled against the British. 

This American Revolution centered around taxation without representation would only be the first of many dances with war and revolt. We crafted our Independence Day around this (yes, watered-down) progression. 

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The country continued its growth under manifest destiny, installed a train of tears, imprisoned Asian Americans, and more. Yes, we fought wars, but the lives we lost in our cities were minority groups we lynched. Some would even say we continue lynching to this day. 

Yes, this country has a long history of moving forward, highlighting some of the darkest paths. America has been a provider of safety in the eyes of compatriots and allies. Likewise, there is a simmering truth to American resentment for the pain we cause those we other. 

Performing our nationalism.

In the past few years, we have witnessed an ebb and flow so unimportant that it left the national spotlight—peaceful protests during sporting events. 

Athletic events heard cries to stop peaceful forms of protests like kneeling during the national anthem. The activism action acted as a turning point for conservatives in the US, who maintained opposition to this visual model of protest.

However, major leagues responded to this issue by talking to humans. They spoke to people impacted by police brutality and racism instead of eliminating the problem—that problem: playing the national anthem at the start of sporting events. 

It was unnecessary. 

Other, similar countries don’t play the national anthem. It has widely been criticized as an unnecessary venture. Especially when we recognize the unsightly verses kept it from being our national anthem for 100 years. 

Likewise, standing for the Star-Spangled Banner was examined more as the form of protest reached more national coverage. People pointed to federal law, which suggests that everyone should stand and face the flag. 

(As a country with a history of positive change stemming from protesting against the unjust rule, this may be the most baffling to a non-American reader. There are so many conservative calls to stand for a flag guaranteeing the right to protest the flag. Joseph Heller would scoff at the simplicity of this Catch-22.)

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Moreover, sporting events involving minority groups continue to suffer from similar implicit forms of racism, according to athletes, activists, and experts. 

So what should happen?

Simply put, major organizations can always get rid of the national anthem. It’s performative, distinct, and not at all necessary for a function to continue. Honoring troops can be done over an announcement, using high-quality graphics, with a moment of silence, or any of a myriad of ways. 

Essentially, the national anthem is not “essential” to any single sporting event. Yes, it is something special: an acknowledgment of the binding thread that made America. However, it is not necessary. The democracy does not end when the song reaches its final tonic chord. (Or, if you’re Whitney Huston, it’s grandiose rise to resolution!)

Nor is it, or any other act of performative patriotism, a sign of a patriotic being.

Protestors gather before a rally by the right-wing Patriot Prayer group in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Matt Sullivan outlined as much for NBC’s THINK Opinion and Analysis section earlier today. He said that athletes not showing up was more than enough reason to can the exercise. Moreover, Sullivan positions the NBA as a “barometer of cultural progress,” changing to meet the challenges we face. 

“Where the other American sports leagues accepted millions from the Pentagon for what Republican senators called ‘paid patriotism,’” Sullivan wrote this morning, “basketball banished a racist owner and condemned an anti-trans legislature while welcoming “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts and a gay player. (The NFL’s first openly gay active player came out just last month.).”

So, as he says in his headline, why not just skip the national anthem? It’s a simple, easy way to support the minority communities for whom the Star-Spangled Banner is proof of pain. This is an easy way to ensure that fewer boycotts occur.

This change is an act of anti-racism.