One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. Andrew Sullivan, “America Wasn’t Built for Americans,” New York September 18, 2017
When we are instructed to stand and face the flag for the National Anthem at the National Collegiate Wrestling Championships, which I attend each year, I always have a moment of discomfort. The 20,000 people in the arena obediently stand and place their hands reverently over their hearts. I stand too, but not because I’m feeling patriotic: I have a lot of reservations about public displays of patriotism.
Anyway, we all stand respectfully to listen to a splendid singer knock out the awkward lyrics, originally written as a poem by Francis Scott Key.
I observe my fellow wrestling aficionados; they seem moved by the soaring melody and the fervent vocal. Most of us don’t know that Key wrote the poem during the war of 1812: most of us don’t know anything about the war of 1812 against the British.
But we all pretend that the song means a lot to us:
Oh, 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, thro’ the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ 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?
Thank heavens we don’t sing the other verses, like this one:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
What’s that about “No refuge could save the hireling and slave…”? Well, Key owned slaves himself back in 1812 when he wrote the poem. And Key worked hard to defeat the abolitionists who fought against our 250 years of slavery, from our founding until 1864, when the Civil War ended and the slaves were freed.
(“During his lifetime, abolitionists ridiculed Key’s words, sneering that America was more like the ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed’ ” smithsonian.com)
Key’s tribe was white people.
Why should we feel reverent about The Star Spangled Banner, given its dubious origin, its inelegant verse, and its dated historical references?
Oh, the earnest patriot objects: You’re missing the emotional content—The Star Spangled Banner reminds us of the greatness of our country and how much we love what it stands for—freedom, bravery, perseverance in battle with enemies. It inspires us and reminds us of the exceptionalism of our nation.
Well, O.K., but it doesn’t remind us very effectively.
Still, I wonder each year, as all of us wrestling fans sit down again for the purpose that brought us there—to watch hundreds of wrestling matches—why do we begin sporting events with the national anthem? Sports are partly a tribal thing—we root for our team, our tribe. To get us going, we do the national anthem—a really big tribal thing. It works, maybe to get our emotions cooking, to get our spirits revved up for the battles ahead, and—most importantly—to bind us together into our tribe.
But if the national anthem is so good for us, why don’t we sing it everywhere we gather? How about doing it at the beginning of church services? How about singing it at the beginning of every college class? It could inspire us each day if we sang it before work begins in our workplace. Here’s a possibility: sing it at the beginning of all weddings! Marriage could be strengthened if it is based on flag and love of country, reminders of how as two against the world we can be victorious in battles with our enemies.
As I said, why sports events? I want to be fair about the NFL: Maybe the team owners want to get us fans into the mood for battle, ready to support our tribe’s brave gladiators on the field, prepared emotionally for seeing them carted off wounded or unconscious. We find war a good model for football games.
In many ways, we humans are still in a fairly primitive state of evolution, our narrow loyalties providing a smallish frame for our personal lives. The good news is that the football players who are challenging the conventions of the national anthem to make a point about racism in our country are modern soldiers for justice, a higher loyalty than faithfulness to a sports team or fealty to our nation. At great risk to their careers, the players are trying to raise consciousness about police brutality experienced by black Americans, a noble cause.
Conscious people can’t buy into tribalism but must champion much larger loyalties. As we contest loyalties that require us to separate into tribes, we need to put a knee on the ground.
Tribalism pushes people into loyalties that are too small, making sanity impossible.
Nietzche said, “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, political parties, nations, and eras, it’s the rule.”
Our madness is our primitive instinct to separate ourselves from others who aren’t like us. Our egos demand a special status: I am a Cubs fan, I am a Democrat, I am a patriot, I am a second amendment gun owner, I am a Muslim, I am an American—all tribes that give us safety and standing, we think, that lets other people know that we have virtuous boundaries that cannot be crossed.
Joining a tribe, we become near-sighted, able to perceive the world only through the limited lens of that particular tribe. We may not care about that limitation, preferring to feed the ego’s needs for identification and reinforcement.
It takes great courage to stand apart from the powerful pressures of a tribe. Even when you stand against the worst characteristics of your country, you may be ostracized, threatened, or even killed by a patriot. Emerson, commenting on fervent tribal members said, “Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.”
Criticize your country and some patriots will offer you the door: “Love it or leave it.” If you don’t believe in my country right or wrong you will be accused of ingratitude, betrayal, or even treason.
The identity of many people is merely a collage of tribes: I’m an American, a veteran, a Catholic, a white man, a graduate of Northwestern University, a husband and father, A Texan, and so on. But undying loyalty to any of these tribes limits their members’ perceptions.
Still feel the need to join a tribe? How about joining this tribe: children of the stars that created us.
Conscious people are able to embrace the largest loyalties
As conscious people, we do not want to reduce our perceptual capacities in the slightest. We can still enjoy the fun and practical necessities of the culture we live in: we can still belong to families, work in our occupation, act as citizens, and cheer our teams to victory. But these will not be our ultimate loyalties. We will be able to change or drop loyalties if those enterprises go astray. Our larger loyalties will dictate how we behave with smaller loyalties.
Our loyalties have to be so immense that they allow us to explore on the frontiers of human emergence.
Emily Dickinson, in her famous poem about the enormous scope of our brains:
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
Our brains can take it all in. Our large loyalties will not separate us from other people, from this beautiful. earth, or from our own limitless destinies.
Conscious people can commit to very large loyalties like these:
- Personal emergence and a life of learning
- Justice for all people on earth
- Taking all people into love’s embrace
- Spreading consciousness into the universe
The NFL players who are taking a knee when the Star Spangled Banner is played are in alignment these noble loyalties.
I’m on my knee in brotherhood.