When I heard that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had decided not to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before home games, I thought of how I first learned to love the American national anthem … as a young socialist in Iran who had never been anywhere near the United States.
Shunning the anthem denies the broader public the opportunity to embrace the radicalism of what it truly stands for.
This feeling might seem surprising, as anti-Americanism has long been trendy on the global left. But while stories abound of immigrants’ looking up to America as a land of freedom, there is also a lesser-known story of how the ideals of this country have long been a source of inspiration for the global left.
That history is part of why Cuban’s decision didn’t sit well with me, now a New York resident hoping to become a U.S. citizen, and I was glad the NBA quickly overruled him. Standing for the anthem shouldn’t be used as a jingoistic litmus test, in which those who conscientiously decline are ostracized as unpatriotic. But neither should it be left to the jingoists to define what “The Star-Spangled Banner” means. Shunning the anthem denies the broader public the opportunity to embrace the radicalism of what it truly stands for.
Only a few national flags were on display among all the red flags in September 1864 when Karl Marx and his European comrades met in London to set up the socialist organization now enshrined in leftist history as the First International, but the Stars and Stripes was one of them. According to the meeting’s official minutes, “They had given the American flag the place of honour that evening, as they had done on a former occasion, because it represented the land of liberty and the home of the free.”
To European socialists at that time, waving the American flag meant supporting the Union in its heroic struggle against slavery in the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln was re-elected president later that year, Marx drafted a letter of congratulation signed by the entire leadership of the First International. “The workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class,” it said. The writers saluted the “American Antislavery War” as a continuation of the American Revolution.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” however, traces its origins to a different conflict, the U.S.-British War of 1812, which is seen in Canada, where I am a citizen, as a U.S.-Canada war. Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the anthem in celebration of America’s victory over the British, but much of the fighting took place in what is today Canada, then still divided into a number of British colonies. The conflict was a formative one for the country, as thousands of people living in Upper and Lower Canada, inspired by their neighbors to the south, also revolted against British rule to fight for Americans ideals: democracy, progress and separation of church and state.
In the years since, progressives around the world have often been inspired by America’s founding values even as they tried to hold the country accountable to them. On Sept. 2, 1945, when the communist leader Ho Chi Minh stood up in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square to declare the independence of Vietnam, he quoted from the U.S. Declaration of Independence and its “immortal statement” that “all men are created equal.” A year later, he asked America to safeguard Vietnamese independence against colonial France, but the U.S. chose its European colonial ally over the Vietnamese.
Calls for America to do better in realizing its founding ideals haven’t come just from outside these shores, of course. American progressives have long waged the same struggle — and looked to the American anthem to help get it there. The 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a firm critic of American injustice, loved playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his violin in the post-bellum years. He saluted the “unselfish devotion of the noble army” of the war for the fact that “the star-spangled banner [now] floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land.” But he also fought hard and long to make the American promise of equality true not just for African Americans but also for working-class whites, women, Native Americans and Chinese immigrants..
America’s story has always been riddled with contradictions. It was founded by an emancipatory revolution yet continued the ugly practice of slavery for decades. It fought a war against the British to assert its sovereignty but trampled upon that of Indigenous nations. It claimed to represent the “free world” in the Cold War but supported the most egregious dictatorships, from the apartheid government in South Africa to the authoritarian regimes in the Philippines and Argentina. And, of course, it has a beautiful anthem in praise of freedom that was written by a slave owner.
But in every chapter of American history, it has been the dream of a “more perfect union” — the drive for America to realize its lofty founding ideals — that has made it a pole of attraction and fascination for millions even as it has yet to reach them. It is this permanent revolutionary spirit that makes America unique; it is what makes it great.
Criticizing the fetishizing of Old Glory, the acerbic comedian George Carlin liked to say that he left “the symbols to the symbol-minded.” True American patriots are not those who merely wave the flag but those, like Tommie Smith or Colin Kaepernick, who use the occasion of the performance of the anthem to call on the nation to improve itself.
To stop playing the anthem skirts the question, which is why it doesn’t sound right to me. If I become a U.S. citizen one day, it would be my honor to stand up and sing the national anthem, to engage with America’s promise and failings that more fully. Saluting the “broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,” I’d think of what that great American hero Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of in his most optimistic speech: “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”