June 13, 2010
The PRI program Studio 360 is running a “Redesign July 4th Challenge.” The producers suggest that Uncle Sam and the National Anthem could use some updating, and they are asking artists and musicians to try their hands at modernizing or replacing these two symbols of the nation. This is an intriguing idea, and I may even have a go at devising a replacement anthem. (Since my graphic capabilities are more or less limited to drawing circles and straight lines, I’ll leave the Uncle Sam challenge to others.)
The Studio 360 Challenge got me thinking that both the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem are about the American flag. In fact, even Uncle Sam is clad in clothing suggesting the flag, in some depictions, more strongly than in others. What is it about the flag, anyway?
Uncle Sam’s flag attire seems entirely natural, since Uncle Sam, like the flag itself, is a graphical symbol. (He is a kind of meta-symbol, being a symbol referring to another symbol.) Neither the Pledge nor the National Anthem has an obviously necessary tie to the flag, however, yet the flag, in both instances, serves as a stand-in for more fundamental concepts of nationhood.
I don’t really know what to do with Uncle Sam, and I look forward to seeing what the artist-contestants of the Redesign Challenge come up with. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that the Pledge is defective in several ways, particularly in its indirection in its use of the flag. (I believe we should pledge our support of the Constitution.) The National Anthem is likewise indirect. It celebrates a military victory in the war that assured our continued independence from England. It is rightly criticized as triumphalist, militaristic, and possessed of impossibly contorted syntax. It seems out of place in 2010.