National Anthems, Spangled Banners, and Flags on the Moon
So the mighty Dallas Cowboys locked arms and knelt on the football field for a few seconds to show team unity in the face of President Trump’s exhortation that NFL owners fire the players who kneel during the national anthem. A few minutes later a massive American flag covered the entire football field and pop star Jordin Sparks sang the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem that glorifies tribal warfare in the guise of freedom and bravery. Seriously, that’s what the song says and that’s what humans do—celebrate tribalism and warfare. As an earthling and member of the human species, am I supposed to be awed or impressed by any of this spectacle?
Damn Rightful Protests
If the Dallas Cowboys (players, coaches, and ownership) had knelt during the national anthem, that would mean something other than an apparent shallow gesture. After all, the entire NFL protest movement began when former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick courageously knelt during the national anthem to protest the systemic and institutional racism that exists in America, especially the unchecked police brutality where militarized cops go unpunished for killing unarmed citizens (black and white). It’s damn right that Kaepernick protested!
And that right to protest is at the top of the Bill of Rights, enshrined in the First Amendment, one of the greatest ideas that America has ever produced, along with NASA and the national park system. And that right to protest should be exercised to counter injustice, inequality, and the hypocrisy that defends or ignores such things.
Kaepernick’s protest recalled the powerful gesture by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when they raised gloved fists on the medal stand while the Star Spangled Banner played in the stadium. The fists symbolized “black power” at the height of the civil rights conflicts in America, which was also reeling from the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy. Damn right that Smith and Carlos protested!
“Remember the Alamo”
Patriotic Americans get so upset when there is a protest involving the flag, such as flag-burning or kneeling during the national anthem. But should they be surprised? After all, the “Spangled Banner” has flown over the horrific injustices of slavery and ethnic-cleansing of the lands occupied by 48 of the states in the continental USA. Americans and Texans are taught to “remember the Alamo”—where 200 Texans held off 1800 Mexican soldiers for thirteen days, before succumbing in heroic defeat. The battle cry of “Remember the Alamo” inspired the Texan defeat of the Mexican army two months later and the subsequent founding of Texas as an independent nation (1836–1845). It’s a great story perfect for Hollywood myth-making.
But what about the near-genocide of Native Americans that soon followed in Texas? Native Americans were slaughtered by the thousands (including women and children) and their lands were taken, some of which are among the most beautiful lands in America. All of this was glorified in endless Hollywood westerns, which were little more than propaganda justifying conquest, colonization, and “manifest destiny.” Do any of the super-patriotic Americans and Texans care to remember the near-genocide? Denying or ignoring America’s bloody-racist history is why the U.S. flag is seen by many to be a symbol of hypocrisy. That’s one key reason the protests continue to happen, now and in the future.
Far too many Americans, Texans, and Dallas Cowboy fans have selective memories that fit mythical narratives based in theism, tribal narcissism, and Hollywood myth-making. That’s the belief that my tribe is super-special, super-virtuous, super-heroic, and super-destined to dominate forever. History, evidence, and the universe say otherwise, regardless of what John Wayne says in an old movie.
Of course, America is not the only nation or people to wage war and slaughter other humans, while simultaneously thumping its chest in virtue and waving its tribal flags in victory. It’s been happening all over the world forever and represents a profound flaw the human species has yet to overcome, but now refuses to do so when it should have begun in 1969.
“One Giant Leap for Mankind”
Less than a century after the conquest in Texas and less than a year after the protests of Smith and Carlos, Americans landed humans on the moon in the summer of 1969. It was piloted by NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, in a far greater achievement than anything the Dallas Cowboys have accomplished (winners of five Super Bowls). The Apollo moon landing is one of the greatest and most profound achievements in the history of the human species. It was a triumph for humanity, which is why many of the world’s TV viewers exclaimed “We did it!” when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.
As Armstrong stepped from the lunar module, he poetically said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstong nailed it and that “giant leap for mankind” is why it was absurd for the astronauts to plant the Spangled Banner on the moon. Of course, the Cold War was raging and Americans and Soviets were racing to the moon, so NASA and the USA had to plant its flag to symbolize tribal victory on the moon. And that points to the real problem facing humanity. As a species, we have not been able to grasp and adapt to the full meaning of NASA’s triumph. In fact, we’ve been damn near in total denial since Apollo.
The Spectacle v. Earth from Space
From the moon and space, our planet looks very different than what is celebrated in our daily existence within the 24/7 media spectacle, where humans are the center of the universe, the center of everything, the center of all meaning, value, and purpose. Within the spectacle, our tribes vie for domination and recognition in the their quests for equality, identity, meaning, and destiny.
In contrast, Earth from space shows we are one species sharing one planet in a vast, ancient, and majestic universe. Science and cosmology show that all humans share 99.5% of the same DNA and our bodies are made of the most common elements of the cosmos — oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc. That’s why any nation’s racism and tribalism are unscientific narratives based in myth, theism, and cosmic narcissism.
NASA, Apollo, and our discovery of the vast universe have destroyed the previous narratives used to explain the origins and destiny of the human species. Gods, nations, tribes, wars, celebrities, brands, football teams, status updates, and so on — these are all fictions and stories we have invented to provide our lives with value, meaning, and purpose while making us feel special, worthy, and connected to something larger than ourselves. As a species, we’re in thrall of our spectacle while in denial of our cosmic insignificance (and possible meaninglessness)—so we cling to these tribal narratives as our planet hurtles through the universe. So the cosmic specks wave their flags on Earth and on the moon.
The Species that Creates Art and Philosophy
If we want to find any universal meaning in the cosmos and a shared destiny on Earth and beyond, then we need to grow up and embrace our celestial origins and existential conditions in the universe — as we best understand them and as revealed by our science and media technologies. On Earth, we are the one species that creates art, science, and philosophy in the effort to know and understand the surrounding universe. It’s what makes our species great, but we should also be humble at the same time.
We are the species that knows it must confront the nothingness and awesomeness of a universe that spans 100 billion light years and will last trillions of trillions of years into the future. We are also the species that knows its origins and destiny exist in the stars. That’s the unstated primal instinct in the Apollo program and technologies like the Hubble Space Telescope.
Any sane and enlightened human narrative necessarily leads to a single planetary civilization that spans Earth and extends into the stars. Advocating a cosmic and planetary civilization is not a call for monoculture or imperial globalization, but the recognition that humans have a shared destiny on this planet — as individuals and a species — and would benefit from a cosmology and culture grounded in the universe as best we understand it. We can have species universality and cultural diversity in a cooperative planetary civilization. A planetary civilization is not against tribes but against a culture that is all tribal with no universal. In fact, a culture that is all tribal and not universal will always be in conflict and is ultimately doomed—especially with insane political leaders openly discussing nuclear warfare, yet again.
Our species needs to embrace a shared destiny that begins by protecting the ecosystems and reducing the harmful effects of tribalism, theism, consumerism, and nationalism—while retaining the openness that enables an evolutionary cultural diversity and the emergence of new traditions and planetary systems of value. Colin Kaepernick was right to protest injustice, but we need similar and much larger actions on behalf of the human species. It’s time to grow up and become a species worthy of the universe from which we evolved.
Barry Vacker is a native Texan and author of the new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), which outlines a new and entirely original space philosophy for the human species. The book is available in Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble (here), and Amazon (here).