Star Spangled Provocation

The Battle of Baltimore
The Battle of Baltimore

I have long thought there were two ways to interpret our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. On the cusp of our Independence Day celebration, I find myself revisiting that preoccupation. 

I confess the topic is eclectic as fodder for one of my columns, all but invariably related directly to personal and public health. Actually, though, the attendant reflections are highly germane to both, as I hope to convince you.

The two interpretations are that: (1) the song ends with a question about our flag; or (2) the song ends with a question about us. The latter is the far more interesting question. To be clear, though, the song ends either way with a question, and we are invited to answer it.

The first, and arguably historical question, is whether we survived the fight memorialized in the song; whether our flag still flies at all. The fight in question was the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, and the bombs and rockets in question were British, and directed at Fort McHenry. While less than an entirely decisive battle either way, historians generally cite the outcome as an American victory, which was obviously true for the overall war (of note, to the British, the War of 1812 was not a war unto itself, but a theater of the Napoleonic War they were fighting in Europe, but that dissent is beyond the scope of our focus here). For certain, the American flag did, indeed, still fly over the fort the next day- as it flies from innumerable flagpoles today.

The other question is far more interesting: given that the flag still flies, does it still fly o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

That question in turn denotes two subsidiary questions: (1) are we still free and brave? And (2) are those common traits we revere in common on a land we still call our common home?

That last one is where I tend to get hung up these days. That last one is concerning.

The topic, and consternation, are pertinent because social connections and solidarity are on the short list of priorities in any inventory of “lifestyle medicine,” my particular purview. John Donne famously told us that none of us is an island, and the modern efforts of evolutionary biologists append an enrichment of science to his insightfully lyrical sermon.

Homo sapiens are a social species. We are, in fact, something rather beyond that- as zebras and wildebeest are social, too, but in a far less interesting way. We are what retired Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, considered the world’s leading myrmecologist (expert in the study of ants), calls “eusocial.” Social animals can live in large groups; eusocial animals function as a group at a whole different level, by adopting complementary roles and dividing labor. Ants do it; bees do it. So do humans. In The Righteous Mind, NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposes that our kind is 90% chimp, 10% bee.

More and more modern evidence suggests that here we are, presiding over a planet whose fate is much in our hands, because we are the only, genuinely eusocial ape. When evolution gifted us with that capacity, the trajectory of modern biology was irrevocably altered. 

Our capacity to function in organized groups gave us power, the implications of which we see all around us. With that great power, came a certain liability. We need one another. The scientific evidence is consistent and clear that independent of all other factors, social isolation is quite devastating to human health. We are more prone to get sick and die prematurely when we lack strong social connections. We are, it seems, dependent on shared purpose; we need something we may as well call love.

So, with our great eusocial power comes the liability of our need for one another. With any great power comes also great responsibility.

The responsibility, it seems to me, is to decide who is “us” and who is “them.” The decision is ostensibly malleable. When you attend church, for instance, your congregation is “us,” and those practicing some other religion, or no religion, are “them.” But when you cheer for your favorite sports team, everyone wearing the same cap or jersey or giant foam finger and cheering with you- is “us.” That some of those “us” might well have been “them” at the last Sabbath or Sunday sermon- tends to trouble us not at all. The dividing line between “us” and “them” is highly fenestrated; us can be them, and them can be us. War and foreign threats make “us” of whole nations. In our science fiction fantasies, threats (or guidance) from beyond our solar system make “us” of the entire human family.

In some cases, of course, we tend to draw closed the us/them fenestrations. Our family is “us,” perhaps not quite no matter what- but nearly so. We may disagree and argue, but blood tends to be thicker than bickering. At times, we see through the red glare of discord to the primacy of “us,” and defend and preserve it.

At some point over this holiday span, many of us will sing and nearly all of us will hear The Star Spangled Banner.  We will hear it at a time when divisiveness and scorn are sown and sanctioned among us, at the highest levels. We have allowed much to insinuate itself between us, and insinuate that the answers to the important questions posed by Francis Scott Key in 1814 could well, now be “no.” 

We need not accept such answers when we have the capacity to change them just by listening to one another again.

This Independence Day, we might do well to recall the words of John Donne along with those of Francis Scott Key. We might do well to consider we owe the independence of this country to our dependence on one another.

Are freedom and courage still part of the prevalent character? Are they attributes we aspire to practice, and revere, collectively? Do they still bind us to one another in common hope and purpose?

A house divided against itself does not tend long to stand. Humans divided against one another do not tend long to thrive. 

Our national anthem ends with a question. We share that question we will hear and sing this holiday. There is opportunity in the provocation to find our way back to the solace and solidarity of sharing the answer, too. Happy holiday.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Senior Medical Advisor,