Friday, July 04, 2008

social construction of the nomos and antinomos

Language is what separates humans for the other animals. Language isn't just communication. Lots of animals communicate. My dog sends greetings to other dogs in the neighborhood. She loudly announces that there is a suspicious vehicle in the neighborhood that requires our attention. She voices her approval and encouragement to the neighbors' dog Mr. Tuggles as he harasses one of the neighborhood cats. But my dog can't communicate about things that happened yesterday, things that happen outside the range of her sight, smell or hearing, or things that might possibly happen tomorrow. Only humans with our symbolic language can do those things.

One of many the ways that humans use language is to define what is part of the acceptable order (nomos) and what is outside the acceptable order (antinomian). In this day and age, we have the technological capacity to disseminate our attempts at defining the nomos and antinomos to thousands of people in a short period of time through the Internet. Many e-mails are sent everyday designed to convince readers to view the world in particular ways, to define somethings as within the order of the nomos, and other things as antinomian.

This week I received such an e-mail, from one of those acquaintances who rarely sends personal messages, but has decided, without a by-your-leave, to include their entire address book in mass mailings; a behavior which, by the way I consider rude in the extreme (why I make an issue of this will become apparent below). This particular e-mail, like many was designed to call attention to antinomian action, and thus galvanize its readers into action to support and protect the nomos. What that action might be, other than forwarding the message on to everyone in one's own address book, is left suitably vague. The subject of the e-mail? A woman, an ordinary citizen with a good singing voice, was invited to perform The Star Spangled Banner at her local (Denver) city council meeting. In a move that was ill-advised but hardly sinister, the woman substituted the song Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson. Both songs speak of liberty, freedom, God and love of country. [Click here if you are unfamiliar with Johnson's song,and click here if you can't remember The Star Spangled Banner -- as many Americans cannot.]

The incident was discussed on local radio, where the Governor of Colorado defined the woman's actions as "actions were 'wrong' and 'outside the bounds.'" In other words the governor labeled the actions antinomian -- against the nomos. Local papers picked up the story, pointing out that the song Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing "is also known as the 'black national anthem.'" This is technically incorrect; the NAACP adopted the song as "The Negro National Anthem" in 1919, and it was entered into the Congressional Record in 1990 as "African American National Hymn." Unlike the phrases "Negro National Anthem" and "African American National Hymn" the phrase "Black National Anthem" conjures in some people's minds the wraith of "Black nationalism," a separatist movement that arose in the late 19th century, and which has been associated with militant movements in the twentieth century. There is, of course, no connection what so ever between this song and that movement.

The e-mail I received strongly suggested that the actions of the singer were seditious (although the vocabulary of the e-mail was far cruder), an attempt to subvert the legitimate government, through a plot to replace one national allegiance with a foreign - non-American - allegiance. Curious, I did some Googling, found the original story (which included the lyrics). I wondered if the people who sent the e-mail, who seemed so incensed about this anti-American action, were at all familiar with the words. So I hit "reply all" and mailed the lyrics back to them (and everyone on the list of course).

This morning I received a reply from my acquaintance. She acknowledged that "It is a beautiful song but when someone is asked to sing a specific song and they agree, they should not change the song without asking those who extended the original invitation. All politics aside, it is just rude."

My response to her: Yes. I agree, it is rude and it is inappropriate when you are asked to provide a specific service to substitute another service (regardless of quality) without first asking. She should not have done it without asking first. [Just as people should ask the folks in their e-mail address book whether they wan to receive mass mailings.] But if my acquaintance (who lives no where near Denver), or the governor of Colorado, or Fox news, or anyone else who has promoted and forwarded this story, thought that the problem was "rudeness," then there would never have been a story. Because I guarantee that rude behavior happens at city council and town council meetings nation-wide on a regular and recurring basis, and never gets further than the local media -- if that. Rudeness is annoying but it doesn't warrant a nation-wide flurry of communications to warn folks of attacks upon the nomos.

Here's my bet -- if this woman had substituted Amazing Grace for The Star Spangled Banner how upset would these same people be? Would it have made a national news story? Or if a white woman had sung these exact same words, with no one mentioning the phrase "black national anthem" wouldn't these same people be defending her against the ACLU for bringing God (mentioned 4 times in Lift Ev'ry Voice and only 1 time in The Star Spangled Banner) into a political arena?

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