What’s in a National Anthem?

Photo: Public Domain Photography/Flickr

In this week’s issue, Weekly columnist Raffi Elliott offered a satirical piece poking some fun at the recent controversy over a proposed change to Armenia’s National Anthem, ‘Mer Hayrenik.’ The intent of his article, from what I gathered, was to point out that such issues pale in comparison to the many challenges facing the Armenian people. However, the controversy already initiated, it behooves us to at least explore the various aspects of the issue.

Those of us hailing from the United States can readily recall the 2016 controversy that ensued when Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, chose to sit rather than stand during the Star-Spangled Banner prior to a pre-season football game. What began as an effort to draw attention to the continued discrimination of African-Americans degenerated into a brouhaha over the right of Kaepernick, or any citizen, to stand or sit during the playing of the anthem.

If Kaepernick had truly been interested solely in raising awareness of discrimination and initiating dialogue between the relevant decision-makers, he would have ended his protests once they shined the requisite spotlight on societal inequalities. Instead, Kaepernick made it an issue over his rights and, as such, left ample space for polarizing voices that drowned out any discussion of the injustices spawning the original protests.

Let us hope that the current controversy over the Armenian National Anthem does not suffer a similar fate.

We should first ask ourselves: what is the role of a national anthem, or any national symbol, for that matter?

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, in a 2016 New York Times opinion piece, stated it succinctly – “Like other national symbols — the American flag, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty — the national anthem conveys meaning about the nation’s history, myths and ideals. These meanings evoke emotional attachment to the nation, crystallize identity and help people feel connected to something outside of their own immediate family and community.”

When Armenia regained independence in 1991, it seemed natural to incorporate the national symbols from the First Armenian Republic, the last independent state – the national anthem, coat of arms and flag. However, the incorporation of each was not without revisions, albeit minor in nature.

The debate initiated today, like those before it, seems founded more on parochial political grounds than substantive criticisms of the existing symbols. Is it a coincidence that such efforts have gained renewed energy the year following the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the First Republic?

Efforts at diminishing the significance of the First Republic are not new. There was a time, not too long ago, when the flag was not flown and the anthem not sung by a significant segment of the Diasporan community.

While we can acknowledge that the current symbols are not universal for the simple fact that much of our homeland (Western Armenia) remains occupied by an unrepentant, criminal government, still it is mystifying why they are not universally revered as representative of a time, place and leadership that insured the perpetuation of the Armenian nation through sacrifices of the entire Armenian people.

Can those desperate days be so easily forgotten and symbols of heroism against all odds tossed aside so readily and flippantly? I, for one, hope not.

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George Aghjayan

George Aghjayan is the Director of the Armenian Historical Archives and the chair of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee of the Eastern United States. Aghjayan graduated with honors from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Actuarial Mathematics. He achieved Fellowship in the Society of Actuaries in 1996. After a career in both insurance and structured finance, Aghjayan retired in 2014 to concentrate on Armenian related research and projects. His primary area of focus is the demographics and geography of western Armenia as well as a keen interest in the hidden Armenians living there today. Other topics he has written and lectured on include Armenian genealogy and genocide denial. He is a board member of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), a frequent contributor to the Armenian Weekly and Houshamadyan.org, and the creator and curator westernarmenia.weebly.com, a website dedicated to the preservation of Armenian culture in Western Armenia.

3 Comments

  1. The example of Kaepernick’s protest is an ill-chosen and uncalled for stretch. There has to be a better example, especially in the context of discussing national symbols. The only way the brouhaha could have been prevented is if Kaepernick had never protested in the first place. It seems to me he has paid a pretty hefty already for living up to his principles. And, by the way, he was not protesting ‘discrimination’, he was protesting the almost daily killing of young African-Americans by police across this country.

  2. I am sorry but I beg to differ. If Kaepernick cared about the issue he was supposedly protesting for, then he would have taken advantage of the heightened focus to actually have the discussion be about those issues. Instead he turned it into an issue of whether he (or anyone) can sit or kneel versus standing for the national anthem. I did not think that was the purpose of the protests, but maybe I was the one that was mistaken. There are plenty of parallels in an Armenian context. You do not have many such opportunities and he wasted a rare one for an important issue and continuing injustice.

  3. Let’s hope that the misinterpretation of the efforts of Colin Kaepernick’s protest efforts against the police killing of African-Americans in the USA by kneeling during the playing of the American National Anthem by the Chairman of the ARF Central Committee of the Eastern Region does not reflect any of the new decisions made by the ARF World Congress held in January. The chairman’s approach reflects a regressive mindset on social/political injustice.

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