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Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag

Blood Sacrifice and the Nation

Blood Sacrifice and the Nationis available at a special discount rate. For information on purchasing through Amazon, click here.

The authors argue that American patriotism is a civil religion organized around a sacred flag, whose followers engage in periodic blood sacrifice of their own children to unify the group. Using an anthropological theory, this groundbreaking book presents and explains the ritual sacrifices and regeneration that constitute American nationalism, the factors making particular elections or wars successful or unsuccessful rituals, and the role of the mass media in the process.

Carolyn Marvin is Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

Book Excerpts from: Marvin, C. & Ingle, D. W. (1999). Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. New York: Cambridge University Press.

2—Blood sacrifice preserves the nation. The totem secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group.

4—The nation is the shared memory of blood sacrifice, periodically renewed. Those who share such memories often, but not always, share language, living space, or ethnicity. What they always share and cultivate is the memory of blood sacrifice. In totem myth, the felt or sentimental nation is the memory of the last sacrifice that counts for living believers. Blood sacrifice is a primitive notion. We define as primitive those processes that construct the social from the body. Since every society constructs itself from the bodies of its members, every society is primitive.

4—Bodily sacrifice is the totem core of American nationalism, as it may be of all religion. At the behest of the group, the lifeblood of community members must be shed. Group solidarity, or sentiment, flows from the value of this sacrifice. The totem god of society, which turns out to be society itself, cannot do without its worshippers any more than its worshippers can do without the god of society. It must possess and consume, it must_ eat_its worshippers to live. This is the totem secret and its greatest taboo.

5—The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the willing deaths of a significant portion of its members. The lifeblood of these members is shed by means of a ritual in which designated victims become outsiders and cross the boundary of the living group into death. The most powerful enactment of this ritual is war.

8—Enduring groups model one another in mobilizing and disciplining group members for sacrifice. This means that the sacrificial system of nationalism can be challenged effectively only by those who embrace with still greater commitment alternative sacrificial systems to replace it.

9—Though nationalism does not qualify as religion in the familiar sense, it shares with sectarian religions the worship of killing authority, which we claim is central to religious practice and belief. Nationalism and sectarian religion share something else related to killing. Wherever religion has been fervently embraced, it follows in the minds of believers that it is entitled to glory in missions of conquest that reflect God’s will.

9—What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.

10—The first commandment of religious nationalism: groups subordinate to the nation-group, such as sectarian groups, may not kill. The first principle of every religious system is that only the deity may kill. The state, which does kill, allows whoever accepts these terms to exist, to pursue their own beliefs and call themselves what they like in the process. In the broadest sense, the purpose of religion is to organize killing energy. This is how it accomplishes its social function of defining and maintaining the group. By this standard, nationalism is unquestionably the most powerful religion in the United States.

12—Balibar and Wallerstein observe the totem secret, or taboo, by insisting that the death of our own does not originate with ourselves. All group-sustaining violence likewise poses as a reluctant response to violence that originates beyond group borders, that is, with others.

We use the term taboo to describe the tension between the violent mechanism that sustains enduring groups and the reluctance of group members to acknowledge their responsibility for enacting it. To protect themselves from recognizing the source of group unity, citizens render totem violence and its symbols sacred, that is, unknowable. While totem violence is regularly enacted in rituals of unifying blood sacrifice such as war, this knowledge must be separated from devotees, as sacred things are, whenever it threatens to surface explicitly. It is denounced as primitive, an attribute of groups that are not like us because they are eager to use violence.

15—The irrefutable sign of national faith, which we call patriotism, is making one’s body an offering, a sacrifice. To die for others is the ultimate expression of faith in social existence. Religion, civil or otherwise, is what culture is.


25—We argue that the flag is the god of nationalism, and its mission is to organize death.

30—Durkheim says, “If a belief is unanimously shared by a people, then it is forbidden to touch it, that is to say, to deny or to contest it. Now the prohibition of criticism is an interdiction like the others and proves the presence of something sacred.”

30—The flag is the only proper casket covering in funerals with military honors. In war, the group ritually kills the very tribe members who otherwise enjoy protected status. In this protected status, group members are taboo like the flag, and for the same reason. They embody the group in their persons. The flag signifies the special condition of sacrifice, of lifting the killing taboo for the sake of the group.

31—Only the flag signifies the sacrificed body. The flag is treated both as a live being and as the sacred embodiment of a dead one.

44—The sacrificed body is resurrected in the flag.

66—We are concerned with enduring groups whose members will shed blood in their defense. To join an enduring group is to commit to a system of organized violence. This lesson is difficult and repugnant. Our refusal to recognize the contribution of violence to the creation and maintenance of enduring groups is the totem taboo at work.

66-7—The totem myth is a tale about the relationship of violence to borders. A schematic version goes like this: Members of the totem group travel to the limits of what is familiar and known. They reach the borders, an area of confusion where identities are exchanged between insiders and outsiders, and cross over. The crossing is violence and blood—sacrificial in a word. This dramatic encounter with death marks the exact border of the community. The act of crossing establishes a clear contrast between who is inside and who is outside the community. Border crossers become outsiders dead to the community.

The flag marks the point of their crossing. It is the sign of those who have crossed, of devotees transformed. The community celebrates and reveres its insiders turned outsiders, taking steps lest they come back and punish those who did not cross over. From within the boundaries, the community fears and worships these outsiders IT CONSUMES TO PRESERVE ITS LIFE.

68—The myth of the sacrificed Christ who dies for all men makes every sacrificed soldier a remodeled Christ dying to redeem his countrymen.

71—We say killing agreements hold the group together. We say the knowledge that only the totem may kill its own is what is taboo for group members. When the totem goes to war, its grievance is not that its members have been killed or are in danger, _but that a power besides itself has killed or threatens to kill them. _For the group to cohere, acts of totem violence against its own must be rendered unknowable. What is thus set apart is the essence of the sacred.

72—Sacrificial designates go willingly, becoming murderers so we can kill them more easily. The totem sends them to die but it is not their visible executioner. Violating the totem killing prerogative, the _ENEMY _EXECUTES THE MEMBERS OF THE SACRIFICIAL CLASS.

72-3—Those who have been to the border know the secret. “We knew that we were considered to be expendable,” recalled a participant in the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. “That was the price of doing it. I didn’t tell my mother I wasn’t coming home, but I knew I wasn’t coming home.” Because they have touched death, sacrificial designates cannot return to the center without special rituals of reinstatement.
These insiders turned outsiders must cast off the knowledge of who sent them to die. They forswear revenge and refuse to tell what they know. If they agree, they are reincorporated. THEY DO NOT DISTURB THE JOYOUS UNITY OF THE GROUP THAT HAS KILLED ITS CHILDREN.

73-4—A group-defining rule is that insiders under totem protection may not be killed. During a sacrificial crisis this rule is ritually inverted. This is how the group signals itself that it faces a crisis. The dynamics of sacrifice, or insider death, are as follows. Insiders consent to leave the group, which colludes in their execution. “Uncle Sam wants you!” goes the famous recruiting slogan in which Uncle Sam stands for the nation calling its sons to death, ritually transforming them.

The selection of the sacrificial hero, the insider who agrees to become an outsider, is a key episode in the totem myth, since a willing sacrifice keeps the totem secret. In American patriotic myth, individualism produces the sacrificial hero. The myth of individualism helps enforce the totem secret by denying the presence and interest of the group, but _individuals_receive this label only in relation to a group from which they have separated.

Parables of individualism explain how the group is advantaged by its fearless nonconformists. To defy convention, as individuals do, is to step across the border. Separation is a sacrificial move. A sign of submission, it designates the hold. The lonely hero volunteers to bear sacrificial burdens for the group, to cross the border.

77—Intimates of the victim are ritually bound to certify his willingness to die. Standing in for both victim and society, the family by blood or ordeal testifies that the victim bears no grudge in death. No blood vengeance will be sought on his behalf. No blame attaches to the group. SACRIFICIAL WILLINGNESS ASSUAGES THE GUILT OF THE COMMUNITY THAT SENDS SOLDIERS TO DIE BY DENYING ITS KILLING AGENCY.

79—Though we set out to kill the scapegoat, the enemy beyond the border, only the savior’s death makes the ritual work. The guilt we feel about killing we cannot admit to reconsolidates the group. The surrogate victim, the savior, is the son we expel into death. The ritual victim, the scapegoat, makes our anger and killing acceptable and disguises its real target. Our rage at the scapegoat provides a pretext to kill the savior.

79—Perceptions of the enemy are rarely objective in any condition, and more is always at stake for group identity than the simply existence of a threatening foe. Still, the more credible the threat, the more completely our motives are concealed, the more blood we can demand, the more unifying the ritual.

80—The totem secret demands that we must pose as unwilling killers. Our side must not shoot first. Whoever does is not sacrifice but an outlaw, a violator of totem rules. IT IS NOT WE WHO WANT THE BLOOD OF OUR SONS. THE ENEMY CAUSES THE SACRIFICE. Violence exists because of the Other at the border and not because of us.
What accounts for the patriotic misspeaking that some men die to make othersfree, the totem word for group membership? The demand for insider death is the irrational terrifying heart of the sacrificial crisis, its dark secret.

82—The best guarantor of the totem secret is the enemy. It does no good for a soldier to go up to the border and not cross over. In the liminal fog of battle the outsider is an enemy brother who pulls the insider over. Because of him the group may deny the totem secret while acting according to its dictates. What willing sacrifices love about their enemies and their father is that both make them men; their enemies by pulling them across border, their fathers by pushing them.

85—How can devotees believe society is real unless they see it act? They must have proof of its existence—a visible body. The President is the national totem incarnate.

85-6—During the grimmest days of WW-II, Winston Churchill’s totem promise to England was, “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears.” These are offerings of the body. Fleshly proofs of willing sacrifice. By embodying the group idea, the leader proves it exists. By offering his body, he proves it matters. Group members can only discover if their fantasy of group existence is real by enacting it together.

When it falls short of expectations, we blame the leader for our failures, for the exhaustion of our will to live in common. Larger than life, he is publicly sacrificed to our reconstituted resolve to be a group. Society is the embodied power to dispose of group members.

87—Merely as an idea, sacrifice has no permanent value. Real stakes are measured in bodies. The value of a sacrificial episode depends on how many bodies touch blood directly and how many other bodies are linked by personal ties of blood and affection to them. Enough bodies must suffer and die so many families will feel the pain of sacrifice that constitutes the stuff of social kinship. WHEN ALL BLEED, EVERYONE IS KIN.

87—(Clinton)—Media priests described him as without a foreign policy vision. They meant he seemed unable to kill.

89—Sacrificing our own is the supreme ritual of war. If enemy deaths were the most ritually compelling the Gulf War would have been an enduring unifier of Americans. Though the deaths of only 145 Americans testified to impressive military superiority, its week sacrificial impact on the totem group caused the Gulf War to fade quickly as a unifying event. Wars, whose unifying effect endure, must be costly. Not winning or losing, but serious bloodletting is the important factor in ritual success.

89-90—Preserving the totem secret requires cooperation from both sacrificed and sacrificers. Insiders must offer themselves willingly, or appear to. To protect the totem secret we say that soldiers “gave” their lives for their country. While unwilling sacrifices may be reconstructed in death as having been willing, the most useful sacrifices declare in advance of leaving that they face death willingly.

91—The more credible the enemy, the more enthusiastically the group sends the surrogate victim to die amidst general lamentation for the loss of its young, the more group members believe they are not the cause.

Since enduring groups are constituted by the agreement that only they are entitled to kill their own, “objective” threats are those in which outsiders seek to exercise totem killing power. When this prerogative is challenged, the group must re-establish it or defer to the killing rules of the challenger and thus join his group.

99—Sacrifice to the totem god, the nation, implies the existence of a religious community of devotees who execute the sacrificial mission. This community is the military, though it strains conventional wisdom to think of soldiers as a religious class.

100—John Keegan: “Even a pacifist should admire the military virtues—should admire, and indeed have those virtues themselves: self-abnegation and willingness, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives for what they believe. That is the ultimate military virtue, that I will lay down my life if called upon to do so. That’s what ultimately makes soldiers different. But I won’t choose whether I will or not lay down my life; I have already promised that I will. It is forsworn; it is given away; I would say a soldier has mortgaged his life. He’s said, “Here’s my life and I can only have it back again when the end of my services comes and I salute for the last time.”

100—Totem class members model and train for death. In units training for war, commanding officers may direct a certain number of men to step out of formation across an imaginary border to signify how many will die before hostilities cease to rehearse totem acolytes in the sacrifice that is expected of them. Sacrificial lambs know their fate. “You put your life on the line to save your country. That’s what war’s about,” explained an Iwo Jima survivor.

106—Only the nation may sacrifice its own. Submission to the killing rules of our group, which we call devotion to freedom, distinguishes the patriot from the possessor of doubtful patriotism, and therefore, doubtful humanity. To belong to the totem community is to be human. In the U. S., to be free is to be fully human.
Death secures freedom. To die for the group is to give one’s flesh and bone to reconstituting it. Dying is the primitive process that creates the social body. The slip of the tongue in claims that “they died for freedom,” is pervasive enough to suggest its importance. It tells us that the group must sacrifice its own to create enduring existence, which is freedom.

108—Soldiers are most familiar to us in images that show them conforming their bodies to the group discipline of military postures and gestures such as marching or standing at attention. This body work is prologue to the lesson of supreme sacrifice, of submission to the totem group. This lesson is prepared for, imprinted on, and enacted by the body, the currency of group behavior and memory in rituals that ensure totem succession.

109—Perhaps there are two totem secrets, one sacrificial and one regenerative. It may be that men who love each other so threaten the regenerative order of the center that they must die. The willing sacrifice of the sons who love one another would then be the revenge of the center on the border, just as the revenge of the totem ghosts at the border on the center is also the blood sacrifice of its sons.

In totem crisis the world turns upside down. The center that loves its children sends them to die, while killers at the border cherish one another. Both secrets put the group at risk by blurring the necessary distinction between center and border that maintains the integrity of the group.

139—Objectivity is the belief that events drive cover, that professional mediators neither encode nor invent the news. If media reproduce only what gods enact, reporting is the ritual of remodeling the deeds of gods well.

140—A veteran who recalled coming ashore in the Normandy invasion described the pure performative condition. “There was nothing I could do on that beach except die,” he explained. In totem crisis members of the sacrificial class perform their sacred duty. They must for the group to survive.

Photographers and reporters offer holy witness. Their presence is critical. Only through re-presentation and commemoration do apostolic missions become group-unifying messianic sacrifice.

141—The totem myth of blood sacrifice governs and organizes media coverage. “History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson has written. Body language is necessary to describe it. The biggest history is about the biggest hurt, which is sacrifice.

154—Renunciation convinces us we deplore violence so that our embrace of some future call for blood will seem both necessary and exceptional. We have not wished for the death of our own; we have resisted to the last.

Each generation proclaims that its own sacrifice will permanently satisfy the totem group that hates violence so much. This is the heartfelt cry, “Never again!”

194—What were the Davidians guilty of? “These people had thumbed their nose at law enforcement,” explained an FBI official. The sin of totem blasphemy was related by another, “This man believed he was God.” An ex-cult member prophesied, “They will kill for him.”

The true national god is manifest in the sole right and power of the nation-state to kill. False gods may not claim it. Nor may the be worshipped with sufficient enthusiasm to place in question who has legitimate killing authority, which it certainly was in the case of the well-armed, highly committed Davidians.