In the slough of the Depression, Herbert Hoover, the humanitarian engineer from Iowa, said that “what this country needs is a great poem. Something to lift people out of fear and selfishness.”
But all the good intentions in the world can’t overcome an engineer’s tin ear. For in that very same year, 1931, President Hoover signed legislation establishing Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.
Key had been an opponent of the War of 1812, which perhaps endeared him to the Quaker Hoover, but his poem can’t hold a sparkler to Katharine Lee Bates’s “America the Beautiful,” runner-up in the anthem sweepstakes. And besides, why does a putatively decentralized republic even have a national anthem?
That question was posed during the anthem debate by Texas Democrat Hatton W. Sumners, who called the measure just another example of “government guardianship of the people everywhere and all the time.” If Americans wish to recite Key’s ditty, he said, “there is nothing to keep them from singing it,” but it ought not to be imposed upon free men and women.
Hard-headed realists will say that this train left the station long ago, but as football season kicks off, and a handful of gridders sit or kneel during the anthem in protest of racism, why not revisit first principles? What does the anthem ritual mean?
You’ll find no such discussion in the sports media, for no one regurgitates PC platitudes with such dreary regularity as the American sportswriter. I have yet to read, outside the ideological press, a critical word about Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who took the first knee.
Where have you gone, Dick Young, curmudgeon of the press box of half a century ago? I used to roll my eyes when he’d call Muhammad Ali “Clay” or launch into his literate-loudmouth-on-the-barstool routine, but Lord do we ever need Young-like dissenters in this craven season. Contrarian views are as rare on the sports page in 2018 as scores from the Sri Lanka Cricket League. Hell, the conformist wretches wouldn’t even stray from the party line during Bruce Jenner’s publicity stunt.
None of the sportswriters lauding Kaepernick’s stance have a tenth of his guts; they’d not risk their livelihoods by kneeling. Yet they will not consider that there are reasons for objecting to mass genuflection that have nothing to do with flag-worshipping jingoism.
I’d sit, too, if the anthem represented Lockheed Martin or the U.S. criminal code or the invasion of Iraq. But it doesn’t, any more than it is the musical embodiment of local police forces, the U.S. Postal Service, or the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In the moment, in the gathering, standing for the song is an affirmation of one’s bond with the immediate community—an act of sodality, of solidarity. It is merely, and fully, a sign of respect for one’s neighbors. To sit or kneel (unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness) is a sneer and fleer at the people sitting around you. It’s like whipping the bird to the guy in the next seat.
To be sure, nationalistic displays have festered since 9/11. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, Major League Baseball ordered teams to play “God Bless America” during games, and it spread like a pox, even into the lowest of the minors. In many stadia, Irving Berlin’s empty gush has pushed aside “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as the vocal centerpiece of the 7th-inning stretch.
Similarly, there is nary a professional sports contest in America at which spectators are not requested to stand and applaud members of the military. I like the populist sentiment, which flows from the same source that produces the black POW/MIA flags that fly in unfashionable venues. After all, how often are people of working-class occupations recognized as opposed to scorned or ignored? But come on: maybe government employees, including those in the armed forces, could applaud those of us who pay their salaries? Or better yet, we could all leave our jobs and professional identities behind when we enter the stadium and enjoy each other as compatriots.
Here is a more radical, which is to say rooted, suggestion: let’s scrap the national anthem at sporting events and instead have partisans in each city sing or play or rally to their own songs, their own anthems.
The San Francisco 49ers can go with Tony Bennett, Journey, or the Dead Kennedys. The Seahawks of Seattle have choices ranging from Perry Como to Nirvana. The Denver Broncos could select “Rocky Mountain High” or “Rocky Mountain Way”—or even better, a passage from Neal Cassady’s The First Third. The possibilities are as endlessly variegated as the country itself.
And hey, if you want to take a knee to “Philadelphia Freedom” or “The Night Chicago Died,” be my guest.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.