The American national anthem has several unusual features. It begins and ends the first verse – the verse regularly sung – with a question.
“Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
“Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
As national anthems go, I have to admit that I agreed with a group of folks back in the 1970s and 1980s who wanted to make “America, the Beautiful” our national anthem. “America, the Beautiful” admirably conveys the many splendors of our nation. I’ve had the great good fortune to have traveled most of the continental United States, back when I was a touring actor. We are blessed with extraordinary beauty throughout our lands. From the stark majesty of the Rockies to the gentler expansiveness of the Alleghenies. From the endless vistas of the Great Plains to the desert wastes. The song captures them all with a lovely – and very singable – tune.
But that was not to be. “The Star Spangled Banner” remains our national anthem, and it’s fine.
One of the many great freedoms we get to exercise as Americans is the ability to critique our country. It is a genuine benefit to be able to sit anywhere in this great land of ours, have a beer, and rag a bit on the sorry state of the country. I go further. It is a blessing to be able to walk the very streets of our capital and bring our complaints to the very seat of government. World War I vets marched the streets of Washington in the early 20th century looking for back-pay. At mid-century, a young minister and several thousands marched for civil rights – the rights to join civil society as citizens. At century’s end, I participated in a march in the capital to forgive massive foreign debt that served only to keep poor people in abject poverty.
No one ever gets 100% of what they want in a democratic society. As I’ve admired before about John Adams was his contention that the means of maintaining a free society over time is by thwarting the accumulation of power. Therefore, the price of living together in relative peace involves a lot of reminding people about problems, figuring out how to address the problems, and then dealing with the consequences of the solutions.
Our country has millions upon millions of people. Getting enough of that population “off the dime” to get something done is a prodigious act of persuasive courage. The easier thing, naturally, is to do nothing. We have problems, but as long as we can live with our problems, we can carry on. And, certainly, as long as the problem doesn’t hurt me, the thinking often goes, I don’t have to worry about a solution.
It takes a lot of work to get people to begin to associate with a problem.
Colin Rand Kaepernick is still a young fellow in his 20s. And he started a bit of a storm by kneeling – “taking a knee” – on one knee while the national anthem was played. Over time, Kaepernick has been joined by other players.
The cause? To bring attention to a system by which some – not all – members of our policing system seemed able to exercise lethal force on young, black men without much in the way of consequences.
If you live in the United States, or pay attention to American sports even the least bit, you know all of this. You also know our current president has decided to intervene against this protest by urging workplace repercussions against players “taking a knee.”
There are some folks who are genuinely exercised by this protest. And that is their right as well.
I have some mild experience in this particular area. I’ve used the national anthem in two different plays with similar, unanimous results.
In the mid-oughts I produced a production of Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire. The play examines the effects of war on nine women with Iraqi connections – either women in Iraq, or women who live elsewhere and have family in Iraq. I thought it might be useful to remind audiences that what we sometimes mildly call “non-combatants” can also be called “mother” or “daughter.”
Rather than present the play as a tour-de-force for one actress, I had nine women in the play. Thus, each individual woman was played by a different actress. This allows for some powerful intertwining of the women as the play came to its climax. At the end of the show, we played the national anthem performed quite simply on a piano. Each night the cast remained standing for the national anthem. In fact, three male helpers stood center stage with their hands on their hearts.
Not one member of the audience ever stood.
This past spring we produced an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here. It was a 1930s book about a fictional America that elected a schmuck, who with some henchmen, took the U.S.A. on the road to being a fascist state. The style of the adaptation lent itself to a Shakespeare-like performance with character doubling on mostly a blank, thrust stage. At the end of the performance the entire cast stood on the stage as the national anthem played.
Again, not one member of the audience ever stood up.
I don’t blame or condemn the audience for this. These performances had re-contextualized the national anthem. Something old and familiar had another set of possible meanings. Those meanings in the moment may not have been something to stand up for.
Or, some people may have simply thought, “We don’t stand up in the theatre during a show.”
The national anthem in its very lyrics poses questions. Can you see? Can you see what we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? We hailed it last night, can you see it now?
It’s a good question. Undeniably we have a situation in our country in which young men of color wind up dead without meaningful consequences for the person or persons who are responsible for that death. If such a thing happens once, you can dismiss it as a fluke. If such a thing happens twice, you may reasonably conclude something is up. If such a thing happens multiple times, you would suspect a pattern that reflects a system.
Those who kneel before our flag have been condemned for disgracing the valiant men and women who’ve fought for our country, defending the flag and our nation. I don’t agree with that argument. As a constitutional government, our courageous heroes pledge themselves to defend the constitution and our rights, which, as mentioned above, includes veteran protests.
But even allowing that taking a knee might be such a strong breach of national etiquette that it threatens the memories of the many near and dear who’ve died in service to their country; the taking of any life isn’t? Does the taking of one life trump the taking of another – that is, this person is a more important dead person than that dead person? They are all dead together and have all met their final reward, whatever that may be. The dead soldier and the dead young man of color, they both rest. However unequal in the sea of life’s peculiarities and particulars, they meet the end the same.
So, we’re left in this life, groping toward justice. The issue at hand is about what justice there may be for the living.
I suppose some of you may think I’m just preaching to a very polite choir. But I’ve got to hope that a few conservative readers slip under the gate and look at these columns, too.
Sometimes it takes real bravery to give up well-worn beliefs to listen, particularly if what we’re asked to hear isn’t all that nice.
But that’s the last question, does that flag wave o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave? For many Americans, that song has been re-contextualized, which makes it difficult to stand. Is this country brave enough to hear that other message?
Maybe as an old, white man, the next time I hear the anthem, I might take a knee.