Monday, October 2, 2017

Beyond the Anthem: What Does It Really Mean to Be a Patriot?

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, 
Thy liberty in law!
--Katherine Lee Bates, 
"America the Beautiful", 1911

Just what does it mean to be a patriot and patriotic and who gets to decide?

This is at the heart of a culture wide debate that's emerged in the past two weeks as many NFL players, coaches and owners have chosen to take a knee or thrust a fist in the air, during the playing of the national anthem before games.  In response many of the fans in the stands, fellow citizens, even the President, have chosen to critique these protests as unpatriotic.

Some history: though the "Star Spangled Banner" is now routinely played and sung before thousands of professional and amateur sporting events, it was not always so. The tradition first began in baseball, in 1862, during a professional game in Brooklyn at the height of the Civil War and then later, in Boston, 1918, during the World Series, at a time when World War I raged.  There followed periodic occurrences. Then during World War II in 1942, Major League Baseball adopted this ritual as the norm before all games. The NFL adopted it as official league policy in August 1945.

It's telling to note that the context in the past, for players and fans to stand and sing the anthem, was always during wartime. There were few in the stands or on the field who had not been directly touched, effected, or hurt by war and the communal sacrifices it demanded.  Especially in World War II, essentially everyone at the game had sacrificed: served, fought, faced war rationing, worked in a war factory, hung blue or gold stars in their front windows, signifying a member of the household serving overseas. A gold star meant that a family had lost a son or daughter to war.  I'd say those folks were certainly patriots and patriotic.

But today, at least for this fan and citizen, the singing of the national anthem at games, save for a rare poignant moment, like at the first New York Yankees game after 9/11, or the first game after the Marathon bombings, when the fields were filled with first responders, the anthem can seem rote.  A ritual, still with great aspirations, but one which means...what? What does it mean when we sing that song in 2017 at a game? That's a question no one has asked, certainly not with any great thought. 

What does it mean for you? As you participate in this tradition, do you feel like you are a patriot, patriotic?  Is this what makes one a lover of country?  To know all the words (at least the first verse), to doff one's cap, put hand over heart and stand? 

I'd say sing too, but most of the time when I'm at the park singing, very few of my seatmates join in.  And what of the many other people in or outside of the stadium or at home watching on TV? As New York Times sportswriter John Branch wrote this week, "As players continue being judged by their postures during 'The Star Spangled Banner,' perhaps it is fair to turn the lens around. Those who have spent a lot of time in stadiums and arenas know that they are rarely sanctuaries of patriotic conformity and decorum."  Beer and food is still enthusiastically sold during the anthem. Folks standing in security lines or tailgating don't stop what they are doing. In living rooms, fans use the time to grab food or take a bathroom break.  Is that disrespectful of the flag? 

This whole dust up makes me wish I and my fellow country men and women would actually have a substantive discussion about what it might really mean to be a patriot and patriotic, to claim that title. Beyond the symbolism. Beyond a three minute ritual that demands little of those who participate in it, including me. Beyond the waving of flags and angry judgments by some against the sincere actions of others.  

What does it mean to be a patriot, patriotic? 

To me it first means I need to humbly look at my own civic life and ask, "How am I doing?" Patriotism means a love of country so deep that I actually act on that conviction: that my patriotic beliefs translate into patriotic behavior. Like the woman or man who signs up to serve their country in the military and makes that commitment. A person who exercises one of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble. Or how about paying our fair share in taxes, no cheating allowed? Or voting every chance we get, not just when it's convenient or "exciting" ? I know I so respect folks who actively engage in the shared life of our towns and cities: serve on a committee, run for office, or volunteer. Helping a neighbor in need, collecting needed items or giving money for hurricane relief, helping rebuild: to me, that's patriotic.

Can we please get beyond the tweets and the boos and instead have a respectful dialogue about what it means to be a patriot and patriotic, and who gets to decide? Let's work on our own patriotic lifestyles (or lack thereof) before we so quickly condemn someone else.  And the next time you find yourself at a game and are maybe even standing next to me, feel free to join in and sing. 

I'd love the company.

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