I’ll put the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF as my old boss used to call it). The playing of the National Anthem at sporting events has always been for one and only one purpose. It was a way of saying, in a feel-good way that we are all in this together. The Baptist in section C row 5 seat 16, the lesbian in A 15 4, the disabled vet in F 22 12 and the Muslim in P 11 2 are all Americans. Tomorrow the Lesbian might blog about gay rights. The vet will be fighting red tape at the VA. The Baptist will decry the lack of god in schools. And the Muslim may decide to march against the travel ban.
But right now, in this place, at this happy time, we are all a part of a larger picture. Let us just for this brief moment enjoy knowing that and enjoy being together. THAT is why we play the national Anthem at ballgames. There is no other reason. There never was.
It wasn’t about wars. It wasn’t about race riots. It wasn’t about the imaginary grievances of college snowflakes. The flag itself was just a focal point; a rather pretty visual the good feelings were built around.
Well…until entirely un-oppressed, professional athletes decided to get camera time and headlines by ruining the moment for the rest of us.
It’s Not FSC’s Fault
As I read the social network comments regarding the NFL’s National Anthem controversy, I am struck dumb with the level of ignorance from which people argue. Clearly, many of the arguments are made up from whole cloth. I read one post that the National Anthem was written by an attorney who worked to free slaves.
[insert loud game show buzzer here]
Sorry! Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder who, it is said, wrote of the inferiority of the Negro race. Yes, he did represent slaves seeking legal manumission as well as slaveholders seeking return of their “property”. If he thought his client had a case, he argued it. But he was no paragon of abolitionist virtue.
I hate revisionist history worse than cooked carrots.
I read repeatedly that the song “celebrates slavery” or “celebrates the murder of African-Americans”. Leaving aside the impossibility and self-indulgence of the label in the latter example, the song does neither.
Sadly, the ignorance is not limited to silly tweets or Facebook trolls. Mark Clague, a musicologist (here defined as someone who can say anything he wants and declare it valid) is a shining example of what has become of American learning and intellect.
Clague works at the University of Michigan and is founder of the Star Spangled Music Foundation (no agenda there, right?). In a particularly non-intellectual and self-contradictory interview with the NY Times[i], Clague says the lyrics are not a celebration of slavery.
So far, true enough. They are specifically not that.
But then Clague goes on to damage a simple and true statement by slathering on his own disjointed views and projecting his own wishes and feelings on things, 200 years hence, into the minds of people who simply did not think as he does; people who did not think the way educated people think today.
In his reference to “freemen”, Clague asserts, Key was including white people AND black slaves who remained loyal to the U.S. during the war.
In other words, according to Clague, an attorney, and the author of a rather well-penned verse, had no concept of the meaning of words. At the beginning of the 19th Century, a freeman was specifically NOT a slave. Period. If I were a merchant in Philadelphia and was introduced to a Black man with whom I might do business, he would be introduced to me as a freeman to specifically delineate him from those who were slaves. This was by no means an uncommon occurrence, even in major southern cities.
Key would have not confused the two. Clague does so intentionally to burnish the image of the Anthem, which is clearly his goal.
At the same time, Clague and any other literate person who reads the lyrics and knows of the history of the time, knows the terms “hireling” and “slave”, in the context of defeating the Brits, was a reference to the mercenaries and slaves who fought for England during the war.
If you are a 100% pacifist and believe that all war is murder, then you could read into the words of FSK a justification for the murder of slaves and mercenaries in the Anthem. But that would be projecting YOUR beliefs onto the words written by another person.
Key clearly believed in the cause being contested and did not quibble about the morality of war in his verse. So in his mind, and therefore his words, there is no celebration of murder. There is only the statement that the enemy is not free from what American forces might visit upon them. This included people who lived here and fought for the Brits. The “controversial” phrase is neither celebration nor condemnation of death in war.
All I will say further about the birth of the Anthem is that it was a verse that reflected it’s time. The modern approach to that reality is to deny it by saying things like, “Don’t tell me about the morality of the time! Don’t confuse me with facts! XYZ is wrong and everybody knows it!”
Well, isn’t that just too convenient for you? The fact is, that for several millennia, it was accepted as correct that one people should enslave another. If your state went to war with another, one of the most valuable and common spoils of war was the acquisition of slaves. If you marched your god into a foreign land and they rejected that god, you could do to those people anything you wanted to. While the Greeks and Romans would happily nuance the concept to win the loyalty of this tribe over that, the common thinking was that the conquered could be used as the conqueror sees fit. There was no moral argument against it.
We are a mere 200 years into a world where slavery is seen as a blight. Many places in the Muslim world have a lot of catching up to do to eliminate slavery all together. That’s to be understood since they actively rejected the Age of Enlightenment, where old cultural and religious nonsense started to be peeled away in favor of critical thinking.
But is it a process. One we worked through, quite painfully, 150 years ago.
There is more to Clague’s unhelpful interview, mostly about newer versions of the song written over the years by people with various axes to grind, including abolition. But they are not germane to the argument at hand as they are not Key’s words. But Clague is a “musicologist”. So perhaps I should show a bit more respect.
So What of Today’s NFL Anthem Squabble?
It might have been smart if Woodrow Wilson and Congress, when they made the Star Spangled Banner our official Anthem, had reviewed all of it. If they found controversy in the various stanzas, it would have certainly been within their power to say, “We adopt this stanza and reject the rest in the use of the verse as our anthem.” That would have been quite prescient. However, there would be no way Wilson could have possibly read anything sticky about the third verse. He was a racist. He was completely and utterly tone deaf to issues of any minority. So talk of defeating slaves and mercenaries fighting for the enemy would have meant nothing to Wilson.
But at this moment, the Anthem is still our official song.
There is no law that requires the playing of the Anthem at sporting events. Nor should there be. This is a tradition, and a nice one.
People are free to sit, stand or chew gum while it plays. People are free to protest during it’s playing. After many decades of this without these circus stunt “protests” do I question the motivation of players who are protesting a benign song? Of course I do. These are spoiled, overpaid, prima donnas who haven’t heard the word “no” since the first scout visited their schools. Not a single one of them could articulate a true statement in favor of their “protest”. Talk of "oppression" coming from their mouths should be an anathema to any mature adult in this country.
Even if their erroneous view of the Anthem’s lyrics were correct, there isn’t a single person alive who has actually suffered through the time in question. Not a single living American has had to deal with the issue of slavery. Only the oldest among us had to fight for civil rights. And they won! The only emotion we should feel about any of that is gratitude!
But They Disrespect Our Veterans!
If you’ve read my stuff, you’ve read that I don’t use my time in uniform as a reason to criticize protestors. I wore the uniform for 23 years to uphold the right of anyone to peacefully protest anything they want. That includes the actions of stupid, spoiled men getting paid to play a kids’ game.
But as they are free to make phony protests, you are free to counter them.
I hear talk of boycott. That might do it. But be sure to make your actions clear and accurate. They lose their meaning if you don’t.
This is my take. Player A sits on the bench, collecting camera time during the anthem. Let’s not pretend it is really anything else. That is his right. BUT he is in a uniform. While wearing that uniform, and in the performance of his duties representing the ball club, it is the club’s reaction that is the key.
The owners and stockholders of the franchise have freedom of speech as well. If a player sits out the anthem and the club doesn’t penalize him, or at least scold him publicly, the club is making one of two possible statements.
- We agree with the actions of Player A and believe the National Anthem and the United States are bad things.
- We don’t agree but will coddle the spoiled brat because we care more about how much we pay him than we do about patriotism or national pride or whatever label the observer thinks is appropriate here.
But take care where you point your finger and be prepared to make your own mea culpa. Who was it, after all that made these “protestors” into more than overpaid meat hired to play a game?
Who was it that paid good money to make sports entertainment into a multi-billon dollar activity? What a waste of resources! Who is it that allows our institutions of higher learning to be football clubs and snowflake villages rather than institutions of higher learning? Who stood by and watched as our government created a publicly subsidized “bread and circus” industry we now know as professional sports?
That’s right. It is you. I would wager some the people most angry with the protestors these days are season ticket holders or viewers that never miss a game each week. But in attempting to admonish the “Frankenstein” we’re angry with, don’t minimize your role in creating it.
Still feeling passionate about your argument? I hope so. Now go out and make a valid one.
Note: The fact that NFL players in exhibition in England stood for God Save the Queen and took a knee for our National Anthem shows their complete ignorance of the history of the anthem and the history of this nation. And it demonstrates the total lack of seriousness in their “protest”.
[i] The National Anthem Racist? Beyond the Debate over Colin Kaepernick by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, 2 Sep 16. The Times actually refers to Clague’s emotionalist, self-serving meanderings as “scholarly”.
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