The Perilous Fight Over Colin Kaepernick 

Oh, say, can we ... have an adult discussion about the National Anthem without everyone getting all pissy about it? I understand that the sight of the stars and stripes means different things to different people. Some accept it as a symbol of the United States, while others don't get the symbolism and revere a brightly decorated polyester stretch of fabric right up there with the Bible. I was taught in the Boy Scouts that the flag had to receive special treatment. It had to be folded a certain way, and if it touched the ground, the proper response was to burn it, which makes the topic of flag-burning more complex.

We were also taught from infancy that when the National Anthem was played, we were to remove any head coverings and stand with either one hand over your heart or both by your side. While some people have deeply held convictions that soldiers bled and died for that flag, others believe just as strongly that soldiers died to protect the freedom to protest, even if it includes the flag.

If you love the Second Amendment, you have to respect the First. But just let one professional athlete remain seated while the anthem is played, and social media explodes in anger and outrage. We have hurricanes, wildfires, zika, and a lunatic running for president, and people are upset because a football player chose not to stand?

click to enlarge Colin Kaepernick
  • Colin Kaepernick

The latest in the saga of San Fransisco 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick's objection to standing for the anthem occurred at a pre-season game in San Diego, and who doesn't love a pre-season game? San Diego was celebrating its 28th annual "Salute to the Military," with over 200 servicemen and women presenting a "super flag," while color guards from all four branches of the military presented the regular-sized one. If that weren't enough jingoism for you, they played the repugnant and nausea-producing Lee Greenwood song, "God Bless the U.S.A.," with the stadium joining in. Even George M. Cohan thought it was a bit over the top.

Then came Kaepernick's gesture, and the crowd erupted in rage. He was booed louder than an illegal immigrant at a Trump rally. He explained his singular act as a way to protest racial oppression and the near monthly killing of unarmed black men by the police. "I'm not anti-American," Kaepernick said, "I love America. ... I want to help make [it] better."

Something about the public anger reminded me of the days when certain people expressed their patriotism by putting "Love it or leave it" bumper stickers on their trucks and flag decals in their windows. This is not the first time that this nation's patriotic symbols have been appropriated by reactionaries and war hawks. Sometimes, it takes more courage to protest against what you believe to be unjust than to run to join the lynch mob.

From a songwriter's point of view, the National Anthem just isn't that great of a song. First, Francis Scott Key merely wrote a poem in 1814 called "Defense of Fort McHenry" while captive on a British ship watching the bombardment of Baltimore. Only later was the poem conjoined with a British drinking ditty called, "The Anacreontic Song," whose last verse offered a toast, "with the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine."

It wasn't declared the National Anthem until the Hoover administration in 1931. You've seen those ads that say, "Send us your poem, and for a nominal fee, we'll put it to music." I knew guys in Nashville that ran that scam for years, and it never produced a single good song. If F.S. Key had sent his poem to Nashville, it might have been difficult to put a peppy melody to his third verse, which reads in part, "Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution/No refuge could save the hireling and the slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave." Historians agree that Key, a slave-owner himself, was expressing his revenge over the deaths of freed slaves who fought with the British. We usually skip that verse.

I never understood why they play the National Anthem before sporting events in the first place. And why do different sports get to pick and choose who plays it? Football, baseball, and basketball all do, but you've never heard the anthem before tee-off time in professional golf. At Churchill Downs, they sing "My Old Kentucky Home." At the Preakness, they sing "Maryland, My Maryland," and at the Belmont Stakes, they belt out Sinatra singing "New York, New York."

During the recent Rio Olympics, after the first 10 medal ceremonies, I started to mute the "Star Spangled Banner." I mean, how many times can you hear the same song in a row? I like "Uptown Funk," but I don't want to hear it played 15 consecutive times. Is muting the National Anthem worse than sitting for it? I'll bet all the incensed trolls who stormed social media were sitting on their asses too. Just because you're in the Barcalounger in your underwear, why shouldn't you stand for the anthem?

These days, the "Star Spangled Banner" has become a vehicle for aspiring pop stars to demonstrate their vocal pyrotechnics and attitude. (See Christina Aguilera). The three greatest versions of the song are by Jimi Hendrix, Whitney Houston, and Marvin Gaye. YouTube "Marvin Gaye, 1983 NBA All-Star game," and tell me I'm wrong. Since I respect freedom of expression, I stand with Kaepernick sitting. "America the Beautiful" should be the National Anthem anyway. If you lovers of tradition want something to really get mad about, be upset that the uber-patriotic "God Bless America," has replaced "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch.

Randy Haspel writes the "Recycled Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.

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