On the Avenues will move back to Thursdays, beginning next week.
World Cup soccer star Megan Repinoe’s principled decision to refrain from singing the “The Star Spangled Banner” prompts one of those questions we ask the friendly 800-lb gorilla in the corner.
In short, why do we play the national anthem before a sporting event, but not prior to opening the doors at a frilly boutique, muffler shop or dive bar?
Imagine the plight of the 24-hour mini-mart, forever unable to to find an opportunity to play the national anthem, and settling instead on an endless loop of Lee Greenwood songs.
The 800-lb gorilla isn’t finished.
Why do we insist on patriotic rituals attendant to the airing of the anthem alongside overt displays of nationalism merely to sanction throwing a football and shooting hoops, not to mention taking slap shots?
(As an aside, these questions were of relevance long before Repinoe chose silence and football’s Colin Kaepernick took a knee.)
According to writer Richard C. Crepeau in an essay from the mid-200s, the answer is that rote patriotism featuring “The Star Spangled Banner” became a feature of baseball games during World War II.
In 1940, with the fighting underway in earnest and America becoming more conscious of the possibility of war, there was increased talk of the need to hear the national anthem before all baseball games. This was suggested by The Sporting News in June, while at the same time the president of the International League called for the anthem to be played in U.S. league cities, as was already being done in Canadian cities. By 1941, the practice of playing the anthem before sporting events had achieved nearly universal status. At some games the pledge of allegiance was added, and, by 1941, “I Am an American Day” became a feature at major league parks.
It would be nice to say that all of this was due to pure patriotic expression, but of course much of it was created by PR-conscious owners who wanted to make sure that no one would question the patriotism of athletes who played games during World War II while others went off to serve their country. Four years of war, followed by the Cold War and the emergence of the American Empire, solidified the practice and made it into a national ritual.
Since September 11, 2001, another ritual has come into fashion in baseball. Nowadays the seventh inning stretch often is devoted to a commemorative performance of “God Bless America,” for which I’ll soon be suggesting an alternative with less proselytizing. As a long-ago Internet analyst once wrote:
“‘God Bless America’ rings a false note now, as it did when the song was first written (by Irving Berlin, 1939). Woody Guthrie, wrote the song ‘This Land is Your Land’ in 1940 after hearing Kate Smith sing ‘God Bless America’ one too many times.”
But first, since I’m perfectly willing to be the iconoclast in this particular hometown locker room, another question: Is it really necessary to bring religious devotion into the seventh inning stretch?
Or: Where is the imperative for a deity to “bless” America in the first place, quite apart from sports?
Perhaps a better question is this: If we deploy societal peer pressure to encourage a conditioned response by requiring people to participate in a ritual intended to remind them of a noteworthy event, aren’t we trivializing the event?
Shouldn’t folks remember on their own?
To be sure, the events of September 11 are an indelible memory for current generations. Furthermore, and on a far less savory note, the invasive logic of the security state arising in America since 2001 has affected our lives more deeply than we realize.
Still, active memories of 9-11 will fade, just as recollections of human slavery’s toll, the efficacy of vaccination and a merits of a living wage have disappeared into the mists of rear-view mirrors.
In my world, instead of mandating participation in sing-alongs during sporting events, a better way of understanding history’s lessons is to take an interest in historical facts. Some sweet day we all may rise as one from the bleachers, precariously cradling ours beers and brats, and listen as local actors and television luminaries read relevant passages from Howard Zinn.
Too few of us can sing well, anyway.
At this point the hackles of some readers surely are popping to life: “What — don’t you love your country?”
Well, this depends on what the meaning of “love” is.
Speaking only for myself, I cannot regard the word “love” as a concept applicable to one among many nation-states into which I was serendipitously deposited by the fickle finger of fate. Rather, during my adult life the extent of my personal attachment to the concept of the United States of America has been conducted in a cerebral way, not in terms of blind allegiance.
(I do love my wife, but each year at tax time my feelings take a back seat to hard mathematics and fluency in bureaucratese; lacking both, I immediately hand the dossier to my accountant to be assured it’s done right.)
Somewhat amazingly my teachers succeeded in convincing me that to be an American bears an intimate connection with an intellectual process, not an emotional one. I accept that a philosophy of governance came first, this being a rational undertaking incorporating thoughts, ideals and the historical record, not misty eyes, the fevered thumping of a chest or identification with a piece of cloth.
At the same time, my acknowledgment of this political construct does not imply acceptance of its imperfections. As Tina Turner might have asked, “what’s love got to do with it?” The Constitution as a document is a starting point, and it is to be regarded as a work in progress, not another gilded icon to be revered sans examination with a critical lens.
Because how could the nation’s founders have devised perfection when Walt Disney had yet to be born?
All of these considerations matter owing to one’s personal conscience, and the minute we seek to align the conscience of the many individuals into the potential blunt instrument of the one, it’s time to be vigilant.
A brief survey of history reveals that soldiers on all sides have consistently marched off to war in the patriotic belief that God is on their side, and when one considers the catastrophic results of war, it should be obvious that this equation is irreparably skewed, as is any other pertaining to the abstract entity of nationhood — especially as such abstractions come from hearts and not heads.
My views in this context understandably aren’t mainstream. I think love for other persons can be crazy, blind, binding and inexplicable. Beyond that, brains are there to be used, not lobotomized.
There weren’t any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, were there?
Returning to what it means to be a baseball fan, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is the only patriotic song we’ve ever needed. For decades a staple of the seventh-inning stretch at ballparks large and small, from California to the New York island, this music was most delightfully defined by the late Harry Caray’s boisterous press box version.
Baseball possesses its own sort of quasi-religious faith; if not, why would Baltimore Orioles fans buy a single ticket in 2019?
For me the substitution of “God Bless America” for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is like inserting an advertisement for organized religion where it doesn’t belong, whatever the variety.
Of course I’ve nothing whatever against the old-school songwriter Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin), who died a famous, feted American in 1989 at the age of 101, this wonderful and welcoming country having provided a beacon to his family of immigrants escaping nasty pograms in Tsarist Russia.
Among Berlin’s hit songs I prefer “Cheek to Cheek” or even “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “God Bless America,” in which Berlin appealed directly to a simple love of country with groundless theism, prideful chest-thumping and a mawkish sentimentality, neither of which suits my cosmopolitan (read: cynical) internationalism.
Conversely, if we simply must have a 7th-inning tune other than the historically correct one, why not sing “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s far superior response to Berlin?
Why not sing it instead of the national anthem?
“This Land Is Your Land” is sublimely ecumenical, addressing the natural and human wonders of America without resorting to the divisiveness of those many supernatural elements.
I suppose the drawback is that when it comes to the imperative of emotional manipulation required by engorged corporate capitalists, Guthrie’s work isn’t as simplistic as Berlin’s schmaltzy paean to blind obedience.
Better yet, we might all wear “This Machine Kills Fascists” t-shirts whilst happily harmonizing from the third base side. It is through Guthrie’s legacy that this phrase has become immortalized. For many years my former brewing company used “These Machines Kill Fascists” as our motto, alongside a graphic of brewing vessels, and even today, with me being long gone from NABC, I never tire of telling the story of its origin.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967) was an iconic American folksinger. He was born in Oklahoma and came of age during the twin pre-WWII crises of national economic collapse (the Great Depression) and regional environmental catastrophe (the Dust Bowl).
Musically inclined from childhood, Guthrie followed the westward drift in pursuit of work, eventually landing in California alongside numerous other Okies. In doing so, he played a living, breathing part in novelist John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” and as a direct result of what Guthrie experienced during these troubled times in America, his political views evolved in progressive, leftist directions.
Many of Guthrie’s subsequent songs — he wrote thousands — chronicled the hardships of ordinary people, expressing empathy for their lot and support for what he saw as curatives: Worker rights, unionizing, and racial and gender equality.
Guthrie eschewed the feel-good and the flag-waving, both so often deployed to mask deprivation and trivialize injustice. His annoyance with “God Bless America” spoke to this feeling.
For all of Guthrie’s leftist tendencies, he remained a staunch patriot as well as a firm, committed believer in the potential of America, albeit a more idealistic and hopeful vision of the American experiment, one not defined entirely by wealth and privilege. The Second World War put his beliefs to the test, and he responded admirably.
It is instructive to remember that during World War II, the United States (a democracy — of sorts) aligned with a hereditary monarchy (Great Britain) and the USSR’s Communist gulag against the military aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan. Such was the greater threat posed by fascism.
Guthrie viewed his music as an integral part of the war effort, and so he scrawled “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his acoustic guitar, meaning that music and ideas were as much weapons against fascism as guns and bullets. Guthrie enlisted in the Merchant Marine, and whenever performing, he used his own machine, one that he considered vital in killing fascists.
The same phrase was written on machinery in factories throughout the United States, as those millions of people in America’s industrial work force made a similar point: The person operating the machine that makes the supplies used to defeat fascism are helping to kill fascists, too.
Co-opting religious imagery to further the imperatives of a war machine driven by wealthy elites, or returning to the egg and reminding us that “we the people” might yet resemble universalism and in self-governance?
I appreciate Irving, but I vote for Woody — now and always.
As a postscript, the lyrics.
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.