It was Opera in the Park today and they began, as always, with the national anthem. I’ve been ambivalent about this song—musically, textually and philosophically— for most of my life. Should I take a knee a la Kaepernick? Stand but not sing? Sing but not stand?
I ended up singing and standing (with arms at my side), but found my way into singing it with integrity and honesty. When I got to the final cadence, “the land of the free, the home of the brave,” I thought, “Yes, indeed, both of those are true. Henry Thoreau found his freedom falling in love with a shrub oak, Walt Whitman sang his freedom in leaves of grass captured in words, Emily Dickinson stayed in her room and found freedom in the words as well, Louis Armstrong expressed a freedom rarely seen in this world before with every solo he took. Martin Luther King freed himself from hatred, bitterness and vengeance. Harvey Milk found the freedom to define himself as a gay man independent of other people’s narrow notions. Elizabeth Warren is using her freedom to speak truth to power. It’s a long list of extraordinary and ordinary Americans who worked tirelessly to achieve the only freedoms that count— spiritual freedom, artistic expressive freedom, intellectual freedom to use our minds well, freedom to define ourselves on our own terms (as long as hatred and exclusion of others is not in the definition), freedom to love, to forgive, to search for and speak truth. So yes, the land of the free and all those imprisoned by their willful ignorance, vile hatred, greedy ambitions, unearned privileges may think they are free, but they are not. They are the ones who cannot honestly sing the national anthem.
As for the home of the brave, well, how much time do you have? Harriet Tubman, Chief Seattle, Geronimo, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones, John Brown, Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson, Woody Guthrie, Hazel Scott, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Margaret Mead, James Baldwin, Rachel Carson, Daniel Ellsberg, Jonathan Kozol, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Keith Haring. I’m not even trying hard here, the names keep coming on their own, all those who stood up against the evil afoot and for the beauty waiting to be revealed. It’s a kind of bravery not a single Republican Tea Party Talk Show Host and compliant politician can claim, hiding behind their money, power and inherited white privileges. But the thousand faces of bravery displayed daily that includes kids standing up for their classmates and refusing to be silent about the bullies is as American as apple pie with mochi crust and a side of horchata.
I am looking at patriotism at a whole new light these days. Not blind obedience to a great nation whitewashed with the hard parts rubbed out, but an allegiance to the work so many thousands (millions?) have done to help make good the promisory note of the Constitution. Now it’s clear to me who the real patriots are. Which means all those who have betrayed and continue to betray the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are traitors to this country’s ideals and should be tried for treason. You know who I’m talking about, but in case you don’t, think David Duke, Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff and the whole of Trump’s cabinet, with him at the top of the list. Tax evasion, giving away State secrets, stopping investigations of fixed elections, supporting gerrymandering that skews the electoral process, endorsing hate groups, banning immigrants, etc. etc. and again etc.—treasonous acts all.
So I call upon all true patriots, endorsers of the free and brave above and the many I’ve left out, to take back the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, the very definition of Patriotism.
Then maybe we can one day sing loudly and proudly the Star Spangled Banner.
Though I still vote to change both the tune and the words.