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National anthem's history makes for an unwieldy weapon to use against Kaepernick

The long-standing ties between the national anthem and sports in America are inherently political, which puts the backlash stirred up by Colin Kaepernick in a complicated position.

“I’ve seen many a drunk chap in my time,” he said, “but never anyone so cryin’ drunk as that cove. He was at the gate when I came out, a-leanin’ up agin the railings, and a-singin’ at the pitch o’ his lungs about Columbine's New-fangled Banner, or some such stuff. He couldn’t stand, far less help.”

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study In Scarlet, 1887

Anacreon was a well-thought of poet born in what is now Turkey sometime around 582 B.C. He also was quite a man for the drink and for the ladies, although he never wrote much about drinking in excess, or womanizing in the extreme. For Anacreon, drinking and carousing were both gentlemen’s games. This is probably why in 1776 a group of British gentlemen, who were not at that moment overseas trying to keep the unruly rum-swilling colonists under foot, decided to form The Anacreontic Society, which was dedicated to upper class boozing and wenching, or as much boozing and wenching as can be done in a waistcoat. Of course, like action heroes and breakfast cereals today, every proper British gentleman’s club needed theme music. So the men of The Anacreontic Society decided to write one. It was called “To Anacreon In Heaven”, or, more properly, “The Anacreontic Song”. This is how the first verse went:

To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That he their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this answer arriv’d from the Jolly Old Grecian
“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
“No longer be mute,
“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
“And, besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to intwine
“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

(That intwining there at the end pretty much means what you think it means. This was the “Let’s Get It On” of respectable British canoodling.)

Anyway, the song was something of a transatlantic hit. Consequently, when Francis Scott Key was groping a melody for a poem he’d written called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry”, based on his observations of the Chesapeake Bay fort as the British fleet bombarded it in 1812, he fastened on “The Anacreontic Song”, which fit the meter, but very little else. (The tune is made to be rendered when drink taken, and it runs through octaves like a drunk through a china shop. Trained singers blanch at the notion of trying to sing it—though some, like the late Marvin Gaye, make it their own. Anacreon would’ve approved.) Now retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner”, Anacreon’s song didn’t become the official national anthem of the United States until 1931, when Herbert Hoover signed a bill passed by Congress that confirmed an executive order that Woodrow Wilson has issued to that effect 15 years earlier.

I just thought we all ought to know what we’re talking about here—an upper-crust British drinking song married to a poem that first saw print as a Baltimore broadside—because every few years or so, everybody gets very silly about it, and over the past few weeks, people got very silly over it.

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First, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas failed to put her hand over her heart while on the medal podium and got buried in racist cybergarbage for her trouble. (For the record, when Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs finished one-two in the men’s shotput, they stood for the anthem with their hands at their side as well and, as far as I know, nobody said anything. Strange, that.) Now, over the weekend, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem before an exhibition game and, when people noticed, Kaepernick gave the following explanation:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Quite naturally, the flying monkeys were aloft within seconds. One fan achieved Internet glory by lighting Kaepernick’s jersey on fire, and did so while it was hanging from a tree, just in case, you know, you didn’t get the point. C. Montague Schilling, a former major league pitcher and now proprietor of one of Twitter’s most luxurious reptile farms—which is one too many, as far as I’m concerned—was beside himself, tweeting out pictures of soldiers who are not him and accusing Kaepernick of betraying them. By and large, the arguments against Kaepernick ran that, because he is a wealthy and prosperous (if not, at the moment, an altogether successful) professional athlete, he should shut up and be grateful for the country that has condescended to let him entertain it, although the country did not deign to allow itself to be entertained by African-American professional football players until 1946. This is a curious business indeed. Famous and wealthy Americans should not criticize the country because they are famous and wealthy. Poor and anonymous people can criticize the country all they want, but nobody listens to them anyway. This works out very well.

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The playing of the national anthem before sporting events is an inherently political act. It is an inherently political act when you seek to build a Potemkin national consensus in the face of serious political discord. The political aspect of playing the anthem before games has been made even more obvious in the way the teams and the leagues have created militarized spectacles out of their games ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001. (Dear Fellow Fans: You are not obligated to stand, hatless, and do the hand-on-heart thing for “God Bless America”. It’s not a “tradition”. It’s a pop tune.) In fact, last year, an investigation into these corporate displays of Patriotism™ by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Republicans of Arizona, revealed that they came at a substantial profit for the franchises engaging in them. Kaepernick’s 49ers made $125,000, according to the McCain/Flake report. Considering that his employers need to get paid to be patriotic, Kaepernick’s political statement at the very least seems less mercenary.

Most of the real issues have been chewed to a fine pulp by now. Of course, Kaepernick had the right to do what he did and say what he said. Of course, any disciplinary action the NFL takes will be such an egregious violation of Kaepernick’s rights that Roger Goodell likely will find himself crossways with the ACLU, which he does not need at this point. Of course, virtually anything you hear on sports radio will be worthless. Of course, there is a stunning hypocrisy between the calls for athletes to “step up” on important issues and what happens to them when they actually do. Of course, race is a deep and abiding factor in what’s happened to Kaepernick—and, before him, to Gabby Douglas—because it is a deep and abiding factor in the country’s politics, although the country would rather not mention it that often lest it disturb the horses. This always has been the case, even with the national anthem. As it happens, Key’s third verse, which is never sung and never referred to, expressly condemns runaway slaves who fought for the British in exchange for their freedom.

And, of course, most of the huffing and blowing is completely beside the point. The members of the American military have enough problems these days without being dragged in as clubs to beat up on athletes who step out of line. In my experience, weaponized grief and anger at home have cost more lives, and have proven to be a far greater danger to my freedom as an American than the Viet Cong ever did or were. Patriotism has to be a strong, flexible thing. The more rigid it becomes, the more false it will be. It has nothing to do with songs or flags, or even one particular group of public employees who happen to be wearing uniforms. (On June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, one WWII veteran named Byron De La Beckwith shot and killed another WWII veteran named Medgar Evers from ambush. In the second before Beckwith pulled that trigger, which one of them was a patriot?) It has to live and breathe with the times as they pass, or it’s simply dumbshow for rubes and the chickenhawks. Defining patriotism through a flag or a song—and, worse, believing that everyone should do so—is to exchange true patriotism for tinhorn vaudeville. If you’re going to be a multimillionaire celebrity who wants to point out that America is a dystopian moonscape of crime and violence, you better damn well be running for president when you do it.

On Sunday, Kaepernick expanded on what he’d said before and pronounced himself ready to stand the gaff all season, if need be. He made a strong and articulate defense of his position, which I hope remains the case until it outlasts the faux-patriots and flag-waving hot-takerz who are making a meal of him at the moment. After all, it’s just a song. It isn’t even a hymn, and people are disrespectful of hymns in the houses of the Lord all the time without the punditocracy going to DEFCON 1. It’s a poem set to the music of drunken good fellowship and, perhaps, that’s the way it should remain. When it’s all over, I hope Kaepernick sits back with a long glass of fine wine and looks back at the craziness with a gentleman’s gentle eye. Anacreon would approve.