Iwas a Boy Scout. I stood every morning at school for the Pledge of Allegiance and at football games for the national anthem, and felt some self-righteous scorn at the ignorance of people who applauded when it ended. (You are supposed to remain standing briefly in silence, then sit without demonstration. It is not a performance.)
Some time during the Vietnam War I decided that I would not rise to show agreement with the anthem’s martial theme, that holding my hand over my heart was a sign of disrespect to the people of the nations we were oppressing and showed tacit support for leaders who were calling on us to be neither brave nor free, but craven in protection of privilege.
Over the decades, it became a deep habit to grit my teeth at the hypocrisy of that song in the face of countergraduated tax rules, foreign misadventures and wars of choice, homeland oppression, shortsighted energy and environmental practices and a widespread lack of national mission beyond self-indulgence in the private and public realms. I remained seated, distant from my nation’s anthem.
The past several months I have experienced many teary moments as I felt that we really might be embarking on what Bruce Springsteen has called the “long walk home.” Last week, I watched the inaugural with a small group of friends and friends of friends, all people of similar persuasions with a deeply patriotic skepticism about Patriotism-with-a-capital-P. I heard our new president say nearly all the right things about our history, our values, our mission and our intended behavior as a polity. At the end of the ceremonies, Old Glory waved and the military band struck up. I asked myself, “Are you going to stand up for this?” but habit remained strong. Then one woman rose to her feet and faced the TV. I still felt silly; my legs could not do what my heart yearned for. At the lyric “What so proudly we hailed,” my friend Catherine rose and turned to the first woman with a thank you. The woman gently replied, “If not now, then when?”
It felt so wonderful to come home to America. I even took off my hat (it was cool in that environmentally attuned house) and held it over my heart. All these years, I have been proud of what this country could stand for. But standing for those things has felt like a conspiratorial endeavor, outside the declared mainstream, like demonstrating against invading Iraq before we went in or nodding to the rare fellow citizen doing their errands on a bicycle.
All these years, living in the land of the free and the home of the brave has felt like a private matter—me and a few of my homeys making ice cubes while the glaciers crash into the sea. That doesn’t work for me now. Yes, it’s gonna be a long walk home. But we’re marching together, picking up steam, with a leadership that calls us forth to write the next chapter with a loving, steady hand. Old Glory’s out in front, unfurled, and it is right once more to show her my full measure of respect.
i>Ken Roberts is a financial planner, gardener, father of two adult sons and a 25-year resident of western Sonoma County.
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