Dusty Nix

Love of country — on our own terms

This isn’t about the pro jock who protested the flag. That’s been pretty much wrung dry as far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you think so, too. (If you sat at this desk in front of this computer screen and this email account, I’d personally guarantee it.)

The whole flap did provide one public service, namely an opportunity — not that they’re ever really lacking for one — for the professional patriots among us to shift into overdrive. An NBA player, whose name I can’t remember and wouldn’t bother with if I could, did pretty much the same thing a few years back. For a while, fans who showed up at games in which he played took to bringing and waving American flags. Fine. We get it.

This is something a little different — a nagging discomfort in recent years about an ever-escalating level of patriotic pomp at public events, especially sports events, and the implicit demand that we all participate. (Neither “escalating” nor “demand” is a lightly chosen word in that sentence.)

Of course, nobody needs to point out that there’s no law requiring us to stand up, or take off our hats, or cover our hearts, or sing along. The patriotism police aren’t going to haul us out of our seats and drag us off to “reeducation” cells. That’s not America. That’s Kim Jong-Un. And besides, most of us are more than willing — inspired, even — to do those things anyway.

But the more heavy-handed it gets, the less it feels like love of country and the more it feels like a kind of ominous, institutionally imposed peer pressure — a strain of nationalistic political correctness, if you will.

For most of my life there’s been the flag and the National Anthem. Then there was the presentation of the flag and the National Anthem. Now there’s the presentation of the colors, the National Anthem, the unfurling of the huge flag on the field, “God Bless America,” maybe a military jet fly-over, and whatever else might be thrown in there.

Don’t get me wrong. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is inseparable from American sports as far as I’m concerned, especially baseball. That tradition needs to endure as long as this great republic does. Filmmaker Ken Burns understood that completely when he chose to start every “inning” of his 1994 baseball documentary series with the anthem.

I have to say I love the fly-overs, too. My dad was a World War II fighter pilot, so maybe that just pushes personal buttons for me.

But at what point do we stop being afraid to stop raising the ante?

No patriotic ceremony was a regular part of ball games before 1918. In that year’s World Series, the Cubs played their home games against the Red Sox in Comiskey Park — home of the crosstown American League White Sox — because Wrigley Field was too small.

During the seventh-inning stretch, a military band began playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The United States had been in World War I for a year and a half, and more than 100,000 American soldiers had already died in it.

A few people started to sing along, then a few more, and soon the Chicago crowd was on its feet; the song ended with roaring cheers and applause.

It was repeated at subsequent games, and soon became a baseball tradition. (The song wouldn’t become the official National Anthem until 13 years later.)

It was a great and historic American moment precisely because it was spontaneous and heartfelt. And yes, it was well worth preserving as a sports ritual.

That ritual has come a long way from Comiskey Park in 1918 and, from my seat in the stands, it hasn’t improved with age. It’s just gotten bigger and louder and more elaborate and more expensive.

Public patriotism is a lot like public religion: One’s enthusiasm for it is inversely proportional to how much of it is shoved down your gullet.

That said, I have nothing to protest — at least not that way. There are other vehicles for expression that don’t involve our most revered American symbols. For me, those symbols will always represent the United States’ boundless and enduring promise, and those great moments when we’ve honored it; not our inevitable human failures to live up to it.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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