I am an American who loves this country. I am a voter who participates in democracy. I am a patriot who served this country. I take my hat off when I enter a building. I stand when I hear our national anthem playing—oddly, I do the same when I hear the anthems of Canada, England and France and St. Helena (one of Napoleon’s safe rooms, with a virtually unlistenable country and western national tune) the only anthems I immediately recognize—and take my hat off.
But I don’t care if you do these things. Let me explain.
I joined the Army when I was 17 in 1976. I’d just graduated high school, and started basic training a week and a half after taking a bus ride to Washington, DC, to take part in a demonstration organized by the People’s Bicentennial Commission (PBC). This counter to the government’s bicentennial celebration was designed to push for more oversight of corporate theft, a return of power to the people and a celebration of America’s revolutionary beginnings. If one were to describe the politics of the PBC, I suppose democratic socialism would be the closest category, but to me they harkened back to the founding fathers of our country.
I saw no conflict in marching in protest in our nation’s capital 12 days before raising my right hand and offering to die for the country. Just the opposite, in fact: America was a country where I was free to decry her shortcomings while defending her from enemies abroad. I was proud to be a soldier and proud to be a concerned citizen.
My real regret was that I wouldn’t be able to vote in the November 2 election. During the New Hampshire primary, I’d volunteered after school and weekends for Fred Harris, a leftist Oklahoma senator running for president. He’d lost handily, but his message of economic democracy had increased my interest in the PBC. Come November, I’d still be two weeks too young to vote for Jimmy Carter in the general election. In January, my orders took me to Germany, where I served with the 8th Infantry Division. Still, on my birthday I’d registered to vote and in 1978 I flew home to cast my first ballot—an off-year election where, as I remember, the incumbents all won. Still, I’d become a voter, a citizen, an American.
Since then, I have voted in every single general election, every single presidential primary election and most of the state primaries. For every office down to governor, I have voted for the man or woman I thought best able to represent the state, the country and me personally, voting more often for Democrat candidates, but having voted at least once for Republican candidates for governor, house of representatives, senate and president. I value my vote, and I use it, even when neither candidate is anywhere near my ideal.
I trust the folks who are most upset about athletes not standing for the anthem all have similar voting records.
My service to my country was not particularly stellar. I served four years, being discharged as an E-5, facing no enemy because no shots were fired in anger during my enlistment. I never lost rank, never got an Article 15 or other punishment, never thought about going AWOL. In short, I was just another bozo on the army’s bus. Still, I was on the army’s bus, believing I had an obligation to serve my country—through the military, the Peace Corps or domestic service—for the freedom I would enjoy the rest of my life. If the Russians had come through the Fulda Gap, I would have been dead, but that was the cost of being free. My father, my uncles, my grandfather were all veterans, but that counted nothing for me. I couldn’t navigate my life by their reflected glory—I had to serve.
I trust the folks who are most upset about athletes not standing for the anthem all served with the United States military.
Finally, I don’t often wear hats—because I look ridiculous in them—or baseball caps. When I do, though, I take them off before entering any public building, at the raising or lowering of the flag or at the playing of the national anthem. At the latter, I stand at attention and place my right hand over my heart. I suspect some historian of etiquette could tell me the origins of men taking their hats off indoors, but I can’t really say why I do these things. I just do—some notion of “paying respect” bounces around in my head. When I walk through a post office or supermarket, and see most men keeping their hats on, I don’t get angry or judge them—I just know I couldn’t do that. Out of respect for nothing in particular.
I trust the folks who are most upset about athletes not standing for the anthem all take their hats off and stand at attention, right hand over their hearts when they hear the national anthem.
Voting is not required in this country. It’s up to each individual. Serving in the military is not required in this country. It’s up to each individual. Taking a man’s hat off indoors is not required in this country. It’s up to each individual.
Standing for the national anthem is not required in this country. It’s up to each individual.
I vote. I served my country. I take my hat off indoors. I stand for the national anthem.
But I don’t give a pitcher of warm spit if you do. It’s up to you as an individual.