A man comes on the speakers and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise for our national anthem.”
There is no question mark at the end of that sentence because there is no question. It’s not a question. It’s never a question, never in question. You will please rise.
You might mistake the words for politeness, but it is the terse and measured kindness of kings. The king of America so wills that you rise, and so rise you must, to please him, if you know what’s good for you.
We didn’t want a song for our king; we wanted a king to be our king. We threw off one king who would not serve us and then we looked around for one who would.
We asked George Washington and he said no. We would have built him a throne and given him a crown and put his face on our coins but he said “over my dead body” so we waited until he died before we put him on our money.
We built the tallest building in the world to honor him. Neither the Taj Mahal nor the greatest pyramid of Giza is a taller tomb than the memorial we built to the man who would not rule us.
We carved his face into the side of a mountain alongside three other men who would not be our kings. No crowned head of Europe was ever immortalized so grandly over the lands of a conquered people as the men who would not be our kings were over the Black Hills of South Dakota.
We needed a king but all the men said no, so we went away and we got along with half-hearted republican fervor while we looked for something else to crown instead.
We invested in symbols. We worshiped the twin goddesses Columbia, who was the land, and Liberty, who was its promise, the promise we made to ourselves, if to no one else, exactly.
As a reminder of that promise and to whom it was made, we put her on our money as a placeholder against the day the mortal men would not be around to raise their inconvenient objections anymore.
We took the eagle, ancient symbol of conquering imperial legions, to represent our newly-minted republic of free people, and we put that on the reverse.
We got ourselves a flag.
We saluted our flag, and we pledged allegiance to it, and to the republic for which it stands. The less the flag stands for, the more we have to salute it. That’s how flags work, you see. Saluting is multiplicative.
If today the flag stands for half as much as it did yesterday, we have to salute twice as hard just to break even on the deal. If tomorrow it stands for half as much as today, then tomorrow we’ll salute twice as much again. That’s just how it goes. We knew what we were getting into when we started down this path.
But we know in our hearts that zero times anything will still be zero, and so we can’t keep this up forever, so we salute more, we salute even harder, just to have a little bit extra to put away against that day, but we can’t help thinking in the quiet moments when we are alone at night that maybe we’re just exhausting the symbolism faster that way.
We do it anyway.
What’s the alternative, to not salute? We don’t know what’s down that path. We don’t want to know.
Flag or no flag, still we needed a king. We sang the words “my country, ’tis of thee” to the tune of “God save our gracious king,” and in our hearts it almost sounded the same. Such feeble drink could not slake our thirst for monarchy, only nourish it.
So we made another song our king.
An overwrought poem set to an overblown tune, it is unsingable, almost unlistenable. Four verses, three more than anyone can stand. We only ever bring the first one out, like an ancient warrior drawing the first few inches of shining steel from a scabbard. The threat is implicit. The message is clear: don’t make us use this. Once this blade is drawn, it will not be sheathed until it has tasted blood.
Our king has defeated opera singers and gospel singers and rock singers and choirs of children and stadiums full of people. Even those who have the range and the volume of breath to make the attempt invariably sound wrong, like they’re showing off. When you sing along with the king, it is not a duet but an act of submission. No one betters the king. No one outshines the king. No one beats the king. The best you can hope for is to come out of the experience okay, alive to tell the tale.
Ladies and gentlemen, you will please rise for our national anthem.
You will put your hand over your heart, maybe clutching a cloth cap. You will warble along as best you can, or maybe feebly moving your lips. You will feel awkward. You will feel inadequate. You will feel tiny, humbled in the presence of the king.
You will make pilgrimages to visit the monuments to the men who refused our crown.
You will pledge allegiance to the flag first and foremost, and then and only then to the republic for which it stands.
You will salute it twice as hard today as you did yesterday, and twice as hard tomorrow as you did today, and even harder today in case tomorrow never comes.
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?
Salute as hard as you can, though, just in case.