How I Overcame Being Ashamed of My Country

An American Education

Back in the 1970s I stayed seated whenever the national anthem was played during public events. A number of us did. It was a small form of civil disobedience and I’m sure it pissed a lot of people off, but it seemed necessary: we were fighting a war in Vietnam that made no sense and forcing young men into the draft. I didn’t like the national anthem, and I was pretty discouraged by the very sight of Old Glory, too.

I’m not sure how much of this behavior came about due to anger and how much was a result of shame. Besides a stupid war, we also had problems with how government and big business both polluted our water, land, and air. Women were still treated as second class citizens — as were minorities — and the U.S. face-off with the so-called “Red Menace” of China and the old U.S.S.R. seemed to be sapping our ability to invest in progress and prosperity at home. On top of all that, my generation felt that the national emphasis on material consumer culture was demoralizing and superfluous.

So, from the time I was 15 until I was 18 I made a nuisance of myself at the beginning of public events wherever I went. I did not stand for the national anthem — or the pledge of allegiance — for four years.

But I’ll never forget going to a Harlem Globetrotters game when I was almost 18. I remained seated when the first notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” were played. Then, out of nowhere, two enormous country boys hoisted me to my feet. One of them whispered in my ear, “You fucking communist asshole. If you hate this country so much why don’t you move to Sweden.” They didn’t take their hands off me through the whole song. I watched the Globetrotters demonstrate their amazing talent with those two guys sitting behind me the whole night and I thought about their words.

The truth was I didn’t hate my country. I didn’t much like people like those guys, but I loved the fact that I could sit in a basketball arena with 10,000 fellow citizens of all kinds and watch the Harlem Globetrotters be amazing with basketballs. I was certainly ashamed of my government for sending young men just a little older than me off to war (and death), but that same government gave us roads and national parks and was actually committed to protecting our basic rights as citizens. Corporate greed and pollution seemed to many of us back then a sure evil — especially because we saw how much public money went to companies that made weapons, but at the same time businesses created jobs, and it seemed, even back then, that somehow technology and creativity could be the driving forces for solving most human problems.

The message I was sending by sitting and refusing to participate slowly became louder and clearer: I was certainly ashamed and mad at my government. But I was mad at the bad stuff. I wasn’t appreciating the good stuff.

By the end of my first year of college, I began to stand for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. And I felt good about doing that. To this day, I sing when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is performed (mostly at baseball games…I go to a lot of baseball games). I am proud of my country and often feel a deep and powerful love for everyone around me in stadiums or wherever. And I refuse to let the idiots get in the way of that pride and love.

I write this now, partly as a confession, after watching the lunacy that just took place in Washington, D.C. with the unnecessary shutting down of our federal government. That act was kind of a bigger and dumber version of staying seated during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s sad that them that did the shutting down don’t understand what democracy and “We the People…” is all about. It’s sad that I didn’t understand that either when I was so young.

We really aren’t the greatest nation in the world (New Zealand probably is, maybe Denmark), but I love who we are anyway. We’re an utter mess as a nation. That’s how we roll. We have huge issues to deal with — bigger issues than almost any other nation in the world. Affordable health care is certainly one of our most pressing problems. Health care costs have a dramatic effect on the national economy.

Properly investing in the education of all our citizens is also pretty important. Education funding has been on a downward slide since 1980. A nation that doesn’t put the education of its citizens first is a nation asking to be run by idiots. I’m going to predict that school and university funding become major public policy drivers in the next round of Presidential elections.They better. We’ve just seen what happens when people with a poor understanding of democracy get too much power.

Some incredibly dumb things have happened ever since we stumbled into the 21st century. But we’ve also managed to figure a whole shit-load of really cool things out, too. I think we’re on the cusp of overcoming a lot of the bigotry and prejudice that hurt so many of our citizens back there in the old century. I think women are slowly but surely gaining influence and authority on every level of society. And I think we are going to figure out how to seriously address global issues like climate change within the next five or so years.

You may think I’m wrong or naive. I would say you shouldn’t be so cynical and/or defeatist. The most impressive thing about who we are as a nation is that all the messy stupid stuff we do actually moves us forward.

In a democratic and free nation, for every person who tries to put a woman in her place there are ten of us who support that woman as she moves forward through life. For every person hating on people different than them, there are dozens of us who respect and revere those differences. And for every lazy and greedy person who thinks its okay to pollute and consume limited resources, the rest of us know that a true patriot looks to take care of the natural world and global environment so that future generations have a fighting chance.

It can be argued that the two greatest activists of the last century were Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. We cherish their memories because they advocated non-violent civil disobedience as a way to change the world. But the root of their activism was something far more potent and powerful — non-violent civil disobedience can’t work unless practitioners stay positive and hopeful, and feel love for each other and the world they live in.

That may sound like a bunch of hokum, or perhaps it seems far too idealistic for this day and age, but it’s the most important thing I know about life in this crazy world. If I’m wrong, there really may not be hope for us. But I’m not wrong. That’s why I now stand and sing the national anthem, sometimes at the top of my lungs. And I don’t just pledge my allegiance to the flag, I pledge my allegiance to every person in this country, especially young people. I also pledge my allegiance to the world, with love in my heart and a smile on my aging face.

I was surprised and shocked by what happened to our federal government in the first weeks of October 2013, but I never for a moment lost hope for my country. I’m looking forward to next baseball season when I can go sit behind home plate somewhere, rise at the beginning of the game, hold my cap across my chest and sing as loud as I can. I assure you, I will recall the old days, but I will be singing about our days to come, because I know now how amazing we are, and that makes me really proud to be an American.