The brouhaha over political demonstrations during the National Anthem makes me think of a scene from “Junior Bonner,” a 1972 Sam Peckinpah film about rodeo cowboys starring Steve McQueen. A barroom brawl has broken out during the rodeo’s noontime break, and the biggest bruiser in the joint decides to put a stop to it. How do you make a bunch of drunken cowboys stop throwing punches? Call the cops? Use tear gas? Turn on the sprinkler system?
No, our big guy wades through the melee, approaches the bandstand, and tells the musicians, “I think it’s time to play something patriotic, fellas.” So the band strikes up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and before you can sing “Home of the Brave,” all those drunks have quit fighting and come to attention. Even McQueen, who’s been necking with his girlfriend in a phone booth, stops, stands up and places his hat over his heart.
That may be the funniest and most light-hearted moment you’ll ever find in a Peckinpah picture. But I wouldn’t pretend the early ’70s were a Golden Age of patriotism. It was the Vietnam era, after all, and even the military was riven with anti-war and even anti-American sentiment. When I saw that movie scene together with a bunch of soldiers and Marines at an Army training camp near Mount Rainier, I heard someone in the audience give a disgusted shout: “Rednecks!” Or maybe he appreciated them, I don’t know. But the point is that the National Anthem once was something that could make people stop trying to stand off against one another and stand shoulder to shoulder instead.
Not like now.
Since President Trump weighed in on the kneeling protests, professional football players seem more inclined than ever to disrespect the flag. You can’t really blame the athletes for their sideline antics, however. They are young men, and no one’s ever taught them any better—not in school, not in college, not in the movies they watch or the songs they hear or the pop icons they worship.
Worse, they’ve been bombarded for years with lies about how Americans invented slavery, about how cruel pioneers made war on peaceful Indians, about how racist cops shoot black men for sport, about how evil Bible-thumpers want to reduce women to baby-making Handmaids, and God knows what else.
The whole idea of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” born as the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry,” is of America as an embattled nation, whose people stand or fall together, along with the flag that represents us all—and that idea is foreign to the generation being produced by today’s culture.
America embattled? Some of those sideline kneelers don’t have any direct memory of 9/11. Most of them were just kids at the time. As for the night a decade before, when Whitney Houston electrified the nation at the Super Bowl with her fantastic rendition of the National Anthem, defiantly performing without fear even as people warned that Saddam Hussein might attempt to blow up the Super Bowl in retaliation for America’s part in the first Gulf War—that happened before many of the kneelers were even born. No one who witnessed it will ever forget how that joyful, triumphant moment swallowed up the fears that preceded it. But the kneelers know nothing of that. Sadly, they can remember nothing like it.
So don’t blame the kneelers. Blame the liars who brainwashed them. Rather than punish the players or try to drive their league out of business, give a big Bronx cheer to the whole boatload of teachers and professors, rap music moguls, Hollywood stars, late-night “comedians,” red-carpet celebrities, left-wing politicians. and America-bashing pundits whose every word is designed to kill any feeling of patriotism, and instead stigmatize it as “chauvinism,” “jingoism,” and “white supremacism.”
Boycott them. Drive them from office. Mock their pretensions, pop their balloons, dry up their revenues, until they are turned out into the street and have to flip burgers for a living. Because those people are the ones to blame.
Don’t try to coerce patriotism out of anyone. Just pray that God and we might kindle its fire in the kneelers’ hearts and in ours, so that we all may someday feel again the joy and love Whitney and all her countrymen once felt for one another, on that January night in 1991.