Columnists > Voices

Citizenship gone AWOL

We haven't forgotten the words, but we've forgotten how to sing

Issue: "Reaping the whirlwind," July 20, 2002

ATLANTA-Have you noticed that people rarely sing the national anthem anymore at baseball games and other sporting events? WORLD reader Ruthellen Norman, who asked me that question, says these days we typically listen as an entertainer sings. The implications of this change would go beyond music and even patriotism. Just as in helping the poor, many of us have moved from active citizens to passive taxpayers, so most of us would be practicing nonparticipation generally.

I spent the Fourth of July in this city because I wanted to talk with Braves pitcher John Smoltz about the Christian school he has helped to start. (More about that in a later issue.) But the day also gave me an opportunity to test the nonparticipation hypothesis at three Atlanta landmarks: the Martin Luther King Jr. national historic site, the Jimmy Carter presidential library, and Turner Field, the Braves' ballpark.

The fine MLK museum tries to engender participation by kids with questions at an introductory exhibit about how young Martin grew up in segregation: "Could you go to the movies? Could you be a city fireman?" (Answers: Not to white-only theaters. No.) But, sadly, the numbers were sparse at the museum and national historic site, which includes King's boyhood home and his tomb. About two dozen cars sat in the parking lot at noon, with visitors confronted by a sign, "Please put valuables in trunk or out of sight." But things picked up when 43 people wearing blue T-shirts saying "Celebrating the Mighty Caseys" arrived; they had gotten together for a family reunion, and some waved little American flags. Two Japanese tourists took pictures.

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The Carter library/museum was packed, apparently because of a special exhibit of one of the 25 surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence produced by a Philadelphia printer on July 4 and 5, 1776. At 2 p.m. 120 people stood in line to walk by the document; several said they had heard on television about the temporary exhibit and wanted to do "something meaningful" on the Fourth. Most then wandered over to Carter displays about his major "accomplishments" in office, including "PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST" (oh, really?) and "freedom for the [Iran] hostages with America's honor preserved." (Actually, after well over a year of ineffective Carter actions, Iran released the hostages on Ronald Reagan's inauguration day.)

Several Georgia teenagers stood before an exhibit that gives U.S. presidents as many titles as British monarchs: "Peacemaker, Reformer, World Leader, Protector of Resources, Protector of Human Rights...." They gaped at the ostentation and took turns grandly announcing, "I am President. Bow down." But Lewis Nielson of Oberlin, Ohio, called Mr. Carter the "greatest U.S. president in the last 50 years."

Before the ballgame at Turner Field, many kids and dads visited the Braves Museum beneath the stands and saw its celebration of patriotic participation. Next to the army uniform of Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn (wounded during World War II) stood his words: "Our country was in trouble and it was an obligation to fight." Spahn also showed a perspective that major leaguers should take to heart as they decide whether to go on strike next month: "Baseball ... What a great way to make a living. If I goof up, there's going to be a relief pitcher coming in. Nobody's going to shoot me."

The Braves game at first displayed evidence for our national movement from participation to entertainment. An entertainer performed the National Anthem, and the scoreboard (unlike the one at University of Texas football games) did not print the words so that people could more readily sing along. Throughout the game, though, the scoreboard did tell fans when to make noise. Fans obeyed.

After the game came a good fireworks display and classic patriotic music like The Stars and Stripes Forever. But then came the song that elicited participation: Lee Greenwood's Proud to Be an American. Some folks sang the message of defiance: "The flag still stands for freedom, and they can't take that away." Thousands sang the chorus: "And I'm proud to be an American ..." They stood up and sang Greenwood's words: "And I'd gladly stand UP, next to you ..." After that the ice was broken, with Kate Smith's God Bless America and other songs becoming community sings. As a massive fireworks burst signaled the finale, the P.A. system played the Star Spangled Banner again-and this time, many were singing along. "O say, can you see ..." A lot of people hadn't forgotten the words. They and the ideas they represent were still inside, although rarely summoned to the surface.


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