A national anthem can stir strong feelings — in very different ways

Patriotism and protest in this week's Poet's Notebook.

click to enlarge JEANNE MEINKE
Jeanne Meinke

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

The closest I’ve come to being thrown to my death over a castle wall was in 1956 in Würzburg, Germany. With two fellow soldiers stationed in Würzburg against a possible invasion by Russian tanks, which had rolled into Budapest — 400 miles away — in October, I’d gone up to the Marienberg terrace for a beer after work. Usually we changed into civilian clothes, but on that day we got off late so we just hopped into a friend’s car in our uniforms (we were humble PFCs) and drove across the stone bridge over the Main River. The Marienberg Castle, or Fortress, towered over the river’s left bank, guarding the city for centuries.

We were the only Americans there. American soldiers tended to stay in the kaserne where you could get nickel beer after 5 o’clock, but we’d discovered the biergarten at the castle and didn’t mind running through our salary ($98 a month) as long as it lasted. We often passed pleasant afternoons there but that day we made two mistakes: We wore our uniforms, and after a few mugs of beer, for some reason we began to show off our little German by singing their national anthem. As we began “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles/Über alles in der welt...” we felt the conversational buzz on the terrace stop short. In the silence the scraping of chairs at a nearby table of husky young men sounded like shrieks as they stood up, staring at us. We hadn’t meant it, but we insulted them, and knew it. We left abruptly, finding out later they were members of Würzburg’s soccer team. “They would have thrown us over the wall,” Murray said.

National anthems can touch the deep shadows of our psyches. Everyone remembers the handsome young German boy singing in “Cabaret,” as his sentimental song bends slowly away from proud patriotism to Nazi aggression. It’s dismaying to see our president fanning divisiveness within his own people as he rants against our athletes kneeling during “The Star Spangled Banner” in peaceful protest. This amounts to just another in a long list of racial slurs that, we have to say, have helped bring Trump to the presidency: Begin with the “birther” lies about Barack Obama; his fight with Khizr and Ghazal Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq; the Muslim ban and the border cruelty, not to mention “Mexican rapists” and “shithole countries” — all of these and dozens more are lightly disguised excuses to stir up racial fear and hate. Listen to the crowds roar as he goes on the attack. In comparison to Trump’s fans, the football players are pussycats.

The successive stanzas of “The Star Spangled Banner” have enough racism in them to show where Francis Scott Key stood on this issue (and, disappointingly, our great novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, named after the anthem writer, casually expressed some of those popular prejudices) — but that wasn’t what the athletes were protesting. It’s commonly accepted that there’s some prejudice damaging to blacks in our city, state, and federal governments, and to kneel in protest against these, whether it’s police brutality, housing and education difficulties, or voting restrictions, seems — whether you agree with these beliefs or not — both a peaceable and reasonable way to bring problems to our attention. They’ve made it clear they’re not protesting their anthem, or their flag. They’re protesting our country’s unequal distribution of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Compared to a good number of our athletes, these are the mature and responsible ones.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

—Both quotes from “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key

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