Much of the rhetoric about protesting during the American national anthem assumes that the song is a statement about our country, a declaration of allegiance, an honoring of its history. That’s a natural assumption to make, because for nearly every national anthem, that assumption is true.
There are over 200 countries on Earth, each with its own national anthem. I looked up all of them, with their translations into English.
Every single one of these anthems, save one, is a series of statements about its country: I love my country, here are some nice things about my country, I would die for my country, here are the ideals of our country, I honor those before me who fought for my country, God bless our country, etc.
A small handful of these anthems (e.g. Czechia, Denmark, Iraq, Italy) don’t just make statements, but also ask a question within the song. But those questions are just a minor part of the song. The bulk of those songs are still statements.
There’s only one anthem that is not primarily a series of statements about its country. There’s only one national anthem that is structured in the form of a question: the national anthem of the United States of America.
When you stand up before a sporting event and sing The Star-Spangled Banner, you aren’t making a declaration. You’re asking this:
…does that star-spangled banner yet wave
o’er the land of the free
and the home of the brave?
In other words: Is our country a free country? And do we have the courage it takes to be free?
If there is such a thing as American Exceptionalism, something that sets us apart from all those other nations with all those other anthems, it is in those questions, in the repeated asking of them, in the dissatisfaction with the status quo, in the demand for improvement, in the insistence of staring our problems square in the eye and being brave enough to take them on.
This is where I take issue with people like Drew Brees, who claim that the national anthem is not the time for protest. For every other national anthem on earth, that’s probably true. But for ours, for the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, resisting such rote declarations is exactly what the song itself is asking you to do.
If you want freedom, if you want to be a free country, you have to constantly ask yourself if you are free. And you also have to have the courage to answer that question honestly. You have to be brave enough to say no, we are not free, when the easy thing to do would be just to say yes and move along and not make any trouble.
Now to be accurate, the Star-Spangled Banner is not entirely a question. The longer, original poem has verses that are statements. And there is one section of the Star-Spangled Banner as sung that is not in the form of a question, either:
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thru the night that our flag was still there.
But even that one statement in a sea of questions is a statement in favor of questioning our freedom.
Freedom is difficult. If freedom was easy, every single one of those older countries would have come up with it first. Freedom is hard because it requires us to trust other people, many of whom may do things with that freedom that we don’t like. The temptation is always there to put a stop to those things we don’t like, to prevent the things we fear. The desire to control other people is everpresent. Yes, sometimes those things we fear are truly dangerous, and ought to be stopped. But it’s not the act of stopping or not stopping those dangerous things that kills freedom. It’s the act of preventing the fight. And so the only true proof that freedom is alive is if the red glare of protest is shining against the forces of control.
Now this is not to say that every protester is right. If you have a protest and a counterprotest, one of them must be wrong. The content of each protest must be judged on its own merits. But the timing? The timing is never better than when we are engaged in the ritual questioning of our own freedom, in the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner.