After church last Sunday my husband Bill and I sat outside our local bookstore reading the New York Times. Bill glanced up from the sports section and said, “I hate all this kneeling during the national anthem. Can’t they protest some other way? I mean, the national anthem,” he added, emphasizing the last two words. “If they don’t like our country, let them get on a plane and go to Australia.”
“Bill, in the ’60s Americans were burning the flag,” I replied.
One of the benefits of getting older is that we begin to understand the wearied cynicism of the book of Ecclesiastes, written by Solomon — how long ago?
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done
Is what will be done.
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Until PBS began airing Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary, “The Vietnam War,” I had almost forgotten how bad the ’60s were.
The counterculture’s mantra, “make love, not war,” had hippies copulating in in the streets. The shocking assassinations, the Cuban missile crisis, war protests, the burning and bombing of campus ROTC buildings, the killings at Kent State, Charles Manson, the upheaval of civil rights, fire hoses and snarling dogs, ceaseless violence and death in Vietnam, the sudden dissolution of moral standards that theretofore had been commonly accepted, and then, the frightening duplicity of Richard Nixon.
I remember thinking, in my inexperienced youth, that “the country was coming apart.” Sound familiar?
Now, though I disapprove of it, the protest of a few athletes kneeling during our national anthem doesn’t get me “all fraught up,” to use a phrase favored by my father. An intransigent Congress, a shoot-from-the-hip president, the poisonous seepage of Islamic extremism throughout the world, war upon war … thank goodness I now possess an experienced core that shrugs and remembers we’ve survived worse.
Yet we do well to care, very deeply, about the issues troubling us and our country, no matter that it has ever been so and will ever be. We suffer in our present moment, and decent people do their best, individually and collectively, to make circumstances better. Just as they have throughout human history.
I’m not suggesting equivalence here, but the pose of football players taking a defiant knee bears a strong resemblance to the depiction of Gen. George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Taking exception to unfair treatment is thoroughly American. Lest we forget, our own Revolutionary War was a violent protest against being viewed as vassals.
As a democracy, we require an agonizingly long time to redress wrongs. Sometimes we need a nudge even to see the problem. Like it or not, protests that provoke outrage get the gears grinding, often more quickly than reasoned discourse.
In one segment of “The Vietnam War,” an American POW recalls that at night, he and his fellow prisoners would softly sing patriotic and spiritual songs. We finally realized, he said, that though we came from different social and economic backgrounds, different races and religions, we were all Americans.
Yes we are, have been, and ever will be. Americans, all.
All is “vanity and grasping for the wind,” Solomon chants throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Despair pervades his worldview. In the last two verses of the book, however, he lifts his head and says the following.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil.
Or as the prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
And to bear in mind that there is nothing new under the sun.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah, and Fairhope, Ala.