I have always loved America’s national anthem. Not because it’s a particularly good song, or because of the story behind it. I love it because it’s unique, as far as I know, in that it ends with a question:
Oh say, does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
In the poem by Francis Scott Key, the question is literal. Has the enemy managed to overtake the fort and lower the American flag? This is no longer the right question. America has become the most militarily powerful country in the world, despite our inability to occupy and rebuild countries. Our flag is not only still there, it is everywhere.
The question no longer involves the status of the flag, but the nature of what lies beneath it. Is the land the flag waves over still the land of the free? Is it still the home of the brave?
America has never lived up to its aspirations. It has fallen down in real and serious ways. Its foundation involved the sanction of slavery: one of the greatest evils on this earth. The defense of that slavery gave birth to American racism, which continues to haunt our country in more and more obvious ways. We acquired the land we live on by systematically breaking signed treaties with indigenous people now relegated to the most worthless acreage of this country.
Despite these failures, the American ideal as articulated through the centuries is a beautiful one. Land of the free. A democratic republic. Rule by the people. Equality of opportunity. We have never lived up to these ideals: so what? It doesn’t invalidate the ideal. It doesn’t make America a thing we shouldn’t strive for.
I love this country. Not, I hope, in a blind or unthinking way. I love what this country says it stands for. I love our efforts to get there. I believe in the abstract possibility of America, the shining city on a hill, a land with the right kind of freedom filled with people brave enough to keep it.
Today, people across this nation will ask the most important question a republic can ask itself: how are we doing? What kind of country does this flag fly over today?
The answer is, increasingly: a broken one. The state of the union is fractured. That star-spangled banner waves over children separated from their families, possibly forever, still. It waves over an increasingly polarized, factionalized population that can’t agree on basic facts, never mind a path forward. It waves over creeping fascism, over street brawls, over increasingly loud speculation over how long this country can continue to function in this way.
It waves over a country that would no longer allow my father, an immigrant and a patriot, to enter it.
I love this country. I love our ugly flag, despite its capture as a symbol by far-right elements who don’t deserve it and never have. I don’t want to feel the way I feel. I don’t want to answer the National Question this way.
As the rockets glare red tonight, I will take off my hat sing of rockets and bombs. In the twilight’s last gleaming, I will proudly hail the symbol of the country we wanted to be. The country we could be. The country we should strive to be.
And then, tomorrow, I will go back to thinking about what country I might flee to, if things continue as they are.