The first time I stood for the anthem after moving to America, I was surrounded. I stood in Maples Pavilion, home of the Stanford basketball team. All around me, hats came off. Hands covered hearts. Eyes tilted upward, aimed at the most beautiful flag in the world — and perhaps at something higher still. I was immediately nervous. Confronting me was a stark question: Is this song my song?
It would never have occurred to me, as it has to many ironically detached left-wing commentators, to dismiss “The Star-Spangled Banner” as so much jingoistic swill or trite pleasantry. These commentators, carrying the recognizable confidence of those who are Americans by birth, betray what a person of the Left would call their “privilege.” They have never felt that they lacked a country to call home.
You will not hear Colin Kaepernick diminish the anthem in this way. The reason he does not stand is that he knows how important standing is. Many of the athletes taking a knee say that they can no longer rise for a nation that oppresses black people. To stand would be to affirm America as it is, thus giving the country a pass it doesn’t deserve.
They are right about one thing: Standing for one’s anthem is both a political and a personal statement. It begins as an identification: I am an American. These people are my people. This flag is our flag, and this song is our song. Yet what these activists recognize, and some conservatives miss, is that standing for the anthem also means something more. This song, this flag, this country is worth honoring, it silently attests.
“I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy,” wrote Eric Reid, a San Francisco 49er who knelt with Kaepernick. Even if you disagree with his judgment, take him at his word: It is because the anthem protesters want to be able to stand and honor our country someday that they kneel today.
Many immigrants will join me in seeing things differently. I confess that I will never forget that day at Maples Pavilion, when Stanford almost blew an exhibition match against Cal Poly Pomona. My heart had given its answer, and I knew there was no looking back: These people are my people, this flag is our flag, and this song is our song.
Standing for the anthem for the first time as an American of the heart, I experienced an immersion. Though I held only a student visa, I felt that I had joined a people. And as they stood next to me — eyes and hearts all fixed on the same objects as mine — I somehow knew that they had joined me.
Immigrants often find the whole experience — with all its small, unnoticed customs — salvific. The recitation of the anthem — an example of what philosopher Albert Borgmann would call a “focal practice” — liberates individuals from loneliness, making them feel fully present in their community. The message: You are home now. The subtext: You are free now.
This is not to be underestimated. New Americans have every reason to feel conspicuous. Some look different and have accents. Nearly all have left behind loved ones, leaving them socially isolated. Amid their struggles, they may have trouble recognizing the person in the mirror as an American.
But nobody stands alone. The national anthem is sung among countrymen, in large crowds. This allows individual voices to disappear, or rather, merge. The resulting voice has no color or accent, and the immigrant is every bit a part of it as anyone else is.
I fear, however, that my generation of immigrants and potential immigrants may be the last to benefit in this way from “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If the national anthem becomes a proxy for the culture war — Trump versus Kaepernick, real Americans versus fake ones, bigots versus progressives, or however you choose to frame it — it will no longer merge the dissonant and hide the conspicuous.
The way Americans sang the anthem showed me that the United States possessed something special, something worth honoring.
This will benefit the two tribes, separately, but America will become a far less attractive society to join. Growing up in Canada, I was always jealous of the reverence shown to the U.S. anthem, the American flag, and American soldiers before sports games. Canadians sang, too, but somehow the Canadian voice was always a bit ironic, like we were already hedging and apologizing, showing that we weren’t making a big deal out of our country. Early on, the way Americans sang the anthem showed me that the United States possessed something special, something worth honoring.
National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, one of my favorite conservative commentators, recently mused: “Frankly, I’d rather we didn’t play and sing the anthem before games if we’re doing this BS. Stop making it a political football, I say.” I sympathize with the sentiment, but I cannot join it. Aesthetically and symbolically, Americans’ public celebration of their country pulled me in to celebrate it, too.
Not everyone will be able to join that celebration. Just know that when you stand, some foreigner somewhere is watching. He might be learning to love America.