Let me take you back for just a moment to the early 1990s. I'm in history class, and the teacher plays an audio clip of something I've never heard before: A recording of Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem at Woodstock.
You've probably heard it. It's out there. Way, way out there. He turned the "Star-Spangled Banner" into a protest song.
And it made me mad. Really mad. I thought it was incredibly disrespectful.
Now, at the time, I'm not quite the caricature of a young conservative that Michael J. Fox played as "Alex P. Keaton" in "Family Ties". But I'm not far from it. At the time, I'm planning my Eagle Scout project. I'm starting to read columnists like George Will. I'm always staking out what I think is the "conservative" position in classroom debates.
But there's another song I'm hearing a lot at the time that bothers me, too, and it's Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA". If you remember the first Gulf War, you almost certainly remember hearing that song repeated endlessly, almost like it was the soundtrack to Desert Storm.
Greenwood's song bugs me for three distinct reasons. First, I just don't like country music. Second, it drives me bonkers when people slaughter the rules of grammar and use phrases like "ain't no doubt I love this land".
But the third and most important reason I'm bothered by Greenwood's song is that I think it's taking up space that should be occupied by more traditional songs -- like the national anthem itself. There are people all around me who can sing every lyric along with Greenwood, but who don't know a lick of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, just for example. And when Greenwood's song starts showing up in all kinds of places -- like in the middle of baseball games -- people start to treat it like the anthem, standing and removing their hats.
But it's not the national anthem! It's a song a guy released in 1984 as a commercial artist. To me, especially at the time, the more artificial respect we start to pay to a song that doesn't have a real history, the less respect we pay to the real national anthem.
You may recall that it's also the time when Roseanne Barr made a fool of herself by wrecking the national anthem at a Padres game. I think you could have found everyone in America who would have defended that abomination of hers and fit them inside an '89 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
So that's how I'm feeling in the early 1990s. I want nothing but the strictest interpretation possible of the national anthem, I want nothing else daring to compete for the same attention, and I'm pretty sure that if given the opportunity, I'd have added a 21-cannon salute at the end of every performance.
Here's the thing about that interpretation of mine: It was a reaction only to form, not to substance.
If someone owes you $20, you probably don't care whether you get it back in a single $20 note, a couple of $10s, or a few $5s. They could write you a check or use PayPal or Venmo. You probably like one better than another, but they're all pretty interchangeable because they all stand for the same thing and are functionally identical. Now, if they try to give it to you in pennies or in Bitcoin, you might get mad...and if they gave you 16.67 in Euros (at today's exchange rate of $1.20 to the Euro), you'd probably want to punch them. Those are all the same as $20, but there's clearly something obnoxious to doing it.
But four $5s or one $20? Who cares? It's nothing more than a matter of form -- the substance is exactly the same, and it won't hurt you to get it in either form.
If we spend all of our time obsessed with the form, we might miss the substance. And that, I'm afraid, is what's happening with the President's diversion of completely unnecessary attention to the question of whether NFL players (or anyone else) should take a knee at the national anthem.
It's simply not the President's place to tell NFL owners to fire players for kneeling during the national anthem, like he did in Alabama yesterday. He's centered entirely on the form -- and deliberately looks the other way at the substance.
The national anthem and the flag are forms. But the substance is the Constitution. Or, more precisely, the ideas enshrined in it (and its inseparable predecessesor, the Declaration of Independence) about the dignity of the individual, about human liberty, and about the relationship between people and their government.
That's why it's bothered me for a long time that we pledge allegiance to the flag, not the Constitution. Flags and anthems are empty vessels -- not meaningless vessels, not at all, but empty ones. Ones that can be filled by whomever holds them at the time. That's why the anthem could be a protest song when executed by Jimi Hendrix and a stirring work of pride when Wayne Messmer belts it out at Wrigley Field before a Cubs game. That's why the flag means something different when it's on a sticker that says "Made in the USA" than when it's draped across a casket.
So, at heart, I'm still personally a purist. I don't like little American flags on toothpicks when we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July, because I don't think they should be thrown away. I don't want to hear anyone showboating when they get to "land of the free" in the middle of the anthem. And I don't think that it's particularly productive to take a knee in the middle of the anthem in order to bring attention to your protest.
But these are things I don't like. They're forms. What really bothers me is when I find out that 37% of Americans can't name a single one of the five rights in the First Amendment. Or when people don't understand basic principles like the separation of powers in government, the presumption of innocence in criminal law, or the notion that government doesn't give us our rights but merely exists in order to secure the rights that exist before and above government.
NFL owners are free to do what they want, subject to the terms of the agreements they have made openly and fairly with their employees. Players have the freedom to do the same on their end of the same bargains. And fans have those freedoms, too.
But no President should take too lightly the responsibility that goes with the office -- not to tell us what is patriotic or not, nor to whip up a mob frenzy in order to get someone fired. The job isn't to grandstand on matters of form, but rather to act on substance. Get those right, and the vessels will fill themselves.