The Singing Policeman
I’ve been a sports fan my whole life. I used to love to go to ballgames. I don’t anymore. I used to have very good season tickets to major college basketball. I’ve given them up.
Oh, I still watch sports on TV – where I can mute the sound or change the channel. But I can’t go to live games any more.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but for most of my life standing during the playing of the National Anthem was a rote ritual that never seemed to be anything other than a necessary prelude to the real business of the day: re-creating the ancient experience of rooting for your tribe, identifying with your heroes, fantasizing about being a player yourself and drinking beer. The announcer would ask everyone to “please stand for the playing of the national anthem,” and everyone would do so, fidgeting, looking around, munching their hot dogs, waiting for the actual ritual announcement: “Play ball!”
In later years I would never stand up, and I sometimes got in trouble for my refusal. I enjoyed being a provocateur. I could tolerate the noise level (Stanford’s Maples Pavilion had begun to play unending, loud rock music during basketball timeouts) that prevented me from conversing with the person next to me, but so what? Call me a curmudgeon, but I was there to watch sports, not for casual conversation – and certainly not to participate in Nationalist rituals.
And after 9/11/2001 those rituals became increasingly militaristic, as anyone who watches the pre-game and halftime spectacles at the Super Bowl knows.
A few years ago the Maples PA announcer upped the ante with very specific instructions: “Please stand and remove your hats to honor America during the playing of the national anthem.” Dozens of people in the crowd sang along, with hands over their hearts. This, mind you, was in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, not in a conservative Red state.
At that point the discomfort level overcame both my enjoyment and my mythologist’s detachment. Call me judgmental, oversensitive. I’m guilty as charged: I can no longer compartmentalize my feelings in the America of drone bombings and police murders. Some friends tell me that they honor “what the flag stands for.” My response: the flag symbolizes the nation and the absolute necessity of periodically sacrificing both its scapegoats on the streets and its best and brightest on the battlefields.
I can still enjoy watching on TV, thanks to that precious mute button and the ability to get up and do other things when even the silenced images are too disturbing.
You might be surprised to know that the custom of the playing of the national anthem began only during World War Two. Actually it’s been even longer – eighty years – that fans have sung “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” in the seventh inning.
Now that’s a happy custom, pure corn, with not the slightest nationalistic implication. (By the way, Americans call themselves “patriots” rather than “nationalists.” I prefer the more accurate term). People stood up and stretched because they wanted to, not because they didn’t want to look out of place.
But, again, 9/11 served as a wakeup call to the nation’s gatekeepers. It became necessary to shore up the cracks in the myth of American innocence wherever they might have been appearing, including sports venues. Some bastard had the bright idea of singing “America the Beautiful” in the first half of the seventh inning, ahead of “Take Me Out,” and he was copied everywhere.
Once a baseball tradition is modified, it is nearly impossible to remove the new addition. And so (for me) the seventh inning stretch has become as annoying as those “Please stand” directives.
It’s all summed up in this post-9/11 phenomenon, which is rapidly being cemented as a permanent aspect of the baseball experience: a uniformed policeman doing the singing.
This is a highly charged symbolic image, with multiple levels of meaning:
1 – First responders. Since 9/11 it has become customary, and rightly so, to honor those public servants who do live up to their job titles, many of whom were themselves victims that day. These were true heroes who sacrificed themselves for the greater good in a time when neither politicians nor preachers seem trustworthy any more.
2 – Public order and safety in a time of fear. For older generations, those most susceptible to the Republican fear-mongering, his uniform is reassuring and his singing talent humanizes him. He’s the old-fashioned (white) Irish beat cop – Officer O’Reilly – of a hundred films, who helps old ladies cross the street, brings cats down from tree limbs and never resorts to violence.
3 – The Hangman. Sadly, as I argued in my recent series of blogs (Hands Up – Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus), he has become the sanctioned State killer, with free reign to terminate with extreme prejudice any African-American male he encounters. In dozens of Fergusons around the country he has been enacting the old rituals of human sacrifice.
Perhaps you think I exaggerate. Since I wrote that series I’ve come across two new links. If you choose to watch “Police Gone Wild: Domestic Terrorist Edition” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dj7dj3Ki71A), please understand that these men are enacting our myths for us. Then read “Whistleblower Cop: Fellow Officers Getting ‘Gang Tattoos’ To Celebrate Their Shooting Victims” (http://thefreethoughtproject.com/cops-reportedly-gang-tattoos-count-shooting-victims/) and understand that they know full well that we will never punish them, because we have asked them to behave the way they do.
Ask any African-American if this is something new. Ask yourself what sport in America is really about. Nearly fifty years ago, Eldridge Cleaver saw that when all secretly subscribe to the notion of “every man for himself:”
…the weak are seen as the natural and just prey of the strong. But since this dark principle violates our democratic ideals… we force it underground…spectator sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving.