Monday, August 17, 2009

On Liberty and the Ballpark

I am the sort of secular humanist who rolls his eyes at those public figures and politicians who feel they must constantly invoke God and proclaim, “God Bless America.” At best, it’s pandering. At worst, it hints at a disregard for separation of Church and State, a principle enshrined in our Constitution and the basis for our most cherished freedom, freedom of conscience. What’s more, it’s annoying.

But I must admit, I have always liked the song God Bless America. Musically, it is superior to both The Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. The former is derived from a popular British drinking song and the latter is almost dirge-like, a plodding number (except, of course, when Ray Charles sings it). It manages to soar in its final verse but it doesn’t succeed nearly as well as the crescendo and finale of God Bless America. Lyrically too, Irving Berlin’s composition enjoys poetic simplicity and a feel that is contemporary, even timeless. It can’t match The Star Spangled Banner for historical authenticity or patriotic expression. (Francis Scott Key did not work on Tin Pan Alley, he really did write his poem aboard a prison ship with live ordinance exploding around him). But it is superior to America the Beautiful, a song weighed down by piety and stodgy phrases. (“and crown they good with brotherhood”).

The singing of “God Bless America” has long been connected with sporting events. There is the great tradition of Kate Smith singing before the home games of the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1980, when the U.S. hockey team upset the Russians in the Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics, the fans in the arena burst into a spontaneous singing of “God Bless America.” It was remarkable. When patriotism wells up in our hearts, when America wants reach for something extra, this is the song that we go to.

And then 9/11. On the day of the tragedy, members of Congress sang God Bless America on the Capitol steps. When professional baseball resumed play, the song was added to the between-innings repertoire. Take Me Out the Ball Game seemed insufficient by itself, and at the same time, frivolous. How could we sing about peanuts and Cracker Jacks when the smoke was still rising from the rubble at Ground Zero? No, we needed something solemn but also uplifting. Something to make us feel good, strong and together. God Bless America seemed the perfect expression of what needed to be expressed. Who can forget the first time they heard the “singing policeman,” tenor, Daniel Rodriguez called upon to sing at Yankee Stadium? Even the most cynical atheist could not hear his soaring rendition and fail to get goose bumps.

Over time, the spontaneous becomes routine and the routine becomes ritual. I was at Citi-Field last month for my first baseball game in some time. The announcement came in the Seventh Inning. “Please stand at attention and remove your hats for the singing of God Bless America.” I found myself wondering, why are we doing this? Of course we’re still at war. The enemies who would destroy America are as threatening as ever. And sure, a baseball audience provides an opportunity for the expressions of national unity. But we’ve already saluted our nation and our flag during the singing of the National Anthem. We already gave cheers of thanks and appreciation for our troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But none of that is enough, it seems. We must also beseech God. It was the first time I ever heard the song that way and I found myself resenting, not so much the song, but the ritual that had been created for it.

Some will say I am overreacting. It’s just a song, not a prayer, right? It’s not as if Major League Baseball, much less the government, is establishing religion in the ballpark. Don’t we do this same thing, more or less, for the National Anthem? Well, not exactly. First of all, the song was indeed written as a prayer. Irving’s Berlin’s introductory lyrics make that clear (“as we raise our voices, in a solemn prayer.”) And when we remove our hats and stand at attention for the National Anthem, it is our nation’s flag, and its ideals, we are saluting. When we are asked to show the same reverence for God Bless America, who is it we are saluting? Clearly, it is not just a song. And if you happen to be one of the tens of millions of Americans who do not believe in God, (or even if you do, but don’t care to invoke his blessing to be bestowed on a single nation during the seventh inning stretch), the social pressure may be very real.

In John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty we are warned about the dangers of this form of social coercion:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
No, I am not accusing Major League Baseball or the New York Mets of instituting tyranny at the ballpark. Nobody is forced to stand at attention, or salute or sing, but there is an expectation of conformity, an expectation that grates against individual conscience. Now we all face pressure to conform in various aspects of our lives, but this here is not the routine sort of pressure we face when society chooses the fashions and tastes it prefers. Here, we are pressured to publically acknowledge God and beseech Him to bless the nation. It is the exact kind of social coercion that J.S. Mill described. One can easily imagine the social cost you’d pay if you dissented, if you failed to conform or actually sought to “disestablish” the singing of God Bless America. At a minimum, your patriotism would be questioned, your motives impugned.

In most ballparks, the singing of God Bless America is now an occasional feature rather than an everyday one, But that isn’t because ballparks were persuaded to honor freedom of conscience. It’s because they’ve decided to roll out their sacred number on Sundays and special occasions. To be fair, you do have the choice. You are not obligated invoke the Deity in the seventh inning. You can stay home or you can ignore the announcement, remain seated, leave your hat on, fold your arms and hope nobody notices or, if they do, that they respect your principles and in no way regard your choice as one that reflects poorly on your patriotism, your character or your standing in the community. But why bother? It’s so much easier to simply conform. It’s only a song. Just sing along or, alternatively, mouth the words and convince yourself that they have no meaning. What’s the harm? Peanuts and cracker jacks are just around the corner.

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