I went to a rodeo last Friday night in a small town in upstate New York. There were at least a few hundred people in the grandstands. It was a real rodeo, complete with calf-roping competitions, barrel races, bull-riding and even bucking broncos. And it was kind of fun.
But I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had noticed that I was 1) the only person there not wearing a cowboy hat, 2) quite possibly the only person there who had recently a book and 3) definitely the only person who didn’t sing along when a pretty cowgirl rode a white horse around the ring and held aloft Old Glory as the PA speakers blasted out Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
It got me to thinking about a recent conversation with my son in which he mildly badmouthed the good ol’ U.S.A.and I tried, perhaps not with great success, to explain that there is something that does indeed make this the greatest nation on the planet.
Yes, I told my son, this great land is filled with idiots, assholes and worse. Yes, this is the country that gave us the Ku Klux Klan and the nuclear bomb and Dick Cheney and TV evangelists. But it’s also the country that gave us the Bill of Rights and Pete Seeger and Walt Whitman and…you get my point, and I think my son did, too, that there’s something powerfully good that still draws people here from other lands, and it’s not just the chance to make lots of money.
So, back to the rodeo. The crowd snapped to attention, rose in unison, doffed those cowboy hats and held them to their hearts, and belted out “God Bless the USA” as the cowgirl trotted around the arena with the Stars and Stripes — I had this disconcerting feeling that many of these fine folks thought this was our actual national anthem.
And there, I guess, is the rub – and I don’t mean the special mixture of herbs and spices they rubbed on the barbecue available before a few hours before the rodeo. What I mean is that I don’t think these rodeo fans are bad people. I believe they are mostly well-intentioned. I think their beliefs are sincere and heartfelt. But there’s disconcerting narrowness to the whole thing, a dangerous lack of depth and imagination when each and every person in a crowd of three hundred people knows each and every word of Lee Greenwood’s stupid song, which goes, FYI, like this:
From the lakes of Minnesota
… To the hills of Tennessee
… Across the plains of Texas
… From sea to shining sea
… From Detroit down to Houston
… And New York to LA
Well there’s pride in every American heart
And its time we stand and say..
That I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I gladly stand up . . next to you and defend her still today
Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
God bless the USA
When people sing lyrics like that, and take those words seriously, the danger is that the song will become an anthem of intolerance, ignorance and hatred — in other words, a song that has absolutely nothing to do with what we should really be celebrating on the Fourth of July.