Entertainment or participation?

Posted: Jul 16, 2002 12:00 AM
ATLANTA -- Have you noticed that people rarely sing the national anthem any more at baseball games and other sporting events? My sense is that we tend to listen while an entertainer sings. Just as, when helping the poor, many of us have moved from active citizens to passive taxpayers, so we practice nonparticipation in singing and maybe lots of other things, as well. That was my nonparticipation hypothesis, anyway, and I tested it on the Fourth of July at three Atlanta landmarks: the Martin Luther King Jr. national historic site, the Jimmy Carter presidential library and Turner Field, the Braves' ballpark. The fine MLK museum tries to engender participation by kids with questions at an introductory exhibit about how young Martin grew up in segregation: "Could you go to the movies? Could you be a city fireman?" (Answers: Not to white-only theaters. No.) But, sadly, the numbers were sparse at the museum and national historic site, which includes King's boyhood home and his tomb. About two dozen cars sat in the parking lot at noon, with visitors confronted by a sign, "Please put valuables in trunk or out of sight." The Carter library/museum was packed, apparently because of a special exhibit of one of the 25 surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence produced by a Philadelphia printer on July 4 and 5, 1776. At 2 p.m., 120 people stood in line to walk by the document. Several said they had heard on television about the temporary exhibit and wanted to do "something meaningful" on the Fourth. Most then wandered over to Carter displays about his major "accomplishments" in office, including "PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST" (oh, really?) and "freedom for the (Iran) hostages with America's honor preserved." (Actually, after well over a year of ineffective Carter actions, Iran released the hostages on Ronald Reagan's Inauguration Day.) Several Georgia teen-agers stood before an exhibit that gives U.S. presidents as many titles as British monarchs: "Peacemaker, Reformer, World Leader, Protector of Resources, Protector of Human Rights ..." They gaped at the ostentation and took turns grandly announcing: "I am President. Bow down." At least they were participating. Before the ballgame at Turner Field, many kids and dads visited the Braves Museum beneath the stands and saw its celebration of patriotic participation. Next to the army uniform of Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn (wounded during World War II) stood his words, "Our country was in trouble, and it was an obligation to fight." Spahn also showed a perspective that major leaguers should take to heart as they decide whether to go on strike next month: "Baseball ... What a great way to make a living. If I goof up, there's going to be a relief pitcher coming in. Nobody's going to shoot me." The Braves game at first displayed evidence for our national movement from participation to entertainment. An entertainer performed the National Anthem, and the scoreboard (unlike the one at University of Texas football games) did not print the words so that people could more readily sing along. Throughout the game, though, the scoreboard did tell fans when to make noise. Fans obeyed. After the game came a good fireworks display and classic patriotic music like "The Stars and Stripes Forever." But then came the song that elicited participation: Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American." Some folks sang the message of defiance: "The flag still stands for freedom, and they can't take that away." Thousands sang the chorus: "And I'm proud to be an American ..." They stood up and sang Greenwood's words: "And I'd gladly stand UP, next to you ..." After that the ice was broken, with Kate Smith's "God Bless America" and other songs becoming community sings. As a massive fireworks burst signaled the finale, the P.A. system played "The Star Spangled Banner" again -- and this time, many were singing along. "O say can you see ..." A lot of people hadn't forgotten the words. They and the ideas they represent were still inside, although rarely summoned to the surface. Maybe we need something special to raise us from our stupor.