Since its inception, America has shaped world history. Our first achievement was ensuring that its natives were adequately subjugated by infecting them with ghastly maladies like typhoid, smallpox, and lead bullets, then shipping the survivors off to bone-dry, inhospitable deserts otherwise reserved for rattlesnakes and throbbing piles of nuclear waste. (Such policies softened in later years, with the reservations permitted to construct enormous casinos, presumably so their inhabitants could become as corrupt and greedy as the rest of America and thereby stop complaining.)
To be fair, the settling of The West did more than just decimate an entire race, it opened up a new way of life for millions of (white) people. Gold, silver and timber sailed East on the iron rivers called railroads. There was a huge increase in the demand for two-horsepower, multi-passenger wagons, and light, arrow-resistant sleeping bags. And, of course, we now have the spaghetti westerns based on the wild and dangerous myths that sprang up around the dusty, under-civilized, frontier towns of the New West. Bar brawls, gunslingers and mustached sheriffs, an every-man-for-himself, my-gun’s-bigger’n-yours attitude. If, kind visitor, you have been in America for more than a day you will have noticed that this part of the New West spread rapidly east (and north and south). It’s a contagion called pride.
This pride needs constant nurturing, though, and in lieu of a long, rich history with which to impress the world, America instead looks to twin symbols of present and future greatness: Flag and Anthem.
The stars and stripes, “Old Glory,” is an evolving symbol of pride. The stars that once represented the thirteen original states now boast of America’s celebrity culture: for every one movie star you can produce, we already have thirteen. Minimum. The flag is hung over people’s front porches, it is waved at parades, it is saluted by Presidents and girl scouts at rigid attention, and it is draped over the coffins of fallen soldiers. Time and again, politicians have sought laws to protect the flag from ever being burnt or otherwise desecrated in protest, it is so sacred a symbol. And heaven help you if you are caught wearing Stars and Stripes underwear.
The national anthem induces a similar reverence. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand, the furious and colorful patriotism and the tear-jerking, heart-swelling romanticism, escorting each other around America’s baseball fields and opera houses. Should you fail to salute at its rendition, you will be summarily stripped naked, painted yellow and pelted with soggy wieners and buffalo dung. And if, during the depantsing process, you are discovered to be sporting Stars and Bars briefs, call your consulate. And a mortician.
So welcome, friend, but beware the passion of the pride, and be aware that one sunny day, as the band marches past and the cheerleaders flip and twirl before you, a small American flag may appear in your hand as one eye (minimum) starts watering at the first strains of “Oh-oh Say Can You See. . . .”