Volume 3, Issue 18: Wishful Thinking

"Is any song worth singing if it doesn't help?"

I’m told this will be “shared” more if I put this button below. I am not sure why this is necessary, or how this will help, but let’s see if this makes you “share” this more.

Twenty-plus years in this business, and I still have no idea how any of this works.

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For the first 41 years of my life, my thoughts about July 4, America and the flag can be summed up by a line I wrote for Sports On Earth the weekend after Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the first time—before an exhibition game, something only one reporter noticed—and ended up, amazingly, changing the world. I believe standing for the national anthem is a way to honor the principles the flag stands for, even if (especially if) those principles are being trampled on in practice by us flawed, stupid humans, I wrote. I truly believed that. I guess I always had.

I’ve always felt a little insufficiently patriotic. Both my grandfathers were veterans of World War II, and my dad was an Air Force man; my mom admitted she was initially attracted to him mostly because of how he looked in his uniform. I remember as a kid, my great uncle Lotsi, who had survived the infamous Moweaqua Coal Mine Disaster, taking me down to his basement and showing me the bayonet he used to fight in World War II. Lotsi was the sweetest man. His bayonet was dark and stained.

I had a flirtation with the Marines in high school. The recruiter, who had an office right across the mall from the Mister Music CD store, where I bought “The Bends” and “Nevermind,” was a young man with an easy sense of humor, and, out of curiosity and a certain familial guilt—who was I to think the rest of my family would fight but I didn’t have to?—I walked in cold to see him one day my junior year of high school. I asked him if the Marines needed writers; someone in the Marines had to be in charge of writing something, right? He told me they could probably find something, here, just read these pamphlets, what’s your home phone number, let’s stay in touch.

I met with him a few times. He saw a certain hunger in me, and there was a clarity to his approach: Join the Marines and join something larger than yourself. Be a part of something great. I did want to be a part of something great. He was insistent on following up, maybe too insistent, and I noticed that every time he called the house when I wasn’t there, my parents never seemed to leave me the message. Eventually he came by the high school, and when push came to shove, I had to admit to him, to his face, that I just didn’t think the Marines were for me (and vice versa); my family wants me to go to college, man, and I think that’s what I want to do too. He was kind and reasonable about it. Call me if you change your mind. I felt gutted and weak. Even though I didn’t tell my father about the conversation, I still found myself ashamed to show my face at dinner that night.

I love my country, and I am stepped in its traditions of respect. I remember, in college, being at an Illini football game with a group of friends, when the national anthem began playing. I stood up, at full attention, and put my hand over my heart. I looked to my left and saw two of my friends sitting down and rolling their eyes.

Get up! I snarled at them, with enough intensity that they actually did it. They all made fun of me that night at the bar, the downstate yokel showing his ass around the more savvy and cynical Chicago city (actually suburban) kids, but I felt proud that I’d stood my ground. Even as I’d gotten more educated and learned about all the country’s flaws, learned that we weren’t always the good guys like I’d been taught in grade school, I wasn’t going to give up on the ideal of what this country stood for, what it could be, at its best. And I sure wasn’t going to forget all the members of my family who fought for it, and the members of my extended family who still were fighting for it. And to me, part of the tradeoff of living in this country was showing respect for its ideals even when the people in charge of it betrayed them. You stood and put your hand over your heart not for what your country was, but for what you wanted it to be. What you knew it should be. I didn’t find the flag sacrosanct, or worthy of unfettered, unquestioned respect. But I did find it a bit of a North Star: You looked to it as a guide back toward ideals, a path to return to when you inevitably lost your way. If you didn’t have at least some faith in those ideals, and investment in those rituals … what was there to have faith in?

I believed this, truly and deeply, and I kept it near as I become more politically active in the years to come, particularly when I signed up to cover the 2016 elections for Bloomberg, an assignment I approached with earnestness and sincere purpose. Even those I personally disagreed with, I reasoned, loved this country and wanted the best for it. The job of a politician, as I saw it, is to get screamed at by everyone, all day, for little or no money, all for the sake of trying to make the world a little bit better. I felt I owed them the seriousness of their own cause. I, the idiot, believed.

And then the election happened. And I started noticing something: I wasn’t putting my hand over my heart for the national anthem anymore. I was tapping my feet silently, waiting for it to be over. And I didn’t feel particularly ashamed about it this time.

Gallop runs an annual poll on Americans’ pride in their country on July 4. This year, not the least bit surprisingly, it is at an all-time low.

This year, because of the pandemic, there won’t be many formal celebrations of the Fourth, few massive fireworks shows, other than the amateur ones terrifying your dogs and babies every night. This restraint is prudent, health-wise, but it also seems appropriate. Nothing feels particularly celebratory at this moment, least of all American exceptionalism. Perhaps you do not agree that the White House has become overrun with sloth, avarice, corruption and rot, and perhaps you do not wish someone else were in charge. That can be a matter of interpretation and personal inclination—I mean, I guess it can?—but I do not know how you talk yourself into thinking that this is a good thing:

That chart is a week old. Does it seem like matters have gotten better to you over the last seven days?

It is one thing for our country and its citizens, particular its white ones, to reckon with a rose-colored (and school-system-abetted) viewpoint of their nation’s history and how wrong so much of it is. It is another to look at a collective experience, a global test, that every country on the planet is facing right now and realize that we are handling it worse that every other country. We might not be the best in everything. But we’re certainly not supposed to be the worst.

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around. But perhaps that is only because of the lies we were all telling ourselves in the first place.

The question is: What now? Is it possible, at what unquestionably is one of the lowest moments in this country’s history, to pull out of this? It would require us to do countless incredibly difficult things at once during a time when we seem in capable of doing even one.

Do I think that Joe Biden and whoever he brings into his administration will be able to do all these things immediately? Obviously not. But it is a start. It will make a difference, in the words of Ricky Roma …

We have so much to fix. But it will make a difference not to be a global joke.

Even saying this, how hard it is to feel pride in my country on this Independence Day, I am ashamed. I am ashamed for my grandparents, soldiers, proud men who fought for their country and watched their friends die for their country. I am ashamed for the men my father drank with at the V.F.W., their eyes often sunken from horrors I cannot fathom. I am ashamed for my grandmother, a loud and proud woman who had very different views of what a wife and mother was supposed to be like in Moweaqua, Illinois.

I am ashamed for anyone who sacrificed, or fought, or volunteered, or ran raffles, or held bake sales, or phone banked, or marched, or strove to change anything or to make any sort of difference in the name of a country whose ideals they invested so much physical and emotional capital in . I am ashamed we have screwed this up so badly.

But this isn’t our first screwup. It’s just the first one I’ve been aware enough to realize I have real stakes in, as a parent, as an adult, as a citizen who wants things to be better—who needs them to. And what I’ve realized, in this dark time, is that I’m not ready to give up.

I know all our faults, so many more than I did growing up, or even I knew in the last decade. I know we are built on a shoddy foundation, that so much of what we rest our national value set on was forged out of oppression and bondage. I know that Donald Trump is but a symptom of our nation’s ills, the sort of doltish, con man monster that this only this country could uniquely produce. I know that we mess everything up all the time, and will do so many times in the future.

But when you really break me down on it: I do still believe in those ideals. I think we are capable of so much more, I think we have proven it and I think we can do so again. I think we will look back at this dark day as a pivot point. There is proof of this already. To see the national conversation on race over the last month, to see how much it has shifted, to see people start to show not just an ability to understand but a willingness to, to see how the jig is starting to be up on the con … it gives me hope. It really does. We really dug ourselves a massive hole here. But I believe we can dig out. And I believe we will.

I know I say this a lot, but it’s a driving force behind this newsletter and just about everything that I do: Someday, my children are going to look back at this point in history and wonder what Dad did, what he stood for, what it was like. Right now, they’re in the other room, playing a video game, relaxing, free of all of this. They’re going to have to face it all someday, like everybody else. I believe it’s going to be better for them then. I don’t know how. I don’t know if we will even deserve it. I believe, though, someday I will stand aside them, proud, with my hand over my heart, again.

But I may have to earn it this time.

A NOTE ON MASCOTS

This week, it looks like a dam is finally about to burst. The Washington Football Team is on the cusp of changing is name, and the Cleveland baseball team is about to do the same. Heck: Maybe Ryan Helsley really did kill the Tomahawk Chop.

I have written about this so many times, often through the lens of my beloved Illini, that I am out of words on the subject. But if you would like to read some of my old ones, you can find them:

At New York. (My last pre-pandemic NYmag sports column, actually.)
At Sports On Earth. (The SoE archive is currently down, but I’m told tech folks are in the process of reconstructing it. For now, that’s an Internet Archive link.)
In this newsletter.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. Ten Tips for Sports Leagues Trying to Return to Play, From Leagues That Have Pulled It Off, New York. Not necessarily saying they should. (Though I do think they should try, as discussed last week.) But these are some tips as to how.

  2. Baseball Year in Review: 1981, MLB.com. This was the last one of this series … unless they shut it down again, I guess.

  3. Whatever It Is, It’ll Be Welcome, Bulldawg Illustrated. I’m trying to do more local stuff, and there ain’t much more “local” than writing for the weekly Georgia football mag. I’ll enjoy this. (If there’s a season.)

  4. This Week in Genre History: Judge Dredd, SYFY Wire. Just to make your day, here is video of Rob Schneider—whom I’ve written about before—falling on his face while filming this movie.

  5. Will Ferrell Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with the amusing, charming Eurovision movie.

  6. The Thirty: Make-or-Break Hitters For Each Team in 2020, MLB.com. My first bit of 2020 season, round two, previewing.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discussed Irresistible, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and Manhunter.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, we were gonna tape but I had to cancel. Sorry.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“The Cursed Platoon,” The Washington Post. This story is breathtakingly sad, from start to finish. And I’m sure you need a lot more of that in your life right now.

THIS WEEK’S PIECE OF HANDY ADVICE

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Fewer than usual this week. Forlorn! Send ‘em!

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” Bob Dylan. This album is wonderful. Read Craig Jenkins on why.

The above photo was taken five months, and several lifetimes, ago. Where in the world are we going to be five months from now?

Be safe, all.

Best,
Will