By J. Michael Willard
Okie From Muskogee
“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightning is still the biggest thrill of all” — Merle Haggard.
I no longer believe — if I ever did — in the mantra “my country right or wrong.” That’s a rabbit hole of contradictions and skewed values, having scant relevance to patriotism.
Also, I’m not really an Okie, though I have an affinity for Oklahoma, a place I lived in my youth.
The empirical evidence suggests the US has been wrong, horrendously so when you consider the debacle of Vietnam; our 17-year war, Afghanistan, and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq.
In a different vein, looking both backward and forward, there was the election of Donald Trump, the war on immigrants, the attacks on a free press, ignorance of climate change, tax inequality and trade war nonsense.
In other words, the mistakes fell like acid rain over the nearly 50 years since the late balladeer Merle Haggard penned an anthem/anti-protest song for the so-called “silent majority.”
On balance, though, the scales are weighted to America being right more than wrong, which makes us who we are today as a country and why Trump’s approval rating is below 50 per cent.
Looking back,I had a sliver of a childhood in a place called Gene Autry, Okla., population 200 at the time. We lived in the cocoon of a small trailer which I often cite as evidence of my exaggerated humble bona fides.
Though I never met Haggard in my Nashville days writing a country music column, I once saw him perform during a rodeo intermission with Loretta Lynn in Frankfort, Ky. He was a favorite.
During the Vietnam War, I sat on the sidelines — married with child was the deferment — but tried mightily to get to the war as a reporter for a wire service. But, in the final analysis, I neither served nor really protested the war outside of coffee table tête-à-têtes.
I regret not choosing either direction. Surely there is only a slight difference between my deferment and Donald Trump’s bone spur draft escape. It’s that famous distinction without a difference.
As we grow older, we continue to rationalize. My home front job was writing history as it happened as a newsman, covering civil rights, space launches, politics and the music scene. It wasn’t difficult or dangerous duty, merely fascinating.
I once interviewed the parents of the first soldier to die in Vietnam at their Livingston, Tenn. home. It was heartbreaking. We ate homemade vegetable soup around the dinner table. The soldier’s high school year book read: “Ambitions unlimited.” Pictures of the soldier, Tom Davis, were above the fireplace.
These are all, though tangentially, elements in my thought about “my America, right or wrong.” In my view, the phase smacks of overblown nationalism, a term Trump embraces.
Perverted nationalism saw Jews die in gas chambers, Muslims slaughtered in Bosnia, and the ugliness of Nazis marching in Charlottesville. It is why at a worldwide public relations agency in the 90s I refused to work on an account pushing a Constitutional amendment making it a crime to burn Old Glory.
While I wouldn’t burn the flag we salute, I support the right to do so tied to a moral-based cause, just as I also back the right of a football player to take a knee during the anthem.
Symbolism is important, but it is what’s in hearts and minds and not a piece of cloth that matter or whether someone stands during a song actually written by a slave holder.
Haggard made a lot of money off “Okie”. Ironically, times and life somersault with some predictability.
The song proclaimed: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” Haggard later shared tokes with Willie Nelson, and more states legalize weed each year.
I am also not — what once was called — a peacenik. I was for Bush №1’s smack down of Saddam, and was a cheerleader for Bush №2’s Iraq invasion. I, like others, had been convinced there were weapons of mass destruction. There weren’t.
Then, and now, the words of pacifist, Bertrand Russell, seem appropriate.
“When crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to cheer … an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked twenty-five miles that day.”
In later life, Haggard had an attitude adjustment about his “Okie” song. He, in essence, repudiated it. He sang it with a measure of sarcasm; and, in the end, doffed his hat to show his longish hair.
His words: “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool… and most of America was under the same assumptions I was.
“I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now.”
Yes, Merle, we’re all a little different now.