The Flag Stands For Our Right Not to Stand

A year ago, when I wrote this short post about Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest, I never would’ve guessed that we would still be talking about this issue a year later, or that the President of the United States would be using it as yet another wedge to divide America. But here we are.

During his rally in Alabama Friday night, President Trump said: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!'”

Then as he does, he doubled down. On Saturday, he tweeted:

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect….our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Sunday brought us this:

“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”

He added fuel to the fire by “withdrawing” the invitation to the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House and meet with him.

“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!”

And in doing so, he has now escalated this protest beyond the narrow (but important) issue of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and racially motivated police behavior to one that encompasses everything from athletes’ First Amendment rights to his own noxious comments after the Charlottesville tragedy and his tacit support of the Alt-Right by his association with the likes of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and the rest of his dangerous divisive actions.  He has now turned the act of watching sports into a referendum on his presidency. Today, starting with the London game between Baltimore and Jacksonville and continuing on for the rest of the day, more and more players on more teams chose to kneel today than before.

The polarization of every issue in our society these days is forcing everyone to take sides, to line up behind or against a team or a player, a celebrity, musician, music genre, newspaper or TV station, even a storm or hurricane.

We’ve got to move beyond “taking sides.” We have to look at the issue itself, and examine it on its merits.

As is so often the case, in an attempt to justify their position in defense of one side or another in these idiotic disagreements, people often reveal the failure of their own logic.

The confusion here is epitomized by one tweet I read this morning. In response to the Seattle Seahawks’ statement of solidarity with their players, Paula R said she disagreed with players’ decisions to kneel. When asked why, she responded with this:

“As an American & daughter of a vet, who fought for all of our rights, I am offended by the site of athletes kneeling.”

I hope that if she had had a chance to think about her words before responding, she might have chosen to answer in a different way. But that one sentence reveals her confused thinking. Put in different words, Paula just said “My father fought to preserve Americans’ rights, including the right of free speech and self-expression, and I’m offended by people exercising that right.” How can someone get it so wrong? Why on earth would she be offended by someone exercising the very rights her father fought for?

I think what she was trying to convey was that in choosing not to stand for the Anthem, these athletes are disrespecting what the Anthem represents, and in Paula’s mind, the flag and anthem symbolize the people who fought for our freedoms.

Maybe Paula and others can be forgiven for thinking this, because our flag is nearly always presented, especially in sports venues, in a military context. At professional games, it’s unfurled over the field and held up by members of the armed forces. It’s marched out and held erect by somber color guards at everything from high school football games to car races. Since September 11th, the flag has been associated with first-responders and police departments, who have themselves become increasingly more militarized.

But I think Paula misunderstands what the flag and our National Anthem symbolize.

Our flag, and the National Anthem that celebrates it, is not only a symbol of the brave men and women who fight our wars and “protect our freedoms.” The flag is a symbol of those freedoms themselves. And one of those freedoms — arguably the most important one is the right of free speech. That is the protection assured to every American to express his or her beliefs and experiences, as well as their disagreement with our government and those who wield power. That right is the very thing that has allowed each progressive generation of Americans to mold our nation into a country that is increasingly fair and just to each and every citizen. The freedom of expression allows our country to continue its evolution towards the promise of a nation that secures the blessings of liberty for each of us and our posterity.

Our history hasn’t been perfect. And it isn’t perfect now. And it’s inherent in each of us to call out our mistakes and to help bring them out into the light so that they can be corrected. We do that by peaceful protest as well as by our art, our words, and our actions which draw each other’s attention to our errors. That’s not disrespectful. That is the very definition of love of our country.

Our vets didn’t just fight and die for the red white and blue cloth that is our flag. Nor in fighting for our country did they fight for the physical land and its geographical boundaries. They fought and continue to fight for the principles embodied in our nation’s history, culture and actions. The very fact that we have a Constitution with a Bill of Rights that includes protections for every individual’s freedom of speech is the very thing that makes the United States something worth fighting for.

It’s important to remember not just what America is — a land of 300 million people and 3 and a half million square miles — but what America stands for. And sometimes what it takes is people refusing to stand to remind us all of that.


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