Moratorium on bumper-sticker patriotism.

If there is one thing that we Americans have proved, it is that right now we can’t handle symbolism responsibly. If we can’t do any better than we have been doing during the past couple of weeks maybe we need a one-year moratorium on playing the national anthem before sporting events, and even on such things as flying the United States flag at Fourth of Judy parades.

During the moratorium we can commit ourselves to relearning what our flag, and this country, represent. Perhaps with a little study and reflection we can restore the status of the flag to the symbol of unity and common purpose that it is intended to be, and get past being so upset when someone decides to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem.

The nastiness surrounding the decision by many NFL players to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem before NFL games two weeks ago to protest racially-motivated policing and other racial inequities in this country was troubling. Of course, one of the primary reasons that it was troubling was because it was provoked by the President of the United States, who turned a minor protest by a handful of black players into a major racial controversy by calling the protesters sons of bitches who should be fired by team owners.

Another reason that it was troubling was because of the tendency of those who object to the form of the protest to see it as an attack on the flag that is celebrated by the National Anthem, and therefore an attack on the country itself. Was the protest intended to be a criticism of this country? Of course, but since when is criticism tantamount to disloyalty?

Why have some Americans taken personal offense at other Americans who allegedly “disrespect” the United States flag by refusing to stand up when the National Anthem is played?  The answer is that those who find offense are too focused on the flag as symbol and, in my opinion, have lost sight of what that symbol represents.

The Vietnam War changed forever my feelings about patriotic symbols, including the flag. In 1968, there was a highly-publicized flag burning in New York’s Central Park in protest of the Vietnam War. I, like most others, was appalled. Years later, I learned that at about the same time as the flag-burning protest in Central Park, American military leaders and politicians were concluding that the Vietnam War could not be won. Nevertheless, another 27,000 service members were sent to their deaths in Vietnam.

You tell me where the greater sin lay. I’ve never viewed flag burning in the same way, and have a hard time worrying about whether symbols of anything are being treated with the proper respect. It just seems to me that there are more important things to worry about than symbolism – like the lives of American soldiers, sailors and airmen.

As any psychologist or anthropologist will attest, symbols can evoke powerful emotions, and can be very powerful tools. The power of a symbol like a flag comes from the fact that it does not convey an explicit message – the flag is a blank slate and it stands for whatever the individual believes that it stands for.  It is a empty vessel generally filled more with emotion than with ideas – or ideals.

Consequently, both white people who hate black people and black people who hate white people can “love” the flag. People of disparate points of view can rally around the flag, each believing that the flag represents his or her own point of view. Try rallying people around the concept of the First Amendment, however, and you get what you have now with the anthem kneeling: An ugly, racially-tinged division of opinion. A person’s emotional response to the flag is not diluted by critical thinking, which is why it can be so powerful.

Ask people what the flag means to them, and they usually will come up with what appear to be reasonable answers. “Freedom” is the most common response.

It is when you dig a little deeper that things get ambiguous. Freedom for whom and from what? The freedom of same sex couples to marry? The freedom of African-Americans from racial discrimination? The freedom of transgender females to use the women’s bathroom? It is the emotional charge attached to the word, just like the emotional charge attached to the flag, that matters – you can’t get yourself all fired up when you’re engaged in thought about what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really means.

I have developed an especial disgust for bumper-sticker patriotism: All sizzle and no steak, a mile wide and an inch deep – worthless. You can cheat on your taxes, dodge the draft, and never do one damn thing for the common good of the people of this country, but if you stand when the National Anthem is played, you’re a patriot? I don’t think so. That’s not an adequate standard.

Not everyone who objects to football players kneeling during the National Anthem is a bumper-stick patriot, but more than a few are, including President Donald Trump. This man doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything the flag stands for, and he is going to lead the charge by “true Americans” against anthem-kneelers? Terrific.

And where did the nonsense come from that kneeling during the National Anthem dishonors members of the military and law enforcement officers? I am a veteran, and the grandson, son, son-in-law, nephew, brother, cousin, father and father-in-law of veterans. I don’t take offense, and I say this to veterans and active-duty military: Don’t let yourself be used. Those NFL players who knelt during the National Anthem, many of whom have beloved relatives who have served or are serving in the military, respect you. None of us have any special claim on the flag, and this isn’t about you or me.

As for law enforcement officers, if you treat citizens the same regardless of color, then this isn’t about you, either. If, on the other hand, you are a bigot and mistreat citizens because of their skin color – and there are still far too many police officers in this country who do so – then the protest is about you. If it stings a bit, good.  Maybe that will help motivate you to change.

I love the reaction by NFL fans who object to the protests because “they go to games to be entertained, not to be subjected to players’ political opinions.”  So they prefer that protests take place where they can readily be ignored?  At least they’re being honest.

There is nothing new about protests in this country, nor is there anything new about people being offended by those protests, sometimes vehemently. What is worrisome about the current situation is that it is being exploited by a president to promote racial animus and to deepen racial divisions in this country as a way of reinforcing the loyalty to him of his alt-right base. I believe that we need to immunize ourselves from the virus of hatred that he is trying to spread with the recognition that the flag was never intended to be an object of worship and that, when divorced in our minds from the principles and values that it represents, it is nothing more than a piece of cloth.

The flag, above all else, is a symbol of national unity. Black football players kneeling during the anthem are trying to tell the rest of us that we are not as united as we need to be, and that we are being driven apart by racially-biased policing.

We don’t have to believe that either their message or their manner of delivering it is correct, but we at least should pay enough attention to determine for ourselves whether these players are identifying a problem in this country that needs fixing. Getting all worked up because of the manner of their protest, and allowing ourselves to be duped into a racial war-of-words (or worse) by our draft-dodging, blowhard president, isn’t the answer and solves absolutely nothing.

October 2, 2017

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