Anthems, Flags, Kneeling, and Patriotism
by Kenneth J. Uva
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Sinclair Lewis
"We're gonna break your window." (Said in response to a decal on my car incorporating the American flag and the peace symbol during the Vietnam war.)
Events of the past week have once again raised issues that come to the surface periodically in the US--what exactly is the meaning of "patriotic" symbols and gestures? What role do the flag, the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem play in our American lives? What is someone protesting when they challenge these symbols?
The current controversy started when one football player knelt in protest over police treatment of African Americans. Obviously, Colin Kaepernick believes that the national anthem is an important symbol since he used it to make his point. President Trump sees it as an important symbol since he used these incidents to attack those who protested, saying they should be fired and by firing up an Alabama audience with a speech about the flag and what should be done with those who don't "respect" it.
As we have seen with regard to football players kneeling, rather than standing, for The Star-Spangled Banner, these symbols mean different things to different people. What we do know, however, is how they can stir passions.
It is time, perhaps, to discuss exactly what the flag, the national anthem, and the pledge actually represent. The facile answer is that they stand for our country and for patriotism. The slightly less facile answer is that they represent "American values." Here, then, is a good starting point to look into these matters. What are "American values." Ask most Americans and they will say something like "freedom" and "equality." Yet these are vague words that mean different things to different people. When I was growing up and my father was only 10 years or so back from World War II, to me American values meant freedom from fascist oppression. Southern segregationists, on the other hand, waived the American flag in their rallies against civil rights and school desegregation. George Wallace saw freedom as the absence of a federal government telling a state that it must admit an African American to the university. During the Vietnam war, the flag was waved by those who supported the war. There were the people who considered themselves patriots who at times physically beat up peace demonstrators in the name of patriotism. If one watches the current Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam war, the real patriots were those who tried to stop a war that was based upon lies by those who prosecuted the carnage knowing the war could not be won. How truly patriotic were those who sent American troops to die or be maimed, or who caused the deaths of untold numbers of Vietnamese?
Patriotism and its symbols is strongly-felt rallying point for many of the American people but has often been wielded as a cynical smokescreen by those in power. For those of us who remember, "America, love it or leave it," and support for the "boys" were popular bumper stickers meant to counter antiwar sentiment in the Vietnam war era.
What, really, is "patriotism?" It is easy to claim to be patriotic if it means loyalty to the "country" in the abstract. But the country is made up of people with different ideas, of different religions and colors and sexuality. How much talk of patriotism and to "Make American Great Again" is actually directed against a large portion of the population? There is a large contingent of people, supported by the Trump Administration, who are arguing before the Supreme Court for their right not to serve gay people. The administration is trying to get rid of Dreamers, people who were brought here illegally as children but who have led clean productive lives in the US. I was at Battery Park this weekend and could swear the Statue of Liberty was weeping.
I consider myself a patriotic American. My patriotism extends to those who have not been treated equally due to their sex, their sexuality or race, who might lose healthcare, who are victims of economic inequality, and who are not able to partake in all the good stuff we expect as Americans.
You can't say you love your country yet hate half the people in it. If our patriotic symbols stand for anything, they stand for the right to protest, to disagree with the conventional wisdom, and to rattle cages. This country got its start by those who rattled the cage. And the cage was rattled by abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights fighters, and feminists, and even a football player.