The controversy over football players kneeling during the national anthem continues to litter Facebook, and infect the coffee conversations of some of my acquaintances. They take great umbrage with high dudgeon stirred in their coffee over the disrespect shown for the flag and the anthem. They bring up the memory of those who have been wounded or died in battle as testimony, but to what? Partly to the respect due the flag and anthem that honors those men and women. Partly to the respect due the men and women whose blood gives meaning to the flag and anthem. It’s a tautology, but a worthy one as far as it goes. I don’t recall it was always that way. Standing for the anthem and saluting the flag as it passed by was simply what we did, without giving it much thought. For my generation it wasn’t patriotism as much as custom and good manners. For my dad, the WWII generation, the flag and anthem meant more. They brought back memories, not all of them desired, but they also renewed their pride in what they had accomplished on behalf of the nation and for the world.
I remember the first time I heard the Marine Corps Band play “Stars and Stripes Forever” as a giant flag was unfurled from the ceiling. It was thrilling. Never was there a moment to be more proud of being American. But I also remember the idle conversation from the crowd as they wandered out. Many expressed not simply patriotic pride, but ownership of it that others where not entitled to have. What others? In those days it was pushy civil rights advocates who threatened the established order of things, and didn’t know their place. Not all blacks were bad of course, just the ones who didn’t know how to behave. Even worse were their white allies, betrayers of all that was (white) American. The same was said of people on welfare, reservation Indians, and hippies. None of them had a right to ownership of patriotism. Some others had partial rights, and you can let your favorite prejudice be your guide to who they were.
The sense that there are rightful owners of patriotism, and that they get to decide who is and who isn’t a patriot, is deeply rooted in American society. The owners know who they are. Those who are excluded know they’re excluded. While the barrier to ownership is permeable, its gatekeepers are predominantly white males who understand the role to be their right. The current flag and anthem conflict is partly a move to hold onto that right. It’s amplified by decades of military conflict justified in large part by jingoistic patriotism, for lack of anything more substantive. Those who now choose to take umbrage over the flag and anthem claim that the patriotism they own, and only their brand of patriotism, has always inspired their standing and singing. It’s heretical sacrilege to display patriotism in any other way for any other reason.
Failure to stand and sing (with hand over heart) is a sign of disrespect for the flag and anthem. It’s a real gut level reaction so high in emotional content that rational discussion is all but impossible. Somehow the flag and anthem have become idols demanding the correct ritualistic acts of worship, or face dire consequences. Taking a cue from Jesus, I asked one friend which was more important, the flag and anthem, or the principles and values they represent? Maybe I should have stopped there, but I went on to ask what it means when people demand respect for the flag and anthem, but show disrespect for the rights of all to have full access to the freedoms and privileges they represent? It was not well received.
If honoring the flag is important, trivializing it doesn’t seem to bother anyone, not even ardent football stadium patriots. Tasteless clothing adorned with flag symbols are everywhere, some of it risqué beyond the most lenient standards of decency. Cars and trucks are painted in grotesque representations of the flag. Yesterday I saw a decrepit van, more ready for the junk yard than the street, painted as a mobile flag. Was that disrespectful? The flag is carried, hoisted, and worn in demonstrations led by neo-Nazis, KKK, and other un-American fascist and white supremacist groups. Few object. Just for fun, flag beach towels, blankets and shawls are popular items. Not many care.
One of the most disrespectful things that can happen to something or someone held in high esteem is for it to be trivialized. The U.S. Flag Code, adopted in 1923, sets standards for how the flag is to be displayed. Trivializing it is not included. Most of us are vaguely aware of it, and haphazard in our adherence.
If kneeling causes outrage, but trivialization is ignored, what’s going on? If issues of racism aren’t a part of your answer, you haven’t thought it through.
As for me, I will honor what the flag represents, but I will not worship it. God, and only God, is worthy worship. The flag has no value beyond the highest national ideals it’s supposed to represent. I will stand when it passes because it’s our custom to do so, not out of patriotic fervor. I will show respectful gratitude for those who have honorably served our nation, whether the cause was justified or not. I will tepidly sing the anthem because it’s not that singable. If I had my druthers, we would adopt a new anthem based in part on others that express more of the beauty and hope of the nation: My Country ’Tis of Thee, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, God Bless America, Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, etc.