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Home of the Brave

September 25, 2017

I love my country. I love its sprawling, diverse geography; its Bill of Rights; its peaceful transitions of leadership; and its free elections. And I hate its flaws: the racial tensions and hatred that still prevail in our diverse society; the fact that in a land of plenty we have not eradicated poverty, hunger and despair; and the increasingly tribal and polarizing politics. The things I hate do not negate my love; this is my land.

This week’s controversy over how our citizens exercise their freedom to speak demands that we examine what it means to be Americans. The argument over NFL players taking a knee is fueled by a leader who has an innate sense of performance theatre. While we are busy watching the magician’s distraction, we cannot see the inner workings behind the illusion he asks us to accept as real. Despite knowing this, I still found myself thinking more about free speech and patriotism this weekend than nuclear threats, economic concerns, tax reform, possible Russian interference in our elections, climate change, and health care. Distraction is a proven technique used by showmen everywhere for a reason. Audience members really aren’t as good at multitasking as we’d like to believe. We focus where they point us.

So, like most of my countrymen and women, I followed the trail of this bait and switch over the weekend as I watched football games and read the news. And I tried to stay off social media. I didn’t want to know who passionately believes people should keep their mouths shut about racism or which of my friends believes that we should only demonstrate in ways acceptable to all. The very nature of demonstration is that it is symbolic to the one who protests. It means something to that individual. It is his or her speech. If the forum is well-chosen, it is meant to make the rest of us uncomfortable enough to pay attention. And…our Constitution safeguards our right to speech that makes others uncomfortable, so long as we do not endanger them.

I have thought hard about this, and now I’ll exercise my own freedom. The truth is that not respecting the National Anthem in the expected format does make me uncomfortable. I’m a patriot. I love the moment of collective honoring of America that comes at the start of sporting events when thousands fall silent, stand, and watch the flag wave on the field or in the sky (or on the big tv). I am the girl who snaps at the stranger next to me who talks through the Anthem to his friends because he didn’t realize it has started. I hiss at him for quiet and use my “teacher look” to eyeball his hat and gesture for him to remove it as if he were an adolescent student. I ignore his glare, put my hand on my heart and sing, and I am not ashamed of that. It means something to me, that moment.

Oddly enough, I find myself more annoyed by the guy who keeps yapping after the Anthem has started than by the silent players on the field showing their dissent by quietly refusing to stand. But make no mistake; both of these actions make me uncomfortable. The difference is that one of them is intentionally supposed to…it is a symbol of my fellow citizens’ dissatisfaction with some things in our country. The other one is just some guy who doesn’t recognize that the stadium has gone quiet and someone is singing words that should signal him to respectful silence. One group “gets” the significance of this Anthem—enough to choose it as the backdrop for peaceful protest. The other group doesn’t get the significance enough to know why they should stop talking to their buddy about who paid for the beer and take off their hats and be still. Is that a generalization? Yes. Unfair? Perhaps. Biased. Certainly. We all have bias; this is mine. Do I recognize that some of the NFL players might just be “grandstanding” for attention rather than expressing deeply-held convictions? Perhaps. Do I see any irony in a gesture of protest that refuses to honor the symbol of the freedom that gives you the right to protest in the first place? Of course. But Supreme Court opinions on flag-burning, for example, expound far more eloquently on both sides of that argument than I can. (People should read them; they are incredibly thought-provoking, and they have pushed my thinking over the years about what America really means.) Are some of the NFL protesters men who’ve shown character flaws in their life choices and actions? Probably. Does that negate their rights to opinions? No. Just as it doesn’t negate the rights of the flawed people watching who may disagree with their actions. Are some  of the players and owners “spoiled millionaires?” Yes. So is the leader who criticized them…the same guy whose wife had to nudge him to put his hand on his heart and pay attention once when the Anthem played. I suspect there is no perfect American.

But none of those things is the point here.

I’ve heard more than one person say that they accept the right of those football players to protest but “not like this.” Democracy is messy. Free speech is not always pretty. Demonstrations are symbols, often loosely linked to the source of the protest; I think of Gandhi’s hunger strikes to protest British rule, for example, or United Nations allies withholding goods from countries to protest their nuclear programs or the genocide of their people. These are symbolic actions; intelligent, thoughtful people understand symbolism. The very flag we salute (or not) is a messy symbol in itself, standing not only for the unity of our states but also for the ugly protests against authority and the bloodshed that led to our union.

I heard thoughtful friends and commentators this weekend express concern that the “knee takers” and “arm linkers” on the football fields around the US and London this weekend are choosing a poor form of protest since the connection to their cause isn’t clear. When they refuse to stand silently or sing along with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” onlookers believe they are protesting the National Anthem when they are, in fact, trying to make a statement about racial profiling and police brutality in our free society. These aren’t connected enough, some argue. Doesn’t that confusion prove the protestors should seek another way to make their point and stop all this interference with football and patriotism? No. It doesn’t.

Symbols, by their very nature, stand for something else…and sometimes need explanation for those who didn’t conceive them. This need for clarification of their meaning doesn’t prove they are meaningless. Priests and pastors who explain the symbolism of the bread and wine at every Communion do not diminish the power of those symbols to the faithful with their reminders of what they mean. Once the link is made in our minds to symbols, we comprehend their significance. The link to our kneeling countrymen and women has been made by many of them—clearly and often. They do not hate our country. They do not hate our flag. They do not hate our countrymen and women who give their lives in military service to protect us and others around the world. They do not even hate most of the men and women who police our cities. They hate racism. They hate acts of brutality and those in power who commit them. They hate that people would rather not know about or act to change these things. They kneel to protest these acts and lack of action…and, this weekend, many also knelt to protest a leader who called them “sons of bitches”and who seeks to bully them into silence or into another form of protest at the risk of their livelihood. No one who is paying attention can feign ignorance about what their act of kneeling represents. We should acknowledge that for many, this choice was difficult, made only after thoughtful consideration of the consequences and requiring them to summon the courage to do something so public and so unpopular. These fellow citizens have been clear that they are intentionally choosing this sacred moment of public homage to our democracy to remind us that we still have work to do on freedom in this land of the free. Standing and singing our Anthem is an act of patriotism that honors our country. It is also an act of patriotism to love this country enough to do something unpopular to demand that it reach its potential.

While some of my countrymen kneel, I will stand with hand on heart and sing our Anthem. But I will also let their act of quiet non-participation remind me that I have a responsibility as a citizen to work for a better America. And both these things will be acts of fervent patriotism and love of country.

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