Just Be It

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In our current political climate, controversies abound about displays of patriotism – or the lack thereof. Colin Kaepernick’s famous (or infamous depending upon your point of view) decision to take a knee during the national anthem has incited a nationwide debate over such displays. And last week, the Nike campaign honoring Kaepernick’s protest has fanned the smoldering flames just in time for the start of football season.

Also last week, there were protests about the new movie First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. People objected to the omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, correctly pointing out that the American landing was a victory in the space race of the 1960s during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The filmmaker’s decision to depict the moment as more of a human achievement than a political one was seen by some as evidence of a namby-pamby liberal sensibility.

Of course, controversy over demonstrations of patriotism in America is nothing new. In the Sixties, many protests against the Vietnam War featured the burning of the American flag. Fierce battles over Americans’ First Amendment rights vs. respect for our national symbol raged. More recently, President Trump has suggested punishment for people who would burn the flag. And so the controversy goes on.

The problem is that it’s one thing to stand up for the national anthem and another thing altogether to be a true patriot. It’s somewhat hollow to wave a flag over the bodies of men, women, and children killed in a pointless and immoral war. It’s easy to plaster a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on our cars but more important to fight for the safety and dignity of our military men and women, both active duty and veterans. And the sight of the Stars and Stripes is cold comfort to black families who have lost innocent spouses, parents, and children to police brutality.

The other day I noticed that the flags in my small home town had gone up, no doubt to commemorate the devastating losses our country suffered on 9/11. I admired the grace and beauty of the flags lining our streets as they rippled in the breeze. They brought to mind all that has transpired, both good and bad, since that horrible day when terrorists attacked our land.

What I most admire from that fateful day 17 years ago was the outpouring of support for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The courageous acts of first responders. The leadership of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. The rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers fell. The tireless advocacy by Jon Stewart and others to maintain the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those affected by the horrific act of violence. Sure, people started putting out flags and adorning their cars with patriotic messages in the wake of 9/11. But it was action, not symbolism, that made a difference in people’s lives. It was people being patriotic, not just saying they were.

One of the most iconic photographs from World War II is the Pulitzer-Prize winning shot of marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima. The image captures the gritty reality of war, courage, and sacrifice. Some of the flag-raisers were killed in action a few days later. The image has been depicted in movies and made into a U.S. postage stamp.

But it was the selfless sacrifice of fighting for freedom and against tyranny that made the difference – not whether or not the American flag waved from the top of Mt. Suribachi. So as we mourn the losses we sustained on 9/11 and in the ensuing years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s do more to be the patriots we claim to be when we raise the flag or place our hands over our hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Thank You, President Trump

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Dear President Trump,

On behalf of a divided nation, thank you. Your insensitive and thinly veiled racist jabs at Colin Kaepernick and other black NFL players has had some beautiful unintended consequences.

Prior to your latest childish and angry tweet, wherein you called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches,” a few NFL players had been taking a stand (so to speak) by taking a knee during the national anthem at the start of games. Since your remarks, entire teams of NFL players, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, have chosen to remain off the field rather  than salute a flag that stands for freedoms they find far too elusive. More and more players have chosen this dignified and nonviolent method of protesting police brutality and institutional racism. So rather than do away with the practice, your hateful comments have created a tidal wave.

Another unintended consequence of your hate-spewing bile is that you have fostered unity among players, coaches, and others who support their teammates in their struggles to right injustice. Last night at the Dallas Cowboys game, the entire team including the coach took a knee to make such a statement of solidarity. Then they stood, arms locked together, during the anthem. All of this had been agreed upon beforehand in conversations that may never have taken place had you not had one of your Twitter tantrums.

I have also noticed people who are not particularly political taking a stand – whether prominent celebrities or just Facebook friends who are fed up with the hatred and casual racism that has been growing like a cancer since you took office. Their courage to speak out gives me great hope in our future. It gives me hope that your election was an aberration and that people of good will can bring some sanity and dignity back to our great nation.

I pray that this movement continues to grow and that it forces local and state governments to take action against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism in this country. I pray that it is not just a blip on the screens of our lives. I pray that it energizes a new civil rights era and moves us away from division and hate and towards unity and equality for all.

Of Colin Kaepernick, Flag-Burning, and Starbucks Cups

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Joshua Feuerstein has saved Christmas. At least that’s what he said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. Feuerstein was referring to the protest he started last year against the plain red Starbucks holiday cups that got everyone’s knickers in a twist. Some Christians took the snowflake-free cup design as yet another sign that liberals are trying to take the Christ out of Christmas. So Feuerstein encouraged believers to go into their local Starbucks, order a drink, and give their name as “Merry Christmas” so that the barista would have to write it on their cups. Oh, it must be a hoot to work at Starbucks.

The protest apparently worked because this year’s Starbucks cups feature holiday designs, albeit none that are religious. Still, Feuerstein was gleeful, crowing, “And we not only saved Christmas, we elected Donald Trump as our next president and saved the country!” (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 29, 2016) In fact, Trump’s victory has put Starbucks in the crosshairs of the far right once again. This time, Trump supporters are encouraged to give their name as Trump for the side of their drink cup. This has caused a fracas at some Starbucks outlets and led to the complaint that Trump supporters’ First Amendment rights are being violated. (Apparently the savvy baristas realized that these folks’ names were not really “Trump.”)

Well, to begin with, the First Amendment protects our free speech from interference by the government. We are not, however, allowed to say anything we want in a private establishment. (Ask my kids.) Furthermore, it has been the far right – the Trump supporters – who have most vocally denounced public speech that actually is protected by the Bill of Rights. Take the Colin Kaepernick case. Kaepernick spurred outrage by refusing to stand for the national anthem before a 49ers game. He was protesting the racial bias that he believes exists in American society. At the time, I was critical of Kaepernick’s gesture myself. However, I have come to realize that his protest was not only legitimate, but also effective. Across the country, athletes began to make their own peaceful political statements by sitting out the national anthem. The country got to talking not just about Kaepernick’s protest, but about how far we have yet to go in race relations.

A more ironic and sinister move has been President-elect Donald Trump’s call to imprison and/or strip away the citizenship of people who burn the American flag. Having already threatened the free speech of journalists repeatedly during his presidential campaign, Trump now wants to go after the First Amendment rights of protesters. Even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia would have vehemently disagreed with such a move.

Flag burning has always been a potent symbolic gesture of anger and protest against the policies and actions of governments. It has always stirred resentment on the part of some people, which is why it is such an effective act of protest. While I personally do not like any kind of desecration of the flag, including wearing it as an article of clothing or headwear, I agree with the English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hall, who famously characterized the beliefs of the philosopher Voltaire as, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” An attack on flag burning is an attack on the right to disagree with the government. Our right to do so must be zealously guarded.

As for those Trump supporters who want to have their hero’s name written on their Starbucks cups, I say that Starbucks baristas should give them what they want. Imagine the chaos when several drinks come out, all with the name “Trump” on them. Decaf Debbie might be given Double-Shot Fred’s drink. Lactose intolerant Lucy could end up with a nonfat latte while Joe gets the runs from drinking a soy-based peppermint mocha. That would be a delicious comeuppance for people who think the design of a drink cup is going to make America great again.

 

 

Stand and Deliver*

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I get it, Colin Kaepernick. It’s a free country. You have a First Amendment right to express your disgust with the United States of America by sitting through the national anthem before a football game. But you still should not have done it.

There are many situations in which people are called upon to show respect for another person, a country, a faith tradition, or an ideal. They may not love everything that person or country or religion stands for. They may even hate it. But it is incumbent upon civilized human beings to respect others’ long-standing traditions. (Don’t get me started on the “burkini ban” in France!)

For example, women who visit the Vatican cover their shoulders. Women in many parts of the Middle East, even Western visitors, show respect by covering their heads. Men remove their hats in places such as churches, schools, and work places. In any country, it would be expected for people to stand respectfully while that country’s national anthem is being played. In the U.S., many people also place their hands over their hearts.

It is a simple matter of respect to do so, and fans are justifiably outraged at Kaepernick for his protest statement. Furthermore, if Kaepernick wants to protest racism in America, there are much more meaningful ways to do so. He could join a #BlackLivesMatter protest. He could use his public persona to speak out on issues that he cares about or get fellow NFL players together to lobby Congress for meaningful legislation to combat the inequities he sees.

In an interview, Kaepernick said he thought his move would open up dialogue on the subject of race in America. But all it has done is cause fans to burn his jersey and post outraged memes on Facebook comparing him to Tim Tebow. And as much as I may agree with his belief that racism is a major problem in our society, it’s hard for me to sympathize with a guy making millions of dollars. Maybe if he were using those millions to promote change in society, I would give his protest more credence.

So stand or don’t stand during the “Star Spangled Banner,” Colin. Just don’t be surprised when your fans boo. They are exercising their free speech rights too.

*Since writing this post many months ago, I have had a 180 degree change of opinion. Especially in light of the way Donald Trump has vilified black NFL players who have had the temerity to protest, however quietly, racial injustice in America, I have come to understand and respect Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the anthem.