The Flag

So a rich young athlete is in the news, not for his football playing, but for sitting during the National Anthem.  Now, lots of us who believe in freedom would normally respect such an action–like when young Jehovah’s Witnesses, out of religious conviction, choose to sit in classroom ceremonies, despite bullying.

But what irked many, I think, was his explanation.  That this is a nation that “oppresses” people of color, and the flag and the anthem symbolize that oppression.  Maybe that might have made sense in Atlanta in 1860.  Or Birmingham in 1960.  But not in the America of 2016, where an African-American occupies the highest office in the land, elected and re-elected by solid majority; where the highest law enforcement officials are African-American.  Where young African-American athletes can earn millions for playing a game a few weekends a year.

This man seems shocked by the response.  It was visceral for many of us.  Especially for those of us who wear a uniform.  Who have, over 15 years of war, seen countless caskets covered with that flag.  Who have deployed under that flag.  Who have presented that flag, folded, to a service member’s spouse, or parents, or children.

And we remember what it stands for.  We hear the words of the song:  “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We pledge allegiance to that flag that represents “liberty and justice for all.”  We honor a nation that declared that it would protect those “inalienable rights” with which all are endowed by the Creator.

Has the nation always lived out those ideals?  No.  But “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” it has grown into what it first professed.  That growth was marked by blood.  That banner, which he accuses of standing for oppression of blacks, was carried into battle by those who fought to make his ancestors free.

The issue isn’t protest.  The issue for me is distaste for the comfortable protest of the rich, who have not sacrificed, who choose an easy path of sitting where their grandparents marched, who scorn the sacrifice of prior generations, black and white, and the ongoing sacrifice of those for whom the only colors that matter at the moment of the test are the red, white, and blue, on a buddy’s shoulder.

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A footnote.

Contrast the actions of another sports figure.  Usain Bolt.  Not an American, but a citizen of Jamaica.  Fastest man in the world, and a man whose speed has brought him both fame and wealth.  He was being interviewed at the Olympics, and in the background he heard the US National Anthem begin to play.  He stopped the interview, and turned to face the music, and stood silently.  No explanation.  He just thought it the right thing to do, to show respect to both another nation, and the athlete from the US who was being recognized.

Consider also the actions of comedian Robin Williams at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, when “Retreat” sounded, and his entire audience stood up, turned their back on him, and stood at attention.  He was struck by the solemnity of the moment, and joined the Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines in standing silently, only later asking what had just happened.