President Donald Trump catapulted the issue of growing numbers of athletes opting to “take a knee” during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner before their contests further into the limelight this past weekend, jumping in on the side of the hyper-patriotic conservative reactionaries who have been, predictably, popping gaskets over this form of protest since former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick first decided to sit out the anthem around this time last year. Trump spewed a typically vindictive, smirking and self-satisfied incitement, urging NFL owners to respond to protests by terminating any player who dares to take a knee.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,'” Trump said. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
The president doubled down on Twitter Saturday afternoon.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect. … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
I wanted to write about this, but where to start? A sitting President who, already widely accused of white nationalist proclivities, profanely demands the revocation of fundamental rights for a prominent group of predominantly black young men who dare to speak up for a righteous cause? The now-customary Trump tactic of purposefully throwing a polarizing, divisive tantrum on the heels a a particularly bad news week? The pride-inspiring response of the NFL which, from top to bottom, demonstrated an admirable front of solidarity?
No, what gets me is the cheap rhetorical trick of equating the flag with veterans, and common protest with disrespect for veterans–a false equivalency that trivializes both the symbol of our nation and the men and women who have stood up to defend it or, too often, project its ideological will.
If one insists on waxing symbolic over the stars and stripes, it is compulsory to understand that the flag stands for so much more than military service, representing the core values–the unrealized ideals–upon which this nation was founded. Not just what we are, but what we purport to be, what we must aspire to be. Chief among these is free speech, particularly free speech in dissent.
The glory of the flag is that even the most disrespectful act against it as a symbol and, by extension, the institutions it represents, is turned into a sign of the strength. A protester burning a flag is at once showing her anger and disappointment while simultaneously demonstrating the freedoms the flag represents. In burning the flag, one proves its inviolability. You can’t really destroy the flag–burning its fibers only proves what it is supposed to stand for.
The flag does not need defense against committed young men who kneel before it to express their legitimate frustration and discontent in an inherently gentle act. Indeed, the flag protects them like a shield. In the same way, our veterans do not need to be protected from peaceful citizens who clasp hands, take a knee, and bow their heads quietly. Those veterans fought to preserve the right for these men to do so and, what’s more, both flag and fighting men and women are stronger than an imagined insult.