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Don’t Equate Protest With Disrespect

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.

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Colin Kaepernick Castigated For Free Speech

sio9ul01fseodfb4r4q4Seems like I’m writing about jocks a lot of late, but what’s a guy to do? Colin Kaepernick, the once beloved, now beleaguered quarterback from the San Francisco 49ers, hit the news with a big old bang by sitting out the national anthem before his premier appearance in a pre-season nfl game last night. When the expected, foaming-mouthed outcries exploded across the interwebs, Kaepernick doubled down with a now-removed tweet, that read “The fact that you really believe that there is difference in these flags means that your [sic] ignoring history.”

Oh, Colin. I hope you know what you’re doing.

It seems that he might because, where there’s a bunch of this kind of asshattery:
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from people who don’t really get what liberty and free speech means–except that you should be humble and respectful that you have it, and absolutely unable to actually use it–, he’s also getting a tremendous amount of support for taking a stand. I was pleased and surprised to see that support after all the overwrought reaction to Gabby Douglas’s distracted forgetting to place her hand on her heart during her Olympic medal ceremony.  Douglas made a mistake, but Kaepernick made a political statement, and frankly I expected that Twitter would be burning up with demands for his literal crucifixion.

It is not something that I would do, even though I passionately and aggressively support the right of anyone to express dissent.  I’m absolutely ambivalent about the sanctity of the national anthem. I like the anthem. I like hearing it, I respect the tradition, and I respect those for whom the ritual holds great reverence. I participate in it even though I hate the sheeplike feeling of everyone standing up and fawning over a symbol-whether that symbol is a flag or a song. But I’m not fond of mass oaths and that sort of stuff in general. In church, growing up, the droning Lord’s Prayer and the responsive readings made me uncomfortable. I guess I’m just not much of a joiner.

When I sat down to write this, I had it in my mind that I wanted to talk about the futility of controversial statements and actions and the tendency of those things to do little more than stir up kneejerk reactionaries who tend to equate dissatisfaction with the state and subsequent expressions of free speech as disrespect for God, Jesus, and the sacrifices of our brave veterans.

In the course of writing, that has changed. Much of that change is rooted in Mr. Kaepernick’s explanation of his position. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game against Green Bay. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

I would be remiss if I failed to point out that we’re in the middle of an ugly Presidential election in which one candidate’s entire platform is based on the fact that America sucks. Every day, his ads tell us we’re not great, we’re awful, we’re losers. Every word that oozes out of his thin, gelatinous lips tells us how just how awful and low we are, how terrible the country is, and yet he is beloved by legions of flag-waving yahoos who brag about wanting to lynch black men by their penises. Yes, apparently that is a thing.

I want to make it very clear that I get, as a white guy, that the America I experience on a day to day basis is very different from the world even my most educated, articulate, and prosperous black friends experience. My pretty blonde wife got pulled over for a burned out tail-light the other day. She never worried about whether that traffic stop would end her life, and the officer didn’t even run her license. “I just wanted to let you know to get that fixed as soon as you can. Have a nice day.”

Nevertheless, I so disagree with the idea that the confederate battle flag and the American Flag are no different from each other. The rebel flag is an overt assertion in favor of oppression, racial supremacy, and exploitation. It is the flag of traitors. The American flag, in my mind, does not symbolize our failures–of which there are so very many–as a nation and a society so much as it does the higher ideals and possibilities to which we should and often do aspire. Equating the American flag with the Southern Hate Rag means surrendering to cynicism and abandoning hope, two things I refuse to do, however tempted I might be from time to time. The stars and stripes represent the dream of what we could be, at our best. That doesn’t mean that I don’t admire Mr. Kaepernick for the personal risk he is taking in speaking up for what is right. Perhaps my entitlement has allowed me just enough hope that I’m either unwilling to surrender the American flag to the blathering simpletons of the Redneck Right, which is what I’d feel like I was doing. After all, I still cling to my favorite meme:
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What Did You Do on Memorial Day?

I woke up, did some chores, went to the home improvement store to buy some gardening supplies, visited a friend to drop off a box of onion starts I’d grown from seed, ran by the grocery store, went to the feed & supply store to buy some tomato seedlings to replace the few that got frosted the other night, went to my in-laws’ house for burgers and corn on the grill, came home and planted tomatoes with my wife, then chased her around the house a few laps when the kids went off with their friends, then sat down at the computer and thought about Memorial Day a little bit.  Invariably, my pondering turned to what might very well be the most memorable and definitive photographic image to emerge from our ongoing, unending 24-year-old middle east war.

arlington

If you haven’t seen this picture before, and you live in the USA, then I’m wondering where the heck you’ve been?  It certainly haunts me–now more than ever, as the very forces we originally sought to defeat have reared their heads once more in the form of the baathist, Saddamite front known as ISIS or ISIL or Daesh or whatever the hell it is called today, claws at all that the most optimistic among us hoped to build. It begs the question: how fucked up is this war?

We should never have gone. We should never have left.

civil-war-garWhen I visit the cemeteries of my ancestors around Westsylvania, I am invariably proud beyond all reason of the “G.A.R.” starts on the graves of men of a certain generation. Likewise the veterans of the war to end all wars,” and the ensuing “war to end all wars.” Both my grandfathers from the verdant Appalachian hills of Bedford and Somerset counties to the seeming wastelands of Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya–one as a heavy maintenance mechanic whose service from 1942 through 1946 would take him from northern Africa to Italy, France, Belgium, and ultimately to Berlin. The other was crewman on a B-25 bomber beginning in the second battle El Alamein through the invasion of Italy. Before the war, he was a farm kid who had never been near an airplane–but within months after volunteering for service he was flying over Egypt dropping bombs on Nazis. How strange is that?

My father and uncles went to Viet Nam–three tours for dad, a navy man who for the rest of his life didn’t like to sit with his back to Asian people in restaurants.  He voted republican against the long, pro-union legacy of his family until the infamous “swift boating” of former Presidential candidate John Kerry.  It was the only time I ever saw him worked up about politics–“Those boys in the Swifts,” he seethed to me one night, “riding plywood in the rivers and deltas, they were sitting ducks. I knew a lot of ’em, and most didn’t make it home.”

I felt no compulsion to join the volunteer army of the mid-1980s, at a time when the only wars we were fighting were with small pond bullies and narco-despots who, after imageswe put them in power, refused to be our puppets.  Despite what you’ll hear from Reaganites, the 80’s weren’t a great time for patriotism–the only other bully on the block was the Soviet Union, and we all knew if we got into it with them it would be “please place your tray in the locked, upright position, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.”  We watched movies like “The Day After,” and took strange comfort in the encompassing fatalism of the time. If you’re going to go, go big. Right?

It was about that time that I ask my grandfather, a fiercely republican businessman, if it bothered him that I had no plans to serve, and he told me that under no circumstances was I to even consider volunteering. His exact words, if I recall correctly, were “Unless something bad enough to need fighting comes along you stay the heck away from that monkey actors’s dog and pony show. (an unusual rhetoric flourish I recall with great emotion, as it reflects my own mature writing style with eerie accuracy).  I didn’t spend four years of my life fighting a real evil to have my grandson used as cannon fodder in a bunch of penny ante conflicts our idiot-in-chief  is using to distract the voters from the worst economic policies since Herbert Hoover.”

My grandfathers’ generation was deified, and rightly so, and my father’s was largely ignored (he said neither he nor any veteran he knew every experienced anger or derogatory treatment from civilians, contrary to the stereotypes of so many Viet Nam Era-themed movies, and he considered himself lucky to be unrecognized–he didn’t want a parade or medals, just to get on with his life–a process that would require roughly 30 years and a lot of unhappiness for all of us).

Today, we do a better job of treating our returning soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines with the respect and recognition they deserve, but I fear that we let that respect for the men bleed over into the politicians from both parties who have misused these brave and determined young men and women and shortchanged so many of them.

There is a lot for our leaders to answer for–and I’d start with the sneaky policy of drawing down the regular military under the guise of tax reductions, then shunting our endless war onto the shoulders of the men and women of the National Guard.  Add to that the despicably low compensation our military receives, and the porous post-service health and wellness care that leaves so many of them broken and lost.

Even as I say this, I know that there are some who would call me unpatriotic, especially on this of all days, but I stand by that–especially on this day.  We can think what we want about wars–from the craziest right wing ‘burn down the world” proponent of expressing American Exceptionalism through carpet bombing to the hippiest dippiest sandal-soled anti-war bunny-hugger–but we need to get on the same page, the SPARE NO EXPENSE page, when it comes to taking care of these kids and young people (the use of the National Guard as a sustained combat force has led to a much higher than ideal number of older veterans serving for longer periods and leaving larger  families behind) who have left parts of their bodies or, in the case of our epidemic of PTSD casualities, parts of their souls, in the sand and on mountainsides on the other side of the world.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863