More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam, and more would have died had it not been for the anti-war movement back home. It helped force an end to unwinnable war.
Yet the protesters were reviled by supporters of the war, who equated dissent with disloyalty. They were called unpatriotic. They were accused of selling out the troops. They were told to shut up.
“America,” they were told. “Love it or leave it.”
It is impossible to watch “The Vietnam War” documentary airing on public television these last two weeks — with one stunning tale after another of how our elected leaders sent young men to their deaths for a cause they had long before realized was lost — without thinking about the culture wars playing out again today, including this past weekend on football fields. Once again, millions of Americans, beginning with the president, are confusing dissent with disloyalty.
Dissent is at the core of American patriotism, the very reason our nation’s Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of speech first in the Bill of Rights. We would be a people who speak up. We would be nobody’s sheep. We would govern ourselves, with everybody having their say — love it or leave it.
To argue, as President Trump did on Friday, that NFL football players who kneel during the playing of the national anthem are showing “disrespect” for our “flag and country” is ludicrous. In the United States, dissent is synonymous with flag and country. It is what sets us apart. And to say that kneeling during the anthem is an insult to our soldiers, living and dead, is even more absurd.
Every American soldier and patriot who has died for our country, from the very first — Crispus Attucks on March 5, 1770 — to the most recent — Army Staff Sgt. Emil Rivera-Lopez on Aug. 31, 2017 — fought in defense of our most cherished freedoms, including our right to call out our country for its failings. Only when we attempt to stifle dissent do we show disrespect.
Here’s a test. Which of these two quotes best captures the noble ideals of the American Experiment?
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Voltaire, the French philosopher who influenced the thinking of our nation’s founders, said that.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”
Trump said that, before a delirious crowd in Alabama.
We’d like to believe Voltaire caught the American spirit a tad better.
On Monday, after Trump’s latest weekend of loose talk and tweets, much of the debate in the media focused on whether the president had “won” or “lost” by beating up on the NFL. As if it mattered.
The weekend backfired on Trump in one way, with hundreds of NFL players — and even some team owners — signaling their disgust with the president’s crude attack by kneeling or linking arms or waiting in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem.
But there is no doubt Trump touched a nerve with millions of Americans who think multi-millionaire football players, other professional athletes, super-rich Hollywood celebrities and their ilk — especially, we suspect, those who are black — should just shut up and run with the ball, sink the basket, sing the song or make the movie.
Unless, of course, we’re talking country music or NASCAR, where the politics run acceptably to the right.
In all this talking of political winners and losers, what gets forgotten is what moved a handful of NFL players to take a knee to begin with. Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, started it all last year when he began kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to the problems of racism and police violence.
Attacking the patriotism of those who protested the Vietnam War didn’t make the war more just. Attacking the patriotism of those who protest racism now won’t make America more fair.
We would do better to listen.
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