The flag in front of my house was tangled Sunday morning, wrapped around the pole. I hate when that happens, so I paused to set it right.
After doing so, I said the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m sure you know it:
I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the republic
For which it stands.
That last part is supposed to be “Under God.” But “Under God” was inserted by Congress in 1954, trying to show that the Soviet Union isn’t the only government that can interfere with its citizens’ sense of the divine. Sometimes, feeling charitable, I’ll say “Under God.” Other times, feeling feisty, I won’t. Hey, it’s a free country, or used to be.
I also registered a second protest. Instead of putting my right palm over my patriotic heart, I kept it balled in a fist in my pocket, to show my personal objection to the doofus my beloved country elected president.
The guy who Friday tried to whip up his aggrieved white guy base by calling on football teams to fire players who register quiet protests similar to the one described above.
“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. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!'” President Donald Trump said.
Which is Trump’s not-subtle way of saying: these black players should just shut up and pummel each other on Sunday and not pretend they are also full American citizens permitted to raise issues of national concern.
I am ashamed of some things in this country, and here’s one: White nationalists can spout their corrosive psycho BS and, when called on it, wave the First Amendment and everybody demurs. But let black men point to real problems in our country and the president of the United States himself tries to shove a rag in their mouths.
As you know, this originated last year when quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality. This subtle dissent outraged those Americans who forget that free speech isn’t about protecting their pious faux-patriotic bromides, but about protecting the right to express thoughts that are unpopular, such as the idea — manifestly true — that our nation has flaws that need to be addressed, particularly the original sin of racism.
The National Football League could punish these players. The First Amendment only protects speech from government censure. Employees on the job — such as football players or newspaper columnists — can be fired for what they say.
Though I hasten to point out that the president of the United States is a government official, and you don’t need to be a constitutional scholar to see that when the president urges the firing of citizens who express unpopular opinions (nobody’s getting fired for standing during the national anthem, blinking back tears) that certainly could be considered governmental suppression.
On Sunday, the Bears stood arm-in-arm during the anthem. The Steelers — quite cannily, I thought — stayed in their locker room rather than subject their players to scrutiny. Except for offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who stood with his hand over his heart in the tunnel.
I respect that. It must have been tough to separate himself from his team, but Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, is tough.
I respect it, but then again, I’m privy to a secret that eludes Donald Trump. Everyone in the country doesn’t agree with me, and I don’t have to silence them when they don’t. I could listen to them instead, and do.
One thing about respect — another subtlety lost on the president, who has been hammering this issue for days — is that it can’t be coerced. Rather, it is earned.
Given freely — a proud American saying the pledge by himself on a porch — it can be a moving, beautiful thing. Coerced, it’s meaningless. If you’ve been to tinpot Third World countries — and I have — it is chilling when they blast their particular national tune out of loudspeakers and people in what passes for a capital stop their beat-up cars, get out and stand at attention. That’s not pride; it’s serfdom.
I’m not proud of everything America does — we elected a shallow fraud, for instance. But I’m proud of what America is, a place where we do not grovel before power, no matter how much power demands it. We stand up for ourselves or, in this case, kneel down.
The national anthem is played before sporting events. No ordinance requires that eyes well, no law demands that throats tighten. Free citizens can put their hands to their hearts or their knees to the ground as their consciences dictate. Their choice. Not Donald Trump’s.