I love the flag.
Mine is frayed and faded from use. I’ll put it out on Memorial Day, to honor the fallen, place my flat palm over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Nobody forces me.
Like all loves, there was the initial infatuation period. Making construction paper pilgrims in elementary school, becoming fascinated with American history. Reading Samuel Eliot Morison’s epic “The Oxford History of the American People” at summer camp in my mid-teens.
We were the good guys. The Americans kicked Hitler out of Europe. The Rangers up the ropes and into the teeth of the German machine guns at Pointe du Hoc and the raid on the ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. When my boys were old enough, I gave them a copy of “Air War Against Hitler’s Germany” thinking they’d love it like I did.
They didn’t. Times change. The parts of history that were hardly a distant murmur when I was growing up took their places in the narrative, like silent witnesses slipping into the back of a courtroom. One by one, called to the stand to testify.
The more you learn about our country, the more conflicted the story becomes. I like to think it’s still a basically good story about good people, with continuous lapses. But I understand those who think otherwise. The only actual U.S. Army Ranger I know went into the service a gung-ho patriot and came out a radical anti-imperialist, someone for whom the American tale is one long atrocity, sodden with horror.
Am I supposed to contradict him? I think he’s right, factually. But I’m a basically cheery fellow, and want to believe I live in a good place, with exceptions.
This mutual respect, despite disagreement — I think he respects me, we drive up together to the same pal’s place on Lake Superior every summer — is what makes America a great nation, and not one of those fractured nest of warring wasps that ruins so many others. America: I love it, you condemn it. I think you’re wrong, you think I’m wrong, and we have a conversation, driving to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
This dynamic of course eludes the president, who happily made an issue out of National Football League players taking a knee during the national anthem. He took their protest, opposing violence against people of color, particularly police violence, breezily reinterpreted as an insult to the military, flag and nation, and whipped up the froth of his ever-aggrieved supporters.
On Wednesday, the NFL caved in and passed a rule requiring players to stand and make a show of respect, no matter what they truly feel. Those not inclined can hide in the locker room until it’s over. Or suffer the consequences.
This will solve nothing. First, there are many ways to show disrespect. A sneer. A yawn. Will players be fined for scratching their ass during the anthem? We’ll find out.
The most compelling argument in support of this rule is that the NFL is private business. Olive Garden would not allow a server to laud socialism along with the pasta bolognese.
That logic does not, however, hold up to scrutiny. Because Olive Garden doesn’t line up its servers and force them to sing a patriotic song before mealtime. Those condemning the players should imagine their workplace doing the same, the memo explaining that you will step out of your cubicle at 10 a.m. and you will stand at attention. All will sing.
How would you feel? I’d feel frightened, and insulted. I honor the country as I see fit. Not as my boss sees fit. Or as the owners of NFL teams see fit. Or as the president sees fit. Someday, should our democracy survive this current dark period intact, historians will shake their heads over the irony. The president who wrapped himself in the flag while undermining America’s institutions of justice. Some Americans were fooled. And some weren’t.
My America is strong and free. We fail, a lot, but we have ideals we strive toward. We do wrong, but we have laws and wrongdoers are punished. Whoever they are. We encourage citizens to express their honest beliefs, not to go through the motions of insincere dumb shows under threat of punishment. That’s not freedom. That’s not what our soldiers fought and died for.