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What's in a Flag?

The American Flag

There are often truths that each party to a conflict needs to hear. The National Anthem protest is misguided. So is the conservative backlash. I address each in turn.

The greatest triumph of the American Civil Rights Movement was its seizing of the moral high ground in American politics. It did so by insisting only on those rights which the majority population took for granted, rights long-enshrined in America’s founding documents and rooted deeply in America’s political tradition. The Movement’s non-violent direct action forced the majority population to concede as black Americans took their rightful seat at America’s lunch counters or to violently resist such benign acts of assertiveness. The direct nature of the Movement’s campaign removed the possibility of indifference. White supremacists had to look themselves in the mirror and repent or persist in their inhumane treatment of their neighbors to their own open shame. The Movement’s appeal to America’s highest aspirations coupled with an insistence on turning the other cheek removed all doubt as to who occupied the moral high ground.

The Movement’s effectiveness lay chiefly in this—it did not disown America’s ideals or dishonor its symbols. The Movement, at its best, extolled America’s founding values, honored its symbols, and appealed to the majority population as brothers suffering from a sort of moral blindness, a blindness as to how short they had fallen from the shared ideals which were symbolized in common touchstones. It only takes a brief reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and its reverent invocation of America’s Declaration of Independence to see my point. Contemporary activists would do well to consider this model.

But before we condemn contemporary protest activity for failing to perfectly capture the earlier Movement model, we should consider another truth. The original Movement’s approach must have been difficult to achieve and sustain in a way we may find hard to imagine. Consider how alienating it must be to be regarded as less than a man in a society that insists “all men are created equal.” Recalling an episode from childhood, W.E.B. Dubois writes in 1903 that: “it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others…shut out from their world by a vast veil.” He concluded: “I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt…” Returning contempt for contempt and slight for slight is the most natural of human responses. It goes against the grain to embrace the symbols of a group that has rejected you in spite of what those symbols suggest to the contrary.

The NFL protests consist of kneeling in view of the American Flag during the National Anthem. There is nothing necessarily disrespectful about kneeling. In some rituals, to kneel would be to express an even greater degree of reverence than standing. This very fact seems to have influenced the protestors’ decision to kneel rather than sit. Obviously, however, the act is meant as a breach of protocol, an act of protest, of withholding honor. As Colin Kaepernick—the initiator and de facto leader of this form of protest—has made clear, his goal is to raise awareness of injustices which are historically-rooted but also appear persistent and perhaps even resurgent.

There have been too many vividly documented instances of police abuse of citizens generally and of poor and minority citizens in particular to dismiss the matter as mere media sensation. Yes, there are many police officers who chose the profession for noble reasons and serve admirably. Moreover, there are many instances where media sensation does produce misleading accounts that lead to harsh prejudgment of police officers performing under unusually difficult circumstances. Each case must be evaluated on its own merits based upon a patient and dispassionate examination of the facts as they become available. However, police officers wield considerable power over their neighbors and, as the hand of the state in local communities, exercise considerable discretion.

Discretionary power attracts the proud and unscrupulous and is a source of constant temptation to even principled people who consistently wield it. No group should be more suspicious of discretionary government power in the hands of imperfect men than conservatives. This is a central feature of conservative ideology. Therefore, when conservatives fail to lean in and take note of reported abuses of power, it understandably leads the broader society to conclude that a naïve idealization of first responders takes precedence over the desire of their darker neighbors “to be secure in their persons [and property] against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The blindness seems willful.

Kaepernick declared that “when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent… I’ll stand.” I think this is misguided. We do not love our country because it is perfect; we love it because it is our own. We do not love it because it is great; it becomes great because we love it. Thus, it is the conditional nature of Kaepernick’s honor of the flag that is understandably galling to many Americans. With G.K. Chesterton I say:

It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles…If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.

So too, America.

Tomi Lahren's placement of kneeling Kaepernick at D-Day

But the conservative backlash, with its ostentatious displays of civic piety, is also misguided. Let us recall that Philando Castile was shot while exercising his right to bear arms. Apparently, he made the officer nervous. Meanwhile, white militia groups brandishing weapons in obnoxious displays of freedom are frequently handled with utmost patience. Intellectually honest conservatives will take seriously this contrast. Conservative outrage was nowhere in evidence when a parade of police abuses went viral on YouTube in recent years. Yet when a misguided young man decided to engage in a symbolic act of protest before a game, righteous conservative anger was hard to miss. No one ever died from kneeling.

We would all do well to remember that “whatever the philosophy [we] profess, a society is not the temple of the value-idols featured on the front of its monuments and in its constitutional scrolls; the value of a society is the value it places upon man’s relation to man.” Political symbols are valuable because of what they convey about our society’s character, history, and vision. The flag represents the bonds that tie us together in spite of the many things that divide us. Let’s keep the flag controversy in perspective by recalling what the flag stands for.

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