Wednesday, September 27, 2017

On kneeling during the national anthem

I'm not sure where the custom of playing the national anthem at the outset of some athletic events originated. I have never questioned it. But lately there has been a lot of controversy about athletes, coaches, etc. kneeling instead of standing during the rendition of the national anthem. This has led to a lot of weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, general ill will, and a lot of virtual and actual yelling.

I'm not a sports fan so I rarely attend live sporting events, Nor do I watch broadcasts of sporting events. When I have been somewhere that the national anthem has been played, I have proudly stood and placed my hand over my heart. In situations like this I will sing along if it seems appropriate. I do this because of what America means to me.

This country gave my ancestors freedoms that they lacked in their home countries. It gave my father citizenship a few years after he moved here from Germany. It gave me the opportunity to grow up with a level of prosperity and opportunity that relatively few throughout the annals of history have enjoyed. But I know that some in our country have been less fortunate.

I am particularly fond of a poem titled American Spirit by Bill Fries (aka C.W. McCall):
In this poem Fries reminds us that We The People are America. The USA is us, the people of this country. All of us. Fries says that we are "the Star Spangled Banner up there in the sky." All of us. The cubicle worker, rancher, nurse, construction worker, soldier, truck driver, executive, police officer, retiree, janitor, farmer, child, teacher, homeless person, pastor, warehouse worker, judge, plumber, actor, pilot, food service worker, etc. Not only are we all Americans, we are America.

Given that there are some 323 million of us scattered over nearly 3.8 million square miles, we are necessarily a diverse lot, with different backgrounds, experiences, and ideologies. There is no single right way to be an American. Nor is any law abiding citizen more American than any other. The military veteran is no more American than the music producer, nor is the farmer more American than the athlete. The American flag represents each of us, but each of us has a unique relationship with America.

I doubt that any American citizen thinks the country is so great that it lacks serious problems; although, we may comprehend and prioritize problems differently. To me I see a nation that, even with all its flaws, has produced the greatest level of widespread opportunity and prosperity in the history of this world. When I hear the national anthem I feel a swell of gratitude that demands that I acknowledge this blessing.

When I see highly paid people involved in professional kid's games deliberately kneeling rather than standing during the national anthem, it looks like a bunch of ungrateful spoiled brats, regardless of how they view certain national problems. They are making the impossible perfect the enemy of the realistic good.

But I would never want to force anyone to stand or place their hand over their heart to honor the flag or the national anthem. You see, my dad grew up in a country where failure to engage in mandated patriotic displays was punished. We call that place Nazi Germany. We don't want to be like that.

Toward the end of his poem, Fries says, "We are that one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. And because we all live in the land of the free, you don't have to say it at all unless you want to." When people say that those who fail to engage in traditional patriotic displays stand against everything that this country stands for, I counter that the freedom to refuse such displays is a key element of what America really stands for.

From my perspective, professional athletes and others who deliberately kneel during the national anthem have chosen a protest method that is too vague. Exactly what are they protesting? Police racism? Inequality? President Trump? Something else? Perhaps different protesters are protesting different things by the same action? How will they know when their goal has been achieved so that they can once again stand during the national anthem? None of this is clear.

Marketing people call this bad branding. Using such a strong symbol with such a muddled message can't help but raise the hackles of many who cherish the symbol. Maybe they'd like to help. But it's not exactly clear what they are supposed to help with.

While I am willing to stand up for the freedom of people to protest in a non-violent manner, I also defend the right of people who disagree with the substance or manner of a protest to refrain from buying goods or services that support the protesters. They are free to prove their sentiments through a boycott. The question is whether they can really stay away from a beloved activity long enough and in large enough numbers to make their point.

This gives us a view into the substance of America, where we have a broad marketplace of ideas. Despite the sharp differences on the matter I have discussed, I feel that America is robust enough to navigate the situation and come out stronger on the other side. It's what America does. Even in our current pampered age, I believe that America retains a degree of grit and resilience that will keep it going for a long time.

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