In the fall of 2017, as the football season was beginning and the controversy over taking a knee during the national anthem bubbled back up from the ether, I had a thought:
If you don’t want politics in sports, then eliminating the flag and national anthem — which are inherently political — should be Step One.
If you’re of the opinion that political discourse has no place in our national pastimes, if you really feel those events should be a respite from the divisiveness you can’t escape anywhere else, then fine. I’m even inclined to agree with you — but you’ll have to go all the way. There is no separating the flag and national anthem from politics. The very act of saluting or standing in reverence to them is a political statement, as is the act of taking a knee. That’s why everyone gets so worked up about it. If those actions didn’t mean anything, there’d be no problem.
I shared my thought on social media and the response I got was telling. While some felt mine was a great solution — an easy way to make the entire problem disappear — I suspect that they didn’t really think it through. Most people actually do want politics and their pastimes integrated, so long as it’s their politics and not someone else’s. This, of course, is because a fish doesn’t realize it’s wet. Your politics don’t feel like your politics; to you, they’re just the sensible and proper way to live. When someone else’s politics come to your doorstep, it feels like an affront.
Something else occurred to me soon after that initial thought I had. In America, the flag and anthem are meant to symbolize freedom, and that’s why all the posturing and arguing over respect and reverence hinges on that word. Soldiers fight for your freedom. They’ve died for your freedom. Freedom ain’t free. Of course, we all know what the flag and anthem symbolize— at least, we pretend we do. What I hadn’t thought about before is that America is unique in this way. While flags and anthems are always symbolic and reverent, the American flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which is about the flag) are symbolic and reverent to a concept, not just a piece of land. The land of the free. It’s an abstraction, and a powerful one, which is why it means so much to so many.
But this very fact is exactly why the attitude that one should “respect” the flag and the national anthem is nonsensical. You aren’t respecting freedom if you are forcing others to respect freedom your way. In fact, shirking the anthem, and even burning the flag, are more respectful to the idea of America than standing and saluting.
You can’t desecrate a symbol of freedom, no matter how hard you try.
What many seem to forget is that defiance is our country’s lifeblood. From The Declaration of Independence to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, the spirit of America has been questioning authority, asserting one’s inalienable right to speak their mind and do as they will. Americans don’t kowtow. Americans don’t submit. Americans protest. Americans resist. Americans want freedom.
The painful irony is that the dogmatic insistence on “respect” is exactly what sparked the rebellions that birthed this country in the first place. We are here because people didn’t like being told what to do, how to live, what to revere and how to revere it. Forcing someone to act as though they respect something they don’t, or to be silent when they have something to say, is about as unAmerican as you can get. The closer we move to that kind of quasi-religiosity, the further we go from who — and what — we are supposed to be.
As the late, great George Carlin once said, “I don’t get all choked up over yellow ribbons and American Flags. I consider them to be symbols, and I leave symbols to the symbol-minded.” Too often, we confuse the ideas our symbols represent with the symbols themselves. America and its ideals don’t exist in “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the Stars and Stripes. They live and thrive in those brave enough to step up and speak out because it is an exercise of their freedom to do so — the freedom people have died to guarantee; the freedom that is most precious when it is used to say something unpopular or uncomfortable.
Whenever I see the flag or anthem being dismissed, destroyed, or defiled, regardless of whether or not I agree with the reason, I smile. That’s because I know that you can’t desecrate a symbol of freedom, no matter how hard you try. The very act of burning the Stars and Stripes only reinforces what the flag represents. There is no greater, more powerful, and more enduring symbolism than that. In fact, the only way someone can truly disrespect a symbol of freedom is to limit the freedom of anyone to do with it what they wish.
People who got upset over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee missed the point. They got angry when his behavior should have made them proud, even if they disagreed with his reasons. Kaepernick’s act of defiance was incontrovertible proof that we live in a country so free that the freedom to protest the country itself is protected. It’s very easy to lose sight of how powerful and precious that idea is. That is something worth revering.
I have never been one to salute and march and show the kind of religious deference for the flag and anthem that was expected of me. I was never moved to, and when I did it to placate others it never seemed right, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized why: I don’t believe in pledging allegiance. I don’t believe in saluting flags. I don’t believe in consecrating anthems. I believe in America, and that’s a different thing. Prostrating for the symbols seems antithetical to what the symbols are supposed to mean. Perhaps if we all kept this in mind, the national conversation could move on from discussing what is being “disrespected” to discussing why.