Imagine a scene where 70,000 people come together in the same space. A song starts to play, and everyone in the crowd stands at attention and looks in the same direction. Some people sing along, others remain silent, but everyone is reverent.
Except for one person. One person chooses to kneel in silent protest. He says nothing. He makes no other gesture. He simply kneels.
Now imagine that instead of the scene above taking place at an NFL stadium in America, the scene takes place in a stadium in North Korea.
You’ll have to imagine that happening because the scene that I described above couldn’t happen in North Korea. If it did, I suspect the kneeler would be killed.
The right for that person to kneel, or to peacefully protest in any other way that he or she sees fit, is why this nation has fought wars.
If we could go back and ask each and every soldier who came ashore in Normandy on D-Day why they were fighting, I suspect we’d get a wide array of answers. No doubt the most common answer would be to defend our country, to maintain our freedom, or protect those who cannot protect themselves.
I doubt anyone would say they served to defend the flag or the national anthem. The flag and the national anthem are symbols, they hold absolutely no intrinsic meaning. We assign meaning to them. In fact, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just a patriotic song until we made it the national anthem in 1931.
(Side note: Congressman John Linthicum introduced the bill to Congress that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem. It failed the first five times he introduced it, beginning in 1919. It passed the sixth time, while the country was in the Great Depression and looking for anything positive. Why did Linthicum care about the song so much? Because he represented the Congressional district in Maryland where Fort McHenry—the bombardment of which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song—is located. Perhaps “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” would be the national anthem if the congressman who represented Andover, Massachusetts—where that song was written—was more of a self-promoter.)
If we want to proclaim that we’re the greatest country on earth, then we need to fight for things that are more important than a flag or a song. And we need to realize that the flag and the song are only important because of the country that they represent.
Part of the reason that our country is worth fighting for is because we permit people to protest. If we don’t like something about our country then it’s our duty and our right to protest. It’s a right secured by the First Amendment to the Constitution. And despite the arguments put forth by the gun-fetishizers among us, the First Amendment is just as important (I’d argue more important) to securing our freedoms than the Second Amendment.
However, regardless of arguments about the right to protest, the fact that some in this country—shamefully led over the weekend by the President of the United States—have tried to portray kneeling as a protest against the flag, or the national anthem, or the military, only reinforces the argument about the need for the protest.
Kneeling for the national anthem was intended to bring attention to the fact that innocent black men are being shot by the police. Arguing that someone should shut up and be thankful that he lives in a country where he can make millions of dollars playing a game implies that the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Either you can succeed at your chosen career, and reap the benefits of living in America, or you can advocate on behalf of those for whom equal justice under law are still just words on the Supreme Court building. You can’t do both.
But that’s not what America is. That’s not what millions of men and women braver than me have put their lives on the line to defend. Just as they haven’t put their lives on the line to defend a flag or a song.
I understand that the flag and the song have meaning. I understand that people feel passionately about them. They’re symbols of our country. But staging a protest during the national anthem is different than protesting the national anthem.
If you want to live in a country where everyone stands in unquestioning reverence for a symbol, then North Korea is your country.
But if you want to live in a country where millions of men and women have fought and died not for a symbol, but rather for the unalienable rights granted to all citizens—and not just for those with whom they agree—then the United States of America is the right country for you.
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