Thinking about the National Anthem and Protests

The din that arose concerning Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem at the start of an NFL game, has not abated. Indeed, he has been joined by other professional athletes, as well as athletes at the collegiate and high school levels. All have stated they are protesting the lack of racial progress in this country and in particular the numbers of young black men killed by police.

The most common response to the phenomenon is they are “disrespecting” the country – and by extension all police and members of the military – by refusing to stand for a song. One commentator went so far as to say that Colin Kaepernick was supporting ISIS by refusing to stand for the anthem.

First, before anything else, I want to protest the lack of respect given the noun disrespect. Yes, the Oxford English Dictionary cites its use as a verb as far back as 1614 and in North America it has gained increasing use – beginning in urban street culture, it has moved into the mainstream. But to me, it makes someone seem too lazy to search for a better sentence. Sorry if I showed disdain for its use; didn’t mean to disrespect you.

On to the main issue – what is the responsibility of a citizen to stand at the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance?

These are treasured symbols of American democracy and I understand that.

From the earliest days of elementary school, I recall standing at attention with my right hand over my heart and my raised left hand pointing to the flag as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. And while serving as a Naval Officer, I stood at attention with pride in numerous domestic and foreign locations as the national anthem played.

The US flag and national anthem both add to the “mystic chords of memory” for US citizens, to borrow the last majestic line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

But they are symbols intended to remind us of something more transcendent; and that is the system of government and our individual rights as formalized by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I will refrain, but only a bit, from George Carlin’s pun that they are symbols and symbols should be left to the symbol-minded.

The point is that revering a symbol while separating it from its deeper meaning does not represent the same thing as revering the deeper meaning. Beyond that, one can not pick and choose the rights we have as citizens.

During the 1980s, the Republican party, cynically but brilliantly, co-opted the US flag as its own; the subtle message was to say that only it represented American values. Others, in order to protest policies undertaken by the Reagan administration – particularly in Central America, burned the flag. There were the same screams about “anti-American” we hear today.

It seemed to me then as it seems to me now that political protest is a profound right of citizenry as articulated and protected in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. One can not pick and choose in which forum free speech is permissible.

Or consider the ongoing uproar over the Second Amendment. Without arguing the merits or demerits of their arguments, to listen to gun lobby one would think it is the most sacred right enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

At the same, the holy warriors of the Second Amendment do not raise the same howling protests over the ongoing violations of the First, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eight Amendments that are flouted by successive Presidential administration since the passing of the PATRIOT act and the “war on terror.”

Finally, the indignation over seeing young black men exercise their rights to freedom of speech must be seen in the following way – disrespect is appropriate only when it is not accompanied by political speech.

Think that’s absurd?

Let’s start with Title 36 of the US Code. Section 301 states that during the playing of the national anthem all individuals (not in the military and in uniform) should stand at attention with their right hands over their hearts, and men not in uniform should remove their headgear and hold it over their left shoulder (their right hand being over their heart).

I’ve watched many NFL games over the years and I’ve watched plenty of people standing casually during the national anthem – men and women wearing silly hats; talking with their neighbors; holding a beer in one hand; or eyeing the cheerleaders. I never heard one instance of protest over any of them “disrespecting” the police and military – or giving aid and comfort to ISIS.

Apparently we are democracy only when its convenient, and only when it doesn’t interfere with sports entertainment. And not to put too fine point on it – only when it is practiced by a majority that acts in accord with what the political elites want.