In all of the controversy surrounding first Colin Kaepernick and then other athletes' taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem, I want to step back a bit to take a critical look at the anthem, the flag, and other symbols of our nation for how they are used as markers in a certain kind of cultural warfare. The GOP has seized upon these symbols to cast itself as the party of patriotism, while Democrats have had to defend themselves against charges of being the party of godless globalists, who are either ambivalent toward their country, or actively hate it. Dissent and protest have hence been cast as unpatriotic acts in this false dichotomy, and loving one's country means blind loyalty to its leader--as long as he is not a black Muslim from Kenya. Ironically, Trump made his entree into national politics in a big way when he fomented the birther movement, casting literal doubt as to whether president Obama had any claim to being American, let alone commander-in-chief.
In North Carolina, state law mandates that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited daily to all K-12 students in the state. Students are directed to stand and recite the pledge, but may opt to sit and/or remain silent. Any act of dissent in this setting, whether due to a child's religious or political upbringing thus becomes an instant marker to the whole group of someone who does not belong or conform, an often terrible burden for a child.
I remain steadfastly against the very idea of the Pledge of Allegiance, and certainly to what amounts to forced daily recitation of it by children. The fundamental underpinning of our government is that it only exists at the "consent of the governed." In other words, the Pledge has it backwards: public officials and government agencies operate at the whim of my authority. They are not on a level above me, to which I must pledge fealty like some medieval serf. As a citizen, I automatically enjoy the exact same set of laws as every other citizen, regardless of my stated loyalty to the country, "under God," to which I belong. The Constitution guarantees my right to stand on a street corner with a bullhorn and criticize every action of my government. Censorship is one kind of violation of free speech, but so is coerced speech. Surely silence on any matter at any point is protected. You have the right to remain silent.
I have further objections to our specific pledge, first and foremost the forced reference to God. Atheists' and agnostics' rights are abridged here; I don't see how you can see it any other way. A kindergarten child's parents should not have to have a religious conversation about activities that take place in a public school because of coerced speech. Inculcation in all sorts of societal norms is inevitable, and in many cases desired. Children develop harmful implicit biases, but they also learn how to line up quietly, work in groups, and play without hurting themselves and others. Yet this deliberate, state-mandated coercion seems excessive, unnecessary, and unconstitutional. In all cases, courts should look first to protect difference and dissent, not rote speech that is often used in highly authoritarian settings such as the military.
The Pledge of Allegiance uses a bizarre rhetorical construction in which the speaker pledges not to the nation first, but to the flag itself. To the young mind, the flag, unfurled in the room, looms larger than the nation it represents. Perhaps this concretization is important to kids who cannot grasp ideas like liberty and justice. Of course, that begs the question of why we enforce the recitation of these concepts. Would it not be better at that age for children to discover these ideals organically in the course of their schooling and their home lives?
Fewer symbols could be more heavily freighted than our nation's flag. The far right has depicted an assault against not just the values of our nation, but the flag itself, hence, the obsession with flag burning that was an overblown concern for years. Much like the so-called War on Christmas, this campaign was deliberately created to drive a wedge between conservatives and liberals by playing on emotional unfinished business surrounding the culture wars of the 60s. The flag has become inextricably connected to the military, with any perceived disrespect to one automatically attaching to the other. Increasingly, politicians and public officials surround themselves with an array of flags, and heaven help the pol who does not sport the obligatory stars-and-stripes lapel pin.
Who can deny the pomp and circumstance and giddy multiculturalist glee that comes with seeing the flags at the United Nations, World Cup, or Olympics? Yet, flags connote battle, conquest, and empire as well, epitomized by our national anthem. We of course must have a flag, and it should fly over government buildings, in courtrooms, and even schools. Yet, all care should be taken to avoid making it alone the subject of reverence without always attaching it to larger abstract concepts such as liberty.
The Star Spangled Banner is a fine (though troubling) patriotic poem that commemorates a battle from a unique point of view. Its choice as the official anthem of our nation has an interesting history I will not recount here, but it was far from a settled question until relatively recently. Yet, social convention somehow requires that it be sung at the beginning of... sporting events? This ritual is so engrained in consciousness that it takes a second to realize how arbitrary the practice really is. Why not sing it at the start of each work day, or at polling places? Why have football, baseball, and other pastimes become spectacles for forced collective patriotic display? Looked at in this way, Colin Kaepernick's knee does not seem bizarre at all. What is bizarre is 50,000 people singing about only being able to see a flag when rockets explode during a naval bombardment, when they are gathered to see grown-ups play a game with a ball.
Ideals V. Realpolitik
As a teacher, I lead the Pledge as directed by state law because, though I am opposed to it, I choose not to have that battle in that way in that setting. I work with elementary students, and I would rather give them positive associations with the inevitable symbols of power they are going to encounter. With me or without me, my students are going to acquire a whole host of learned behaviors, both harmful and harmless, as well as constructive. Progressives have a challenge on their hands in negotiating the appropriate response to protests by athletes and others. The brilliance of Kaepernick is that he says, okay, you are going to make me bow to symbols of a society that oppresses my people, fine, but I am going to seize the opportunity to transmit my message at the same time. While seemingly divisive, he in fact is pointing out an uncomfortable truth: "the land of the free" is a term wholly dependent upon race in our country. The conversations his acts provoke lead us eventually to a greater wholeness, when previously suppressed voices are heard.
How far will mainline Democratic politicians go in their support of protesting athletes? Can they afford to continue to appear to be the unpatriotic party? Won't Fox and Friends use this moment to keep bashing liberals as selfish, entitled, America haters? There has to be a way to craft a message of patriotism that posits that dissent, protest, speech, and civic engagement are high national values and virtues. We will never be able to wrap ourselves in the flag the way the far right does, nor should we want to: our allegiances are to the documents themselves, in other words to law. I pledge allegiance to a set of ideas, imperfect though they be, that at least set us on the road towards a society where all are treated equally under the law, and where human rights, peace, and dignity are the highest values. How's that for a start?