I love my country. The United States is a fabulous experiment of human endeavor. We have strived to define and promote personal liberty and civil equality. We have embraced the race for the impossible and we have constantly pursued the magic of innovation. We reach out to others in times of disaster and turmoil. We abhor tyranny, we embrace diversity, and we celebrate individual liberty. We are certainly not perfect. Our mistakes, our inconsistencies, and our problems are great in number.
But, my love and admiration for the USA is exactly the reason that I find the recent furor and fervor over protests during the playing of the National Anthem to be so perplexing.
It is, of course, well known, that many NFL players have chosen to take a bended knee during the playing of the national anthem. This symbol of both respect and protest* is meant to draw attention to the ongoing problem of racism and bias in our country. These silent, individual protests have triggered backlash protests by citizens frustrated and angered that their fellow Americans are showing what they believe to be disrespect for the very country that gives them freedom.
I have been surprised by these backlash protests – whether it be President Trump wildly tweeting his disgust, Vice President Pence traveling hundreds of miles to attend a football game he knew he would not stay to watch, or countless Facebook posts of anger and demands for players to be punished.
Why have I been surprised? Because these protests have vividly reminded me of my childhood and the wisdom of my mother. In fact, two specific stories come to mind…
- I remember coming home from school one day to tell my mother about a classmate who did not recite the pledge of allegiance along with the rest of us each morning. We were told that our classmate was a Jehovah’s Witness and that his religion dictated that he should not make a pledge to anything or any symbol except his God. I did not understand. But, I asked my mother whether this was wrong and I suggested that my classmate should be forced to recite the pledge like the rest of us who did so willingly. To that comment, my mother replied, “We fought in World War II to stop that type of tyranny!” She continued to tell me that “…in America we protect everyone – even those who disagree with the rest of us [i.e., the populist majority]…” and that in America we “…believe in freedom so much, that even the people who depend on the protection America gives should be free to serve principles they hold dear!” My mother then told me stories of people – including Jehovah’s Witnesses – who had been murdered in concentration camps because they would not stand and they would not salute the Nazi regime. She told me that we would never be truly free if we were not free to sit when others stood.
- I also remember watching the Olympics in 1968, when I was but eleven years old. During those Olympic Games, I witnessed, along with millions of others, the silent protests of Black American Olympians who stood on the podiums of victory – having won Olympic Gold – with one hand raised over their head in a fist as the national anthem played. Those acts of protest were met with quick condemnation and anger from many Americans who watched in surprise and horror. I did not understand. And, I asked my mother whether it was wrong. She told me that in other countries protestors were silenced and dissent was not allowed. And she continued by explaining that “…only in America do we believe in a person’s freedom to protest so much that we even allow it to be seen by the world.” Since these protests were about ongoing racism and discrimination, my mother told me that, “…we [Americans] are not afraid to let the world know that we have problems and disagreements and that we are not perfect.” My mother then told me what she knew about slavery and oppression and bigotry and bias. She told me about segregation that had recently been outlawed and the ongoing struggles between races in our countries. She told me we had fought the Civil War to end the institution of slavery, but that the hatred between races took much longer to erase.
Expressions of wisdom from my mother – a conservative, Midwestern, church-going, Republican housewife. Simple statements of belief in and love for the USA. That, in the United States…
- “…we protect everyone – even those who disagree with the rest of us…”
- “…[in America, we] believe in freedom so much, that…people who depend on the protection America gives should be free to serve principles they hold dear!”
- “…we [Americans] are not afraid to let the world know that we have problems and disagreements and that we are not perfect.”
So when I see individuals peacefully protesting in the United States – even when, and especially when, the target of their protest is the United States herself…
- I am not angered, but rather thankful for the opportunity to live in land of liberty, rather than dictates;
- I do not feel betrayed, but rather reassured that my personal freedoms are intact;
- I sense no disrespect, but rather a deep belief in the principles for which our country stands.
We must ask ourselves…would we really want to live in a country where peaceful, public protest is perceived to be such a powerful threat that our leaders would seek to prohibit, control, and/or limit it? Would we want to live in a country where our flag and our national anthem are nothing more than empty symbols of freedoms promised but denied when those freedoms become inconvenient? Would we want to live in a country that verbally hails the liberty of individuals, but squashes those who think independently and differently from the majority? I think not.
The next time I hear the National Anthem, I will stand with hand over my heart, but I will be forever grateful that I could choose to sit down if I wanted….
(*) Kneeling is a gesture inspired and suggested by former NFL player Nate Boyer to Colin Kaepernick, as a compromise gesture – taking a knee mirroring the custom of one soldier showing respect and honor in memory of a fallen comrade. https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/heres-how-nate-boyer-got-colin-kaepernick-to-go-from-sitting-to-kneeling/amp/