The flag, the national anthem, patriotism and Trump

Just when you think Donald Trump can’t possibly say or do anything more politically divisive than he’s already said and done — he does.

He blasted NFL players who supported former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Slipping into his arrogant, scolding, reality TV persona, Trump stated at a political rally in Alabama, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired.'”

At the Charlottesville demonstration in August, neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan members carried Confederate and American flags. Why no condemnation by Trump and his supporters for this blatant disrespect of the stars and stripes? Rather then castigate American-flag-waving Nazis, Trump stated that some were “very fine people.” What could be more disrespectful to the flag and to the memory of tens of thousands of Americans who died fighting Nazi Germany?

As a veteran, I understand the position held by those Americans who believe that everyone should stand during the national anthem as an act of respect and patriotism. But the stinging rebuke from Trump is the ultimate hypocrisy, both on his part and that of many of his supporters who would likely imprison Kaepernick and other athletes if given the chance. Yet these same Trump supporters have no problem with a president who was a five-time draft dodger. By what stretch of the imagination does that make sense? A peaceful protest via kneeling during the national anthem is un-American, but someone fit enough to play high school sports (football, tennis and squash) who avoided military service when his country was at war is a patriot?

As far as I can tell, Trump avoided military service not from any conviction(s) that the Vietnam War was wrong and/or immoral. Rather, he believed his life and career were more important than any conflict his country was involved in, which makes his draft-dodging especially despicable.

For those who believe politics has no place in sports, you won’t find support for this position in the Department of Defense, which has paid teams in every major-league sport and NASCAR millions of dollars to showcase on-field color guard performances and re-enlistment ceremonies. A government oversight report released in 2015 by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake includes a memo from the NFL front office to teams providing guidance on “paid patriotism” issues.

An unknown number of military veterans have defended the rights of athletes to kneel during the national anthem as an act of peaceful protest. Shortly after Trump’s “son of a bitch” rant, “An Open Letter of Support for Colin Kaepernick From American Military Veterans” appeared online. Here are excepts from that letter, signed by 35 veterans of the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force:

“As military veterans, we write to express our support for the tradition of advocacy by athletes that is embodied by Jackie Robinson and carried on by Colin Kaepernick.

“For generations, American athletes have used their public voice to force our collective attention towards the crises and issues that challenge our national conscience. Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ariyana Smith, the Minnesota Lynx, the Missouri Tigers football team, and stars across professional sports declaring that BlackLivesMatter, are all part of a brave tradition of protest by athletes. Far from an anomaly, athletes leading on social change has been the norm in America. The right for those athletes, and all Americans, to protest is one we all pledged to defend with our lives if necessary. Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech [emphasis in the original].

“As veterans, we implore all Americans to find your own way to challenge the status quo and advocate for ‘a more perfect union.’ Your method of protest may not be to refrain from the traditions surrounding our national symbols, and it doesn’t have to be. You have the same right as Colin Kaepernick to choose whether and how to advocate, a right we support and served for. However you choose to use your voice, please do so with an understanding that many veterans do not condemn the protest of activists like Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick and everyday Americans seeking justice. Indeed, we see no higher form of patriotism.”

At the Detroit Lions vs. Atlanta Falcons football game on Sept. 24, the Lions honored retired Army Lt. Col. Leonard Rusher. An African-American, Rusher was asked about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. Rusher stated, “I understand why they are kneeling. That’s what I fought for, for them to have the right. Personally, I don’t like it. But I appreciate that what they are doing is a nonviolent protest.” He stated the players were “expressing what the flag stands for — equal opportunity, equal justice, equal liberty.”

Contrary to the intentions of NFL players, kneeling during the national anthem may be antithetical to the Black Lives Matter issue. It has ignited a controversy that could overshadow the message they hope to deliver as well as further polarize an already divided country.

While taking a knee may prove to be an ineffective and possibly counterproductive strategy, protesting injustice has been a significant component of the American political tradition since the colonists expressed their grievances against the British. One doesn’t have to agree with the sentiments, goals and behavior of peaceful protesters, but we must all agree with their right to dissent, including kneeling during the national anthem.

Freedom of speech and expression is being undermined by the political right and, disturbingly on occasion, by the political left as well. As much as I detest the inflammatory hate speech of ultra-conservative Ann Coulter, I loathe those college and university administrators who refuse to let her speak on campus. No freedom of speech, no freedom to assemble, no freedom to protest and eventually, the end of freedom.

In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (1892-1954): “If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.

Sources:

“An Open Letter of Support for Colin Kaepernick From American Military Veterans,” (Sept. 2, 2017) Medium, www.medium.com

Boren, C. (Nov. 4, 2016) “Report: At least 50 teams were paid by the Department of Defense for patriotic displays,” The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Bruni, F. (Sept. 27, 2017) “The Lecture Donald Trump Needs” New York Times, www.nytimes.com

Griggs, B. (Sept. 30, 2017) “Of course a divided America can’t agree on the definition of patriotism,” CNN, www.cnn.com

Stelter, B. (Sept. 22, 2017) “With ‘son of a bitch’ comments, Trump tries to divide NFL and its players,” CNN, www.cnn.com

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