Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Patriot Game

Right after he sat out the national anthem for the first time just over a year ago, I wrote about Colin Kaepernick and my feelings about his actions. As you may recall, Kaepernick's sophomore season as quarterback of the National Football League San Francisco 49ers was the stuff of legend. Replacing the injured Alex Smith in week 10 of the 2012 season, Kaepernick had his first professional start against the Chicago Bears in a Monday Night Football game in where he picked apart my hometown team's defense, completing 16-of-23 passes for 246 yards with two touchdowns in a 32–7 victory. Alex Smith got better fast but San Francisco's head coach, former Bears QB Jim Harbaugh, decided to keep the momentum alive with Kaepernick. Smith wouldn't take another snap for the 49ers (he's now the starter for the KC Chiefs), as Kapepernick led his team to the Super Bowl that year where they just barely lost to the Baltimore Ravens, incidentally coached by Harbaugh's brother John.

Kaepernick was brilliant the following year leading his team to the NFC Championship Game where they barely lost to the Seattle Seahawks. After signing a big time contract with the 49ers in 2014, things started to go south for Kaepernick and his team, and neither of them have been able to come close to the great promise of that magical 2012 year. 

In the interim, having lost his job as starting quarterback, Kaepernick's fateful moment came in a pre-season game against the Green Packers in August of 2016 when he refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as a protest over the rash of police killings of unarmed citizens, particularly in the African American community. When asked why he sat, Kaepernick responded:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
In my piece written shortly after the incident I said this:
I don't agree with the histrionics in his statement, which oversimplify the issue of killings at the hands of police to an almost laughable degree. I also believe that sitting out the Star Spangled Banner is nothing but an empty and misguided symbol in itself.
To be honest, at the time I questioned Kaepernick's sincerity. Was he serious I wondered aloud, about drawing attention to a difficult but important issue in our society, or in light of his of his fading career, was he merely drawing attention to himself? Well a year has passed and Kaepernick has to my satisfaction anyway, proved that not only was completely sincere about his actions, but he was also entirely serious when he said this:
If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.
Despite an entire season of derision from fans, including the public burning of his jersey and obligatory death threats, Colin Kaepernick continued his one man protest, his only concession: he turned to kneeling during the anthem rather than merely sitting. No one can say for sure if the reason that he is not playing football this year is because of his actions on the sidelines or on the playing field, but for his part, Kaepernick is not complaining about his fate. Before last week, the number of NFL players who took up Kaepernick's mantle and took a knee for the anthem was about ten. The issues of unarmed black people dying at the hands of the police, fans boycotting the NFL for its failure to punish the kneelers, or for that matter Colin Kaepernick himself, were barely footnotes in the press or on social media.

Then along came Donald Trump.

While you won't hear it from his die-hard supporters, things haven't been going well for the president. For the past eight months, it's been practically routine for the Sunday morning news pundits on the networks whose call letters don't contain the letters F, O, and X, to proclaim that the past week was a bad one for Donald Trump. Last week was no exception, capped off by Senator John McCain proclaiming that he would not vote for the latest iteration of the Republican measure to repeal and replace Obamacare. McCain's decision virtually killed once and for all the current president's one and only objective as the leader of the free world, to eradicate every trace of his predecessor's legacy.

Another ritual since Trump took office is Freaky Friday, the day of the week the president reserves for doing something particularly newsworthy, designed to deflect attention from all the bad stuff that happened during the previous four days.

It was on a Friday that Trump pardoned the controversial Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sean Speicer's "resignation" and Anthony Scaramucci's short lived appointment happened on a Friday. Reince Priebus and Sebastian Gorka were fired on a Friday as was Trump's private messenger from the underworld, Steve Bannon.

The "Friday news dump" as reporters call it, was not invented by Trump, but he and his administration have raised it to the level of an art form. Last Friday was a prime example when he found a tailor made topic for the perfect venue, creating from scratch, a news cycle that would distract the country from not only his failed health plan, but also the pathetic response to the devastation after Hurricane Maria in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, his irresponsible posturing with North Korea, the ongoing investigation into possible collusion with the Russians, and a number of other less than flattering issues concerning his administration.

Last Friday Trump was in Huntsville, Alabama to campaign for Luther Strange, a candidate running in a primary election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, the current Attorney General. Most of Trump's speech that night was forgotten except for the part where he went off on the NFL.

The NFL kneeling issue fell upon Trump like manna from heaven. Right next to God and country in the hearts of most Alabamans, the white ones at least, are the flag, the armed forces, and football. The president also has a well documented bone to pick with the NFL as he has been involved in numerous law suits with the league. It was a win win for Trump. Not only did he get to settle an old score with the football league, but he worked up his adoring base into a hypnotic frenzy when he addressed the issue of Colin Kaepernick and the handful of fellow kneelers who took up his cause with these words:
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. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!"
Trump's Huntsville audience ate up those words like candy, as did many Americans who don't necessarily support Trump, but do believe that the act of not standing for the anthem is tantamount to spitting in the face of our troops. On the other side of the issue are the folks who believe as I do, that kneeling for the national anthem is in no way disrespectful to our men and women in the armed forces, that on the contrary, it only reinforces the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution that our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen and women have valiantly fought and died for, for over two centuries.

Trump didn't stop at the anthem kneelers. Apparently a game known for its brutality is not violent enough for our president:
The NFL ratings are down massively...
...Because you know today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! ...
 They're ruining the game!
Never mind that there have been numerous cases of players, both active and retired with life altering brain injuries, the result of too many blows to the head playing football. This issue hit me particularly hard when one of my heroes, a star of the 1986 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, Dave Duerson, committed suicide in 2011. He shot himself in the heart rather than the head so researchers could study his brain to gain insight into the irreparable damage he incurred during his eleven years as an all-pro safety in the NFL.

Then there is the unspoken issue of race. Needless to say, the history of race relations in the state of Alabama in particular has been, to be generous, less than stellar. The names of its cities, Scottsboro, Selma, Montgomery. Tuscaloosa. and Birmingham, just to scratch the surface, are well known around the world as symbols of racial hatred and intolerance.

Trump and his supporters insist this issue has nothing to do with race. Well if Donald Trump says something is not about race you can rest assured one thing is certain, it's about race. As we saw in Charlottesville last month, Trump has opened up a festering wound in this country  one that many of us, myself included, foolishly believed was well on its way to be healed years ago. It is no coincidence that the players Trump referred to as "sons of bitches", are all black.

One could say that no, Trump was making a color-blind assessment of what he honestly considers an unacceptable affront to this country and to its military. While I don't agree with that point of view,  I could certainly accept that assessment were it not for one thing. What could be a greater affront to the values of our nation and to its military than Nazis and Klansmen marching in the home town of the man who wrote our Declaration of Independence? Trump did not call the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville sons of bitches, in fact he took pains to point out that some of the people who were marching arm in arm with the Nazis and Klansmen last week were indeed "very good people."

Standing for the national anthem is not an act of patriotism, it is a purely symbolic act. I get it, symbols are important, which is why I always stand for the anthem, even if the spirit doesn't always move me to do so. But this is a fact, no soldier fights and dies for a flag. If a soldier is true to a cause, he or she fights for what the flag stands for, not the flag itself. In the case of this country, at least our stated meaning of the flag is freedom and democracy. As I heard someone very eloquently put it the other day, soldiers don't fight and die so our leaders can tell us how to be a patriot, as the current president has been doing for the last week. Besides fighting and dying for a country, there are many other patriotic acts, big and small. Voting is one of them. Soldiers put their lives on the line everyday to protect our freedom and democracy, yet more than half the people in this country who are eligible to do so, don't recognize that sacrifice by bothering to vote. To me that is a far greater affront to our military than taking a knee during the anthem.

Working for the betterment of this country for all its people, including donating money to worthwhile charities as Colin Kaepernick has done to the tune of millions of dollars, is an act of patriotism. So is being an community organizer, working to empower disenfranchised Americans as our former president did before becoming involved in politics. Even though it didn't quite work out at the time it was written, the mission statement of our nation says this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Any person who keeps these values in mind and works toward them is a patriot. Likewise, anyone who would deny another person his or her life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness, is violating the very spirit of what our country and what our flag stands for. I find it very disturbing that a large number of Americans are more troubled by athletes taking a knee during the anthem at a football game, than they are about law enforcement officials unjustly depriving Americans of their lives.

I have written on this subject a number of times and I realize as I said in my earlier post on Kaepernick that the issue of police shooting black people at a disproportional rate to members of other groups is a very complicated issue. It is true that many of the people who were shot by police, contributed to their own deaths. But it's also true that many of them did not. If our fellow Americans are faced with an issue such as this which gravely affects their community and their children, who are we who are not directly affected by it to say that this is not a discussion worth having?

Some would argue that the national anthem at a sporting event is not the time and place for such a conversation. They say that highly paid athletes should mind their own business by sticking to the business at hand which is playing a game, not protesting.

To that I reply with one word, bullshit.

From Jackie Robinson, to Muhammad Ali, to Billie Jean King and beyond, we have a long and glorious tradition in this country of sportsmen and women using their platform, valiantly advocating not just for social change but for also for justice and decency. I might add that all of these athletes whom we now consider heroes, were excoriated by the general public in their day, who felt that taking the actions they did, just "wasn't their place."

Then there is the symbol of the flag itself. A particularly stirring meme is making the rounds of social media that features a folded flag that covered the coffin of a fallen soldier being handed to a grieving family member. The caption reads "Those who disrespect the flag, have never been handed a folded one." A more fitting and compelling argument could not possibly be made in favor of respecting our flag, what it stands for, and the fact that we should never take that symbol for granted and always respect it.

On June 14, Flag Day, 1923, members of Congress amended the US Code to add a section  (Title 36, Chapter 10 to be exact)  that dealt specifically with patriotic customs including the proper display of the American Flag and conduct during a rendition of the national anthem. The purpose of the code is to insure that "No disrespect should be shown to the Flag of the United States of America." But regarding the mandate of the code, it unequivocally states that:
no federal agency has the authority to issue 'official' rulings legally binding on civilians or civilian groups. 
Regarding the anthem the U.S. Code states this:
During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note..
So yes, not standing for the national anthem is technically a violation of this non binding code. So is not putting your hand above your heart. I'll have to remember that the next time I'm at a ball game.

But in reality, we violate the code ALL THE TIME.

Here are just a few things the code says about proper display of the flag:
It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.... The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement.
I've noticed especially in the last twenty years or so, the custom of business flying as big a flag as they could possibly get their hands on. Of course it goes without saying , the bigger the flag, the more patriotic the company, I've also noticed these flags flying 24-7, day and night, rain or shine, with no proper illumination, a clear violation of the code.
The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
I don't hear anyone objecting to the current trend at football games of unfolding flags the size of the entire field and holding them horizontally, which as you can see is also a violation of the code.
The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. 
Images of the flag adorn items of clothing from tee shirts to high couture dresses, from shoes to bathing suits to even underwear. Where is the indignity over that?
The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. 
We use the image of the flag to sell beer, crappy beer at that. On the Fourth of July and even Memorial Day, businesses blatantly use the flag to advertise their goods. I guess capitalism trumps patriotism. Oh yes, all those disposable plates and napkins with the image of the flag, those paper flags on toothpicks that we stick into cocktail wienies, all that is strictly forbidden.
No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. 
U.S. Army recruitment poster by James Montgomery Flagg
Are you listening Uncle Sam?

The code goes on and on about the dos and don'ts regarding the proper display of the flag which we disregard on a daily basis.

There is an interesting rule in the Code that may be applicable to the current controversy of taking a knee during the anthem:
 The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. 
One could argue that the rules of conduct as spelled out in the Code as this sentence implies, could be reversed in times of distress. One could also argue that we are living in one of those times, and that the taking of a knee during the anthem is a signal of distress.

I'm disheartened but not at all surprised to say that every single person I know and virtually everyone I've heard complain about the knee takers, has been a white person. To these people it appears, the issue of their fellow Americans being unjustly shot by law enforcement officials, is simply not important, at least not important enough to be worthy of a serious discussion. It harkens back to just a month ago when white people just couldn't seem to understand why black folks living in the South objected to statues of Confederate leaders occupying places of honor in their communities.

As a white person, this inability to be able to look from someone else's perspective, to walk in their shoes, in short, the ability or desire to have empathy for people of another race or culture, frankly sickens me.

As I said above, standing for the national anthem is not in itself  a patriotic act. It doesn't take any more courage or sacrifice than standing for the seventh inning stretch. It is ingrained in us, merely a conditioned, Pavlovian response to a stimulus otherwise known as a ritual, that we have participated in our entire lives. My guess is the majority of the people who stand for the anthem at sporting events do so with no serious thought about what they're doing or why.

However being in the spotlight and taking a knee for an unpopular cause you believe in, while having 50,000 people booing you, and millions more of your fellow Americans watching on TV and cursing your very existence, now that takes courage.

Fighting for unpopular causes and the right to do so is at the heart of the American experience..It is supposedly what this country is about. We live in a great but  flawed country. None of us should ever deny the right of a fellow citizen to sincerely and peacefully try to make this country a better place, even if we disagree with that person's ideas or their tactics.

If we actually LISTEN to the words of the anthem, we might take them to heart. In this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, we should be admiring those players for peacefully exercising their freedom, taking a brave stand for something in which they believe, rather than castigating them.

We Americans must be better than that.

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