By D. Paul Thomas
Even though the Stars & Stripes continue to “yet wave” to that nearly impossible-to-sing “Star-Spangled Banner,” virtue signaling reached a preeminent nadir recently as the Buffalo Bills remained in the locker room during the anthem’s playing and flag’s presentation. A just comeuppance was meted out on the playing field, with the Bills suffering a stinging defeat (38-24) at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefsâ€”an exciting, Mahomes-dominated AFC Championship game at Arrowhead stadium (1/24/’21).
Throughout this pass season, many of the NFL players and teams continued to protest in one fashion or another, and if you had the temerity not to join in, you were “cancelled” by your teammates, by management, and by any potential corporate sponsors. Initially a demonstration against the police brutality of African Americans, these protests have morphed into something of a political grab bag. With former President Donald Trump no longer a cause cĂ©lĂ¨bre, a generic, oppressive “systemic racism” has become the primary focus of our genuflecting players. Many Americans agree the players have a right to protest, a just cause, and a perfect platform, which raises some provocative questions for others to consider.
At a time when historical monuments are being torn down summarily, can the flag, which for some represents the oppression of blacks, illegal immigrants, and Native Americans, ever again be a symbol of America’s national unity? Is the United States endemically incapable of living fully into its pledge of allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all?” And since the flag doesn’t represent all of our diverse aspirations, does it even deserve the honor of being flown? While these questions may seem fatuous, discussions are well underway considering the flag’s removal from potentially volatile, public assemblies. For aren’t the flag, the national anthem, and the Pledge of Allegiance imperial and racist vestiges of a bygone eraâ€”offensive to our advanced sensibilities?
The “Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t our national anthem until 1931, and the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t adopted by Congress until 1945 (the words “under God” not added till 1954). “We got along without them before we had them, so we can get along without them now,” is how the trendy thinking goes. And in this process of social deconstruction, we can include the flag, thereby protecting the sensitive from the pain of the flag’s oppressive presence. And who knowsâ€”the courts may well agree. A legal foundation was suggested in 1943 by the Supreme Court’s decision (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette) to protect school children (Jehovah’s Witnesses) from being compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the flag, a gesture the Jehovah’s Witnesses viewed as idolatry. The First Amendment gave merit to their position, with Justice Robert H. Jackson writing for the 6 to 3 majority: “If there is any 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, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
It is not beyond reason that in some soon-to-be Orwellian future there may be legal standing for the “offense of the flag,” and we will ultimately remove it from our national landscape, along with insulting monuments and obtrusive crosses. Hang the old flag in the privacy of your home, if you wish, but public spaces are to be safe spaces, where no one is offended. It is hardly without historical precedent, and soon another flag will follow to replace the antiquated one, or have we forgotten the swastika so quickly?
Ironically, most Americans across the country view the protests as being offensive, not the flag. Simply put, the fans want the players to stand for our nation’s most iconic symbol of struggle, death and triumphâ€”“Old Glory!”â€”the flag that honors those who sacrificed that we might prosper; the flag that honors those who fell that we might stand and pay homage to the over one million Americans who gave their lives “that this nation might live.”
Let those who kneel, kneel. The marketplace will be the arbiter of these protests. Let the rest stand and mourn the fallen. Mourn for every black life lost by senseless brutality. Mourn every police officer who died in the line of duty. And, as we mourn, let’s ask ourselves: How can we honor those unjustly killed without dishonoring those who serve to protect us?
There is no facile answer, and it certainly is easier to “take a knee” than to roll up our sleeves and work at a homeless shelter, or volunteer at a youth center, or mentor a fatherless child, or serve at a free health clinic, or transport produce to a food bank, or provide adequate housing for immigrant families, or attend an inner-city church, or start a minority business. The list goes on and on, and we’ve all fallen short. There is yet work to be done. But, “Oh say can you see,” dear America, “...through the mists of the deep...the morning’s first beam...in full glory reflected? Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
D. Paul Thomas is an actor, playwright and essayist. Currently, he is Creative Director of TGA Productions - tgaproductions.org. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.