Patriotism, Posturing and Coercion

‘Tis the season for flag waving, and with all the discussion in the news about patriots and “un-patriots” (I prefer non-patriot), this is a good time to reflect on what patriotism is – and what it isn’t.

Man selling flags and Liberty crowns
4th of July vendors

Most agree that someone who has served honorably in the military is a patriot. Those willing to die for our country – and especially those who have given life or limb – are rightly honored for their sacrifice on our behalf. But in as much as Viet Nam taught America that soldiers can’t be held accountable for the sins of their superiors, it also taught us what Europe learned in WWII: that those superiors can and should be held accountable for their decisions and orders which, while they may benefit the nation they serve, are contrary to standards of human morality and decency recognized by all humanity.

But much of what is touted as patriotism is merely posturing: “behaviour or speech that is intended to attract attention and interest, or to make people believe something that is not true.”

Consider an auto dealership that prides itself on having the biggest (or most) flag(s) in town. They want you to think they’re patriotic. But perhaps this dealership is also the one that sells cars on contracts that require all the interest (at usury rates) to be paid before the principle in the vehicle is paid. Should the car die or be totalled before the five or six year contract is up, you’re out of luck — you still owe money. Perhaps that’s good business practice. But it’s not patriotic.

We all know someone who loves to talk about how patriotic they are but, when push comes to shove, they always have an excuse not to: serve in the military, work with the Red Cross or similar group, help a neighbor in need, vote their conscience. This is the category that I suspect many of us fall into, probably not always, but certainly at some point in our lives. Flying flags is easy. Going to a rally of like-minded people is easy. Examining an issue from all sides? Not so easy. Taking an unpopular stand because it is the right thing to do for the sake of all? That is no longer posturing.

And then there is coercion. My great uncle was arrested by the Nazi SS for “unpatriotic acts” and disappeared forever. His crime? He wouldn’t let his daughter join Hitler’s Youth. There was no patriotism in that episode, just coercion.

Closer to home in time and space, we have the whole NFL debacle. Before you jump in and start arguing with what you expect me to say, let’s examine this in light of patriotism, posturing and coercion.

Our country survived more than 150 years – including a civil war – without needing either an anthem or a pledge. The Star-Spangled Banner was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931. The Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 to celebrate Columbus’ “discovery” of America, was not adopted by Congress until June 22, 1942, and modified slightly in 1954 to include “under God”. And has been debated ever since.

Both were adopted in times of cultural and political upheaval, first in reaction to Fascism in Europe and large numbers of refugee immigrants, and second from the rise of Communism. From their inceptions, they have had their detractors. The Anthem glorifies a battle scene, and the full, original poem, also mocks the battalion of Colonial Marines — escaped slaves and indentured servants fighting with the British for their freedom, which had previously defeated Key in battle. Therefore, in addition to pacifists such as Mennonites, anyone descended of slaves or indentured servants who are knowledgeable of its history may wish to decline to sing it. Or stand.

Less than a year after its adoption by Congress, the requirement to say the Pledge of Allegiance hit the Supreme Court in 1943. In the summary of their ruling West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) the Court stated:

2. The action of a State in making it compulsory for children in the public schools to salute the flag and pledge allegiance — by extending the right arm, palm upward, and declaring, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands; one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. P. 319 U. S. 642.

And:

4. Under the Federal Constitution, compulsion as here employed is not a permissible means of achieving “national unity.” P. 319 U. S. 640. (emphasis mine)

Note that they did not restrict the issue solely to religious objections.

So, while it has become custom to stand and sing or listen to the Star Spangled Banner before major sporting events (hopefully while saluting the US flag) it is not – nor should it be – a requirement.

Kneeling in silence has always been considered a sign of respect, whether to God, royalty, fallen comrades, or family. Until a man knelt in remembrance of African-Americans treated differently by law enforcement because of their color. I’m old enough to remember the Black Panther salute in Mexico City at the 1968 Olympics. That was militant. This was as peaceful a protest as one could have. And it cannot be overlooked that many players and coaches who have served in the military joined in or at least supported their fellow players. They understand what this country is supposed to be about.

In his speech at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln began:

Civil War Grave with US flag
Civil War Grave

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth onto this continent a new creation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Militarily, that war ended. Culturally, the war continues. Every generation since, our society has had to struggle for the rights of Irish, Chinese, Italians, Polish, Jews, Japanese, Women, Native Americans, LGBTQ, Hispanics and – still – African Americans. Lincoln knew people well. He finished by saying:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…..and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

To require a certain posture or even absence during the anthem is coercion. To support such a measure is posturing, waving a flag without understanding.

To be a patriot in America is to fight for and to protect the rights of all people in America, whether on a battlefield, in the courts, on a march in the streets, at a food bank, or when someone says, “Not in my back yard.” Or on your knees.

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