Taking a stand by sitting down: Eight reactions to reconsider the need to honor the flag

September 14, 2016 by Philemon Abel

Author’s note: I would like to give thanks and credit to Jake Bingaman for sending me the Chancellor’s letter and giving me a chance to collect my thoughts on this issue.

William McRaven is among the many Americans opposed to the movement of athletes protesting the national anthem. On Aug. 29, McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System and retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral, sent out a memorandum to the university presidents and athletic directors. In it, he encourages coaching staff and players to stand up straight for the national anthem. His memo contains a collection of arguments often used to justify standing for the flag. However, these arguments are not without faults and questionable premises. Below are his reasons to stand for the flag, as quoted, alongside my two cents on why they don’t hold any water.

1. “[H]onoring the flag does not imply that the republic for which it stands is perfect … [it] is our collective commitment that we will constantly attempt to get better as a nation…”

However, honoring a flag and making a commitment are two separate actions that do not logically or inherently relate to one another.

2. “[B]y sitting in protest … they are disrespecting everyone who sacrificed to make this country what it is today – as imperfect as it may be.”

What about the countless veterans who have expressed support for Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback? What about Kaepernick himself, who is donating his jersey sales in addition to $1 million to charities while sacrificing his reputation and possible sponsorships in the name of pointing out injustices? Are they all just disrespecting themselves? How does one pick and choose between activists who support the flag and activists who don’t? Is one’s sacrifice for the country only valid if they respect the flag?

3. “Those that believe that the flag represents oppression should remember all the Americans who fought to eliminate bigotry, racism, sexism, imperialism, communism and terrorism [while waving the flag].”

But what about the Americans who created and perpetuated bigotry in the first place while also waving the very same flag?

4. “It is a flag for everyone … but the privilege of living under the flag does not come without cost. Nor does it come without respect.”

Freedom is a right that ought to be exercised, and, in an ideal world, taken for granted. Freedom should be the default, not a privilege that must be gained. We only appreciate our freedom as a blessing because there are so many without it. So many people are without freedoms because of the wrongdoings of others, not  because of the lack of people who “[fight] to eliminate bigotry, racism, [etc.].” I will respect the human beings who did take on those fights, not the flag of the institution that caused the problem in the first place.

5. “The nation and everything it strives for is embodied in the American flag.”

By what authority? Does this include the period of time when our nation strived to manifest itself from “sea to shining sea” while killing or driving out the Native Americans who lived in between? Does this include how our nation strives to put black bodies in jail for drug crimes and, according to former Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Matthew Fogg, intentionally chooses not to enforce drug laws in rich, white neighborhoods to this day, despite equal drug usage among blacks and whites?

6. “We strive to fix the problems that plague our society. But in striving to do so, we must have a common bond – some symbol that reminds us of our past struggles and propels us to a brighter, more enlightened future.”

Why must we have a symbol to act for justice? Symbols can and do unite people, but they are not necessary. Martin Luther King didn’t need a symbol to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. Harriet Tubman didn’t need a symbol to lead slaves to freedom.

7. “That symbol is the American flag.”

Something that is constantly overlooked in discussion about symbols is that they will always have different meanings to different people. Who has authority on what a symbol means but the ones who created it, the ones who use it and the ones who interpret it? If there is any significant incongruence between these three factors, then the symbol fails in its purpose as a “common bond.”

8. “By showing respect for the flag, they are making it possible for America to be everything we dreamed it could be.”

This is another non-sequitur that ends the memo. Showing respect to a piece of cloth does nothing to feed the hungry, house the homeless, provide mental and financial support for veterans, create jobs, stop political corruption or end police brutality.

I feel that the biggest disconnect between support of the flag and making our country better is best exemplified by Francis Scott Key himself, the man who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem. Key loved the flag; he saw it as a beacon of hope. But what has been forgotten was Key’s strong support of slavery as an institution. Key promoted his beliefs concerning the inferiority of blacks. He wrote the national anthem to celebrate the defeat of a black British regiment composed of runaway slaves. Key respected the flag so much that his poem became our anthem. What should matter more, however, is not how he – or anyone else – treats the flag, but how they treat other people.

Philemon Abel ’19 is from Kansas City,  Mo. He lives in Carter.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Howard September 19, 2016 at 3:37 pm

The Admiral has an opinion, just like you do. Adam Falk has opinions that he expresses, and he gives suggestions to students, faculty, and staff. He does this using college letterhead and other school symbols. Does that mean that such opinions are matters of fact? No. Does symbolism matter? Yes.

Does a large American flag fly over Williams College? Yes. What does that mean?

The problem with this article is that the Admiral is not making arguments “as a statement of fact.” He is expressing his perspective and desires. He is telling the audience the opinion that he has. That opinion is one that many others hold. That is why an American flag flies over Williams College. Or no?

The United States has a controversial history. Yes, a flag is nothing more than a rag with pictures on it. That is true. Flags only have significance because of learned heritage. The Admiral knows that.

That does not mean however, that I could fly the flag of the Islamic State in my yard and not have my neighbors take offense, even if I claimed I was flying it to support “world peace.” Symbolism matters.

Sure, there are “countless veterans” that have expressed support for this particular act of “sitting out the anthem.” There are also millions more, and probably over a hundred million Americans, who believe that this action shows disrespect for first responders, veterans, our military and the hopes of the nation. Veterans organizations such as the VFW, the American Legion, and others who hold protocol in high regard care about this kind of thing.

You have a right to make a public display by sitting it out but many will be offended. They have a right to be offended. Freedom of expression does not give anyone the right to tell others how they should feel about the particular act of expression being displayed.

The admiral has a right to tell his students his opinion. He is giving a point of view, not facts.

You have the right to offend people and people have the right to be offended. Don’t be shocked when they are if you do something like this.

How are you treating other people when you disrespect symbols they care about? Can you spit on a bible in front of a church? Sure you can. The Christian religion has a long history that includes hegemony and oppression…

Does that mean you have a good reason and are respecting others by spitting on a bible in front of a church?

I don’t think so.

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