Some cotton, some nylon, some polyester, many 100% made in the United States of America (and many more made in China). To some, the American Flag is just a piece of cloth, to others, it represents sacrifice for country and the values of the nation. Opinions on the American Flag vary, but one thing that nearly everyone might agree on is that 2016 was a tumultuous year for the Star Spangled Banner.
The American Flag is thought provoking and, like all flags, enmeshed with symbolism. The stars represent each of the states, the alternating stripes for the thirteen original colonies. The red is for bravery and valor, white for purity and innocence, and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
For many, the American Flag is worn backwards on a shoulder, representing a charge into battle instead of a retreat from America’s foes. The flag is present at public schools, government offices, and even at auto-dealerships. The symbol is found everywhere throughout the country, and perhaps that is why it has become the center of such a controversy last year.
In August of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick broke into national headlines when he (in)famously sat down instead of standing for the playing of the national anthem before a game. When challenged, he said that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Naturally, a social media firestorm erupted and battle lines were immediately and firmly drawn. Nearly everybody with a keyboard engaged in the debate over the flag and the national anthem. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remarked, “[Kaepernick’s protest is] dumb and disrespectful,” a statement for which she later apologized. Months later, Kaepernick still does not stand, and has, in fact, been joined by many professional athletes and even high school athletes.
The national anthem is a moving song that speaks to the heart. Its message is one of resilience and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. There is no mandate to stand for the national anthem, as presumably many home-viewers do not when stationed in front of the family room television before a football game. And there shouldn’t be. Kaepernick has a right to his protest, and a stronger right still to his message. My worry, however, is that Kaepernick’s protest has taken over his message. Instead of discussing the state of minorities in the United States, we have focused almost entirely on whether Kaepernick should stand or not for the national anthem.
Far more contentious than Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem is the even more symbolic act of flag burning. Before continuing, let’s take a collective breath. Flag desecration is an age-old form of protest that expresses utter displeasure with national acts. It is resistance to the national government, or even the idea of America itself. In the days following the surprise election of Donald Trump to the presidency, episodes of flag burning broke out across college campuses, most notably at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and at my alma mater of American University in Washington, DC.
Expressing distraught at Trump’s victory, students burned the flag with the intent of provoking a reaction, letting out their anger, or perhaps a bit of both. As an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton, I, too, felt many of the same emotions as some of my former classmates. For us, the election of Trump represented a victory for divisiveness in the face of unity and a YUGE win for ignorance against facts.
Once again, a national debate emerged, with even President-elect Donald Trump weighing in. On his favored platform, Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Setting aside the grammatically incorrect use of the hyphen, Trump dangerously waded into a contentious issue and proposed a concrete solution. Unfortunately for him, the Supreme Court has already answered his call-to-action with a resounding ‘no’ based on arguments rooted in various case precedents.
Writing for the majority in the landmark Supreme Court Case Texas v. Johnson, Justice William Brennan wrote “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” This decision has prompted the proposition of many constitutional amendments and symbolic bills to reverse it, one notably proposed by then-Senator Hillary Clinton in 2005, though all attempts to pass one have failed.
Burning the flag is offensive and is very clearly disagreeable. To me, the flag isn’t just a piece of cloth like some say. It is a flag rife with symbolism, full of deep meaning to those who hold it in high regard. On my bureau, for instance, sits a tri-folded American flag, given to me in remembrance of my father, a police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty. It is the same flag that lay draped over his coffin at his funeral. For some, the most salient emotion the flag evokes is oppression, but for others its primary meaning is quite different.
Americans should be able to feel hope in their country and have a sense of pride in their flag. If they don’t, the answer can’t be to revoke their citizenship and jail them. Rather, our politicians and thought-leaders should find a way to make the disenchanted feel included by the American motto: e pluribus unum or, out of many, one. President-elect Trump can and must do more to include those that disagree with him. For now he seems to consistently choose a path of arrogance and aggression, fighting a scorched-earth style campaign against his “haters.”
The left shouldn’t give up on the flag and what it represents. The flag is the nation, and the nation is embodied in the flag. Burning the flag, like kneeling before it, redirects the conversation from important issues, like the marginalization of minority communities. Instead of making headway on progress for the most affected, Americans will continue to get bogged down in the never-ending debate on the meaning of patriotism.
We can come together to fight for what the flag should represent: justice, equality, and freedom. When the flag is no longer emblematic of those traits – and I still hold that it is and will fight for the rest of my life to ensure that it remains so – then the national experiment that was started in Philadelphia in 1776 has begun to fail.