Despite the turbulent events in the world outside the mountains that sheltered our childhood, we in the Globe High School class of 1971 were little concerned with politics. In her Social Problems class, Mrs. Allison Roenigk provided about as much turbulence as we ever experienced when she told us, “You can’t have the war in Viet Nam and the Great Society at home.” The extent of our engagement with her pronouncement was to write it in our notebooks and regurgitate it on the test. One group in our English class used the Byrds’ antiwar song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as the narration for their slide-tape project, but the photos illustrating the lyrics neither represented nor awakened any sense of adolescent rebellion. We had, after all, stood in the schoolyard as fifth-graders and cried as the flag was lowered to half-staff on the day President Kennedy was shot. So seven years later, we still said the Pledge of Allegiance and stood for the National Anthem played every morning on the PA system.
And then one of our classmates didn’t stand; he was from somewhere else, and I don’t even remember his name. His protest was a quietly hushed-up outrage in our town, whose fathers sold Buddy Poppies, dressed up in military regalia and carried flags in the Veterans’ Day parade, and drank beer every evening at the VFW or the American Legion. We heard some whispers about freedom of expression, but such sacrilege was simply not discussed in our town of cowboys and copper miners who would gladly have shot any long-haired hippies wearing or stepping on or burning an American flag. They were patriots with a capital P.
We, their sons and daughters, were perhaps the last innocents to depart from those sheltering hills in search of a larger world beyond. At least one of our classmates, Billy Rivera, served in the Vietnam War. We saw a lot of flags burned, heard a lot of protesters shouting “Hey, hey, LBJ!” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” and felt a little less comfortable in our patriotic skins. We saw a war end in shame and a President resign in shame. We wandered far and in many directions, and we found many reasons to doubt our deep-rooted reverence for baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.
I, for one, was transformed by the university experience. I may not have learned to think for myself, but I did learn to think differently. And even that lesson is a first step in the process of developing critical thinking. That is, if I didn’t learn that there is an infinite number of views to be considered, at least I learned that there were two. I transformed from a devout church-goer to someone who said she would never set foot in another church. I voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 because he wasn’t McGovern and for no one in 1976 because Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist. And if I still sang “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I went forth into the world preaching that the United States was an evil capitalist society made possible because of the subjugation of the black race. By 1975, I had merely exchanged one dogma for another. However, at some point in the last four-plus decades, I have learned to see shades of gray (not THOSE!), to think in nuances, and to delight in many-sided arguments. I have not, I hasten to add, learned to think that all arguments are equally persuasive, but I know beyond doubt that they all have a right to be heard.
I have written numerous times about the most precious of the civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, as one can discover by typing “free speech” into the search field on the right. My argument has been that my left-leaning political bedfellows have betrayed our formerly shared cause in their often violent opposition to speakers on the right. However, the discussion has become much more complex of late, with scarcely a mention of the First Amendment by either side.
After an NFL pre-season game in 2016, Colin Kaepernick explained his decision to remain seated during the national anthem: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” In the ensuing year, the rapidly spreading protest has seen players in the NFL kneel, lock arms, raise fists, or stay in the locker room during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Players in other sports have become involved, as have college and high school athletes and band members. Even one lone baseball player participated during the 2017 season. The meaning of the protest has likewise spread to include issues of racial injustice, police brutality, and even the election of Donald Trump.
That name, which seems to be at the periphery of all debate in the US today, leads me circuitously to my primary point. At a political rally in Alabama on September 22 of this year, Trump asked, “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!’?” That is, the President of the United States suggested that a person should be fired from his job for expressing a political opinion. On the other side, a wide spectrum of celebrities responded with the hashtag #TakeAKnee. Stevie Wonder said, “Tonight, I’m taking a knee for America.” Ellen DeGeneres wrote, “Nothing is more American than the right to peacefully protest.” Michael Moore lambasted “Trump’s hateful anti-American comments.” John Legend’s words were some of the most pointed: “The White House is again urging the firing of people who exercise free speech to fight for equality and justice. Shameful.” Although I can’t list a one-to-one correspondence between individuals and their conflicting viewpoints on the two protests, any random search of the news both preceding and following the events in Charlottesville in August of this year reveals that the same celebrities who support the NFL protestors believe that those in Charlottesville should be condemned and silenced.
My own position will always be on the side of free expression, whatever the issue. I understand that these protests are not related directly to the First Amendment, but I nonetheless argue that only when viewpoints are freely and openly considered in the marketplace of ideas can we truly assess their merits. Concerning the NFL protests, I am closest to the position of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said in an interview on October 9:
I think it’s really dumb of [the NFL players]. Would I arrest them for doing it? No. I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. . . . [I]t’s dangerous to arrest people for conduct that doesn’t jeopardize the health or well-being of other people. It’s a symbol they’re engaged in.
She later apologized for being “dismissive and harsh.” Notably, though, her apology did not cover the viewpoints expressed; rather, she said she had been previously “barely aware of the incident or its purpose” and concluded, “I should have declined to respond.” I wish more of us were similarly ignorant of these events, which would in such a circumstance soon disappear. Moreover, I fail to see how a sporting event is the proper or even the logical forum to protest anything. More specifically, how can a sport in which 70% of the players are black men who make an average of $2,104,254 per year (2013 figures) be a reasonable venue for pointing out injustice against people of color?
Like Ginsburg, I see the NFL protests as “dumb and disrespectful.” I might even say with Charles Barkley, “It’s too late for symbolic. You gotta actually do something.” Racial injustice continues in our country 149 years after the Fourteenth Amendment granted the rights of both national and state citizenship to the freed slaves. Change is required in education, politics, the workplace, and in individual hearts and minds. I simply fail to see how kneeling on a football field relates to that change.
Let me be clear. I am unlikely to participate in any mass protest, whatever the cause it advocates. Pussy hat and Confederate flag are equally repugnant to me because their power is more in shock value than symbolism. I will not join thousands on the streets waving flags or fists because I prefer civil discourse to mob rule and quiet acts of compassion to showy public displays. However, no matter how irrelevant, unseemly, or divisive I might find their behavior, I will always use my voice and my pen to defend the rights of all men and women to express their views in whatever manner and whichever venue they choose.
Although he might not have known it–or wished it, that’s the lesson my father taught me when he saluted the flag and taught me to sing proudly those impossibly high notes
about the land of the free.