We turn on the television to watch a couple of football teams duke it out on the gridiron and before the first play begins we see many of our heroes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. It angers some of us, and others appreciate that every citizen enjoys the freedom to protest. We begin a national discussion that sometimes devolves into an argument about how we should react to this development. Our president insinuates himself into the commentary using a pejorative to address the athletes that he finds offensive and suggesting that those who dare to insult the country should be fired. We line up to take sides. Some turn off their televisions and vow to never watch the NFL again. Others celebrate the rights of Americans to exercise their freedom of speech regardless of whether or not we agree with their sentiments. Many simply shake their heads and attempt to ignore the whole thing. In the midst of all the brouhaha we wonder what we should tell our children. How should we explain to them what is happening?
We live in a country that was founded with a rebellion against the perceived tyranny of a government that had lost touch with the needs of the people. At first there were merely demonstrations of dissatisfaction with the ever growing demands and limitations being placed on the colonists in America by a king and parliament too removed from the realities of daily living in the strange faraway place that seemed so rough and wild. Eventually the whispers and grumbles took on a more daring turn with rebels pouring tea into the Boston Harbor and concerns becoming more and more vocal and strident. Then came the shot heard round the world, the volley that began a war for liberty. It was a treasonous time when the leaders of the revolution risked death by hanging to create a nation far different from anything the world had ever before seen.
Perhaps it was a fluke that the ragtag band of revolutionaries somehow managed to defeat the most powerful nation in the world at that time. Whatever the case they found themselves freed from the dictates of a government that had often ruled without consideration of the people, ordinary citizens who had insisted that they it was their birth right to have a voice in how they were to be treated. The new nation needed a Constitution, a set of rules to guide the decision making and management of a disparate group of people. The document that they created was at once both brilliant and imperfect, but it held the seeds for eventually moving toward a more inclusive and more perfect union. More than two hundred years later we still have work to do. We have had to face the hypocrisy of having been a democracy that allowed humans to be held as slaves and denied that women had the same rights as men. It took us perhaps to bit too long to remedy those situations, but we eventually managed to become more inclusive. In the meantime the residue of problems not adequately addressed from our government’s beginnings continue to demand attention, and so we have protests from some of our star athletes. Just what is it that they want?
If we begin with the individual who first remained seated during the playing of the national anthem we find that he was concerned that there is still racism in our country. He believed that in spite of a civil war, a civil rights movement, and civil rights legislation there are still too many people in our country who do not receive the same level of equality as those who have held the privileges of liberty from the beginning days of our nation. He worried that many whose ancestors were once slaves are more likely to be brutalized or even murdered by law enforcement officers. He wanted to bring attention to these issues and so he remained seated. After a discussion with a member of the army after his first demonstration he changed his tactic to going down on one knee out of deference to those who have served our country in the military. His point was not to show a lack of respect for our flag, our national anthem or our veterans, but to shine a light on issues that he felt we need to address as a nation.
This athlete’s cause had lost its energy to a large extent until President Trump made remarks at a political rally in Alabama that some felt were out of line and threatening. He called out any athletes who demonstrate their dissatisfaction by taking a knee and referred to them as “sons of bitches” who should be fired from their jobs. His remarks were well received by some citizens and abhorred by others. A national disagreement has ensued resulting in ever more professional athletes joining in the revolt by kneeling in solidarity with teammates who had been quietly protesting. So what is really going on here? Who is being patriotic and who is treasonous? How should we respond?
Let us start with a bit of the history of our national anthem and our pledge of allegiance. First it must be noted that we did not have a national anthem until March 3, 1931, when Herbert Hoover signed a law deeming The Star Spangled Banner to be our national song to be sung at official gatherings. Several other tunes had been in the running and the winner was selected by a rather narrow margin. We might just as well have been singing America the Beautiful, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Yankee Doodle, Hail Columbia, or My Country Tis of Thee all of which were finalists in a contest that began with a cartoon from Robert Ripley of Believe It or Not fame. It seems that on November 3, 1929, Mr. Ripley registered his amazement that the United States was one of the few countries in the world that did not have an official anthem. He urged his readers to write Congress asking the lawmakers to rectify this omission. More than five million people sent letters and the search for a fitting song ensued. Even after the decision was finalized there were many who were gravely disappointed by the ultimate choice and others who felt that if the Founding Fathers had wanted to formalize an anthem with all of its ritualistic insinuations they would have done so. Since that had not happened many took it to be a sign that the founders did not approve of such things. Nonetheless we had an official anthem and slowly but surely it became a fixture of American life.
The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag did not happen until 1942, when some citizens began to worry that the large numbers of immigrants who had come to this country might not understand the true nature of our nation. It was used mainly as an educational tool for children rather than a symbol of patriotism. The original version was written by a socialist newspaper editor and did not contain the words “under God.” That phrase was added in the nineteen fifties, so the history of pledges and anthems is a rather recent cultural phenomenon. Many religious groups exempted themselves from participating in such rituals because they felt that they should only swear their loyalty to God and not to a country.
So here we are today taking sides or ignoring the dust up altogether when the truth is that we can’t be certain that those who wrote our Constitution ever intended for our country to enshrine such symbols as indicators of patriotism or a lack of it. The protestors themselves insist that their intention was never to be disrespectful but to take advantage of their rights of freedom of speech as it was written in the First Amendment. Perhaps when discussing all of this with our children we would do well to attempt to determine how our leaders have interpreted that right over the history of the United States. So forthwith are a few quotes of merit. I will let the words of the individuals speak for themselves.
If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. —-George Washington
Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech. —-Benjamin Franklin
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we stand by the President right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people. —-Theodore Roosevelt
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear. —-Harry Truman
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. —-Elie Wiesel
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. —-John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Read to your children. Look up ideas together. Discuss issues from both sides. Dialogue with them without rhetoric or preconceived notions. Teach your children to open their minds to new possibilities. That is what they need. That is how to talk with them about what they see happening.