During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, my daughters’ nursery school in Madison, Wis., banned the American flag. One of the kids had some little U.S. flags left over from a family party and brought them to school to give to friends, some of whom took them home.
The next day, a few of their parents called the school to complain that giving the kids American flags was glorifying the war and violence.
The school immediately knuckled under, retrieved the flags and sent them back home with the child who had brought them in the first place.
Though I usually don’t take mindless political correctness of any stripe very seriously, I was flabbergasted and did what editors do: wrote an editorial that I hoped would help readers think about the issue.
It came back to me last week during the brouhaha over President Donald Trump’s attacks on some professional athletes and their taking a knee during the national anthem in protest over racism and violence against black people.
Maybe the point I made then will add another element to your thinking about the current controversy.
Back then, the liberal protesters were conflating the flag with the war, with what they saw as immoral violence and imperialism in pursuit of cheap oil.
Even if the Persian Gulf War had been about that, consider the illogic and fallacy of blaming and even damning of the flag for everything that happens, or has happened, under it.
If that made sense, the flag would be a symbol of slavery, the mass removal of Native Americans, Watergate, the robber barons, disenfranchisement of women, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, priest abuse of children, the Veterans Health Administration scandal and … well, pick your un-American activity.
In fact, I wrote back then, the flag is not a symbol of our national failures but rather of our national aspirations.
The flag and our anthem inspire me to stand up and cover my heart because they represent our national sworn commitment to honor the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
I know those are not just words and that, despite some weaknesses, stumbles and failures, indeed we have come closer and closer to those aspirations over the past two centuries — by, for example, ending slavery, achieving universal suffrage, fighting just wars, civilizing former enemies, legislating and enforcing equal rights, validating and enforcing the First Amendment. And, by honoring our veterans, who have been on the front lines of protecting all of what these advance.
That belief is shared by the vast majority of Americans, including the NFL players who were on the spot last weekend.
I hope you read Gene Frenette’s interview with Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell in Wednesday’s Times-Union. Campbell, whose father served in the Army during the Vietnam War, kneeled in support of his teammates Sunday, but was conflicted about it.
“I love my country with all my heart,” he said. “I’m proud to be an American. It’s the greatest country in the world.”
But, he added, “It’s important to understand [why players kneeled]. It’s because there are a lot of people in this country who need help, mostly minorities dealing with poverty, needing a better education system and feeling safe in their neighborhoods.
“This has been weighing on my heart for years. What can I do to help my people? These are American citizens.”
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the protest last year to call attention to police killings of African-American men. At first, he sat on the bench during the anthem, but when critics said that was disrespectful to veterans, he went to his knee instead.
The football players understandably are using their celebrity to stand up for an issue very personal and dear to them. (You have your voice. I have my pen. They have their celebrity.) After all, we applaud them for using their celebrity in support of community charities and projects.
With Kaepernick unemployed this season, the protests seemed to be fading until Trump fired up a campaign rally last week by damning the players, saying they should be fired and fans should walk out when they see a kneel.
His invective caused two reactions. It created or reinforced a perception among some people that the players were disrespecting the nation and its veterans, and it caused the NFL to close ranks. More players kneeled, and others, including coaches, staff and owners, locked arms in cohesiveness. It turned a protest into an angry crisis.
Just as the angry critics are patriots standing up for their national symbols, the players, too, are patriots struggling to make their country live up to its promise and aspirations.
The two groups were looking at the same acts and seeing different things. What the players were saying is not what many people were hearing. What those critics were hearing is not what the players were saying.
The players need to find a more effective way to make their protests. Listen to Campbell: “Getting involved in the community is the best way to make change. We want to talk to our troops and do what we can to support them. I want to get involved with our police department, find out how I can bridge the gap to minimize the fear [African-Americans] have of the police and vice versa.”
And, for their part, maybe the angry critics can stop yelling long enough to listen to the message.