What does the flag represent?

[Update: I’m so uncomfortable with inverting the flag that I’m afraid I removed the image.]

Several NFL players have chosen to respectfully take a knee during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner in order to protest police brutality and racial injustice. This action has ignited a fire about the propriety of such an action. It is certainly legal to sit for the national anthem, but is it an appropriate means of communicating dissent?

President Trump has weighed in with his usual tact, suggesting that NFL team owners ought to fire any athlete who participates in such a protest.

What, then, does the flag represent?

More than anything else, the flag is a mirror that shows us ourselves. 

Reactions to the anthem protest, and by extension, the nature of the flag, tend to boil down to two.

The “Respect the flag” group

Those in this group see the flag as something aspirational. It represents what we strive for as a country. At the same time, those in this group tend to valorize the military so that, at least in their view, only those who have served in the military appropriately have the right (so to speak) to express a view on these sorts of matters.

I recently saw this video showing coach of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team discussing this issue with his players. The person who posted it applauded its content. I’m sympathetic, but in the end I believe the approach in the video offers a very limited understanding of the appropriate exercise of an appropriate patriotism.

As the son of a soldier and the son of a son of a soldier, I in no way wish to diminish the sacrifices made by those who have borne arms to defend the United States. However, notion that veterans alone deserve to have an opinion on civic events seems to me profoundly misguided and contrary to the very vision of civil society for which so many died.

Those who hold this view necessarily see themselves in the flag such that when it is inverted or engulfed in flames or dragged through the mud they feel a very real slight.

The Absolutist Camp

The United States has a highly developed sense of entitlement (I mean no negative connotation with this word) to speak freely on all matter of things. Among Americans there is a popular notion that First Amendment somehow protects all manner of speech from all manner of repercussions. Of course, such a view is profoundly disconnected from the laws of most states or of the United States.

The First Amendment guards against governmental interference with protected speech. An employee who makes a statement that his employer finds reflects negatively on the company is not protected by the amendment. She may be fired for any cause or for no cause, assuming no employment contract exists and state law permits at-will employment.

At the same time, however, public opinion is a powerful force that shapes the ways laws are applied and business decisions are made. Thus the call for a boycott of the NFL by both sides of the issue.

The main difference with this second group is that they feel the flag is a mirror that shows a shattered vision of themselves.

Those who support the NFL players tend to see in them people who, for a variety of reasons, have a legitimate grievance with American culture and see the flag as representative of a lived reality that has moved them to the margins, cheapened their worth, or wounded them in some other fashion.

The flag here stands for a system, a way of life that–despite claims to the contrary–is not living up to its potential.

Conclusion

It seems to me that both side of the issue have merit. It’s true that kneeling for the anthem or inverting the flag is impolite and offensive. I struggled with even putting an inverted US flag on this page, but in the end decided to do so in order to live with my discomfort.

On the other hand, its also true that people of color in the United States have been systematically disenfranchised from the early republic to reconstruction to the present day.

In the end, the offense of improperly displaying the flag or kneeling for the nation anthem has to be judged of a lesser kind than the offense of a legacy of oppression and president so willfully ignorant as to be unable to acknowledge this rather than encourage it.