The Grand Old Flag
On Friday, September 22, President Trump decided to throw some red meat to his Alabama audience.
And here’s what he said: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. 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!’”
The audience loved it, the media ate it up, and very quickly we had a televised rumble between the wave-the-flag patriots and the defend-free-speech patriots. Somehow, the flag got stuck in the middle.
You’re a grand old flag,
You’re a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave.
This all started when quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel — rather than stand — when the national anthem was being played. Kaepernick did this to draw attention to police brutality against black men and women, and to call for racial justice. This was a perfectly legitimate non-violent form of protest, and a few other players began to join him. This weekend it turned into a wave.
But “disrespecting” the flag is a very heated way to get attention.
You’re the emblem of the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
As we learned during the anti-Vietnam War protests, the American flag has deep personal meaning for most of our citizens, and for the military in particular. The coffins of dead soldiers are draped in the flag when they are returned home and staged for burial. Virtually all American school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance — facing a flag — at the beginning of every school day. Civic meetings start with the Pledge. Sports events start with the Pledge and the playing of the National Anthem.
Oddly enough, our current pledge was written by an American socialist, Francis Bellamy, who had hoped that he could include the terms words “equality” and “fraternity” but left them out “knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.”
The Pledge wasn’t formally adopted by Congress until 1942, but previous to that Congress had adopted a “Flag Code” that specified how the flag is to be reverently respected. This includes such things as:
· The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
· The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
· The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.
· The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.
The flag is to be burned when it is too worn to be used, as a sign of respect. This is interesting in light of the flag-burning that was occasionally done to protest the Vietnam War.
I never agreed with the idea of burning the flag in protest, and I have mixed feelings about deliberately kneeling when the protocol says that one should stand. Not because this is a sacrilege, but because it confuses the message. My own preference would be to use the flag upside down — as a signal of distress. I do that now, using the USPS flag stamp, on every bill I pay.
The Pledge says “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands….” A flag is just a piece of cloth, but our common republic is quite another matter. As bad as our government may be, very few of us would dump it overboard, and whether we are Colin Kaepernick or socialist Francis Bellamy, we all recognize that we are carrying on our disputes within the boundaries of the Republic, and not outside it. In that regard, we are all fulfilling our “civic” responsibilities, and we can all be termed “patriotic” in the broad sense of the term.
Ev’ry heart beats true
‘Neath the Red, White and Blue….
The “Grand Old Flag” was written by George M. Cohan in 1906. It has become a standard for every marching band and Fourth of July festival.
In 1906 women had no voting rights. African Americans males had largely lost their rights throughout the South due to poll taxes and other restrictions. In 1906, 62 black men were lynched in the United States. In 1906 it was perfectly legal to place up a “For Sale” sign in any part of the United States that said “No Negroes, No Jews.” Racial segregation was practiced everywhere. Most states had strict laws against interracial marriage, and when the world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, married a white woman, it spurred National (white) outrage. U.S. Representative Seaborn Roddenbery, proposed national legislation to outlaw mixed marriages in any part of the United States. In introducing his bill he said:
Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.
… Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy. [ Congressional Record, 62d. Congr., 3d. Sess., December 11, 1912, pp. 502–503]
I cite this disgusting speech to show how far we have come. Laws against intermarriage were considered legal until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 1967. Since that time, interracial marriages have increased from 3% of the population to 17% of all newlyweds, and 24% of black males are marrying outside their race.
I believe this one metric is a critical measure of how far we have progressed. The times, they are a-changing. But every day we see signs of racial bias, some of it recorded on police videocams. The struggle is not over, and people like Colin Kaepernick, or ESPN anchor Jemele Hill have every right to protest and speak out. A true act of patriotism would be to address the issues they are highlighting, not fussing over their choice of public platform.
Our republic is in distress, in part because it is being led by a President who plays to racism and xenophobia. Donald Trump represents the last gasp of white majority rule. The tide is turning in our country, and soon whites will be but a plurality in a truly multi-racial nation. Donald, and a certain percentage of his followers, find that frightening. They would like to wrap themselves in the flag and denounce those who are trying to clean up the mess that slavery and Jim Crow have created in our Republic. This is not patriotism. This does not honor our ideals, nor the country that we are becoming. This does not honor the flag and “the Republic for which it stands.”
This is not 1906. It is not 1946 — the year Trump was born. Much as he might like to, the President cannot mold a republic in which there are “No Negroes and brown foreigners allowed.” Give it up, Donald. You are the past and your critics are the future. It may be messy, but we are still working out the ideals of our founders. Or as it says in the Pledge, “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
September 25, 2017