For many years, the Cub Scout packs of Phoenixville, PA, carried a large American flag in the annual Dogwood parade. This was a large flag and needed to be carried horizontally. One year, I was asked where the field of stars should be – in the front left, the front right, or the back left? After some research into the Uniform Flag Code, I discovered this fact: the flag should not be carried (or displayed) horizontally. Simple solution to the problem: that year, we did not carry the flag.
A few weeks ago, I was camping with the Boy Scouts on the Coast Guard training base at Cape May. At 8:00 in the morning, the colors were raised and the national anthem was played. We stopped what we were doing, stood, turned, and saluted the flag, as is protocol.
I received the American Legion award in 8th grade. Included in the items I received as part of the award was an American flag. I still have the flag, and it is one of my more prized possessions.
I have quite a healthy respect for the flag and the customs and traditional surrounding it.
Sunday, 24 September 2017, saw – yet again – a nation divided by the tweets of Donald Trump. In calling out the actions of Colin Kaepernick – a former quarterback in the National Football League who knelt during the national anthem prior to football games as a form of protest – Mr. Trump has ignited a national conversation on sports, respect of the flag, and patriotism.
I have seen many posts on Facebook in support of Mr. Trump’s position. People have posted photos of aging or disabled veterans who struggle to their feet for the national anthem. People have posted eloquently worded opinions that kneeling during the flag is disrepectful of the sacrifices made by our military that ensure our freedoms. People have posted stories of their own service in the armed forces and what the flag means to them because of that.
On the other side, many people have posted stories from veterans who have stated that their sacrifices were meant to secure freedoms, including the freedom to make a protest statement by kneeling during the national anthem.
All of these posts have one thing in common. And they all are missing the point. The American flag is not a symbol reserved for our military – it is a symbol for the entire country. Our country is not limited to the military; it also includes police and firefighters and doctors and attorneys and computer programmers and plumbers and HVAC technicians and child care experts and dentists and authors and proofreaders and artists and many other professions. It is made up of people from all walks of life and from many different corners of the globe. The American flag represents all of us.
I have no personal reason to protest the flag. America has been good to me and to all of my closest friends. But I have more distant friends and acquaintances that have reasons to say that America has not been good to them. Either because of the color of their skin, their country of origin, their sexual orientation – if they deviate in any way from what is considered an “average American,” they are subject to additional scrutiny. This scrutiny not only comes from unofficial society but also from official society – police pay closer attention to them, and rules and regulations make their lives harder. People with disabilities, too, face problems I don’t: not only does our architecture assume an able-bodied individual by default, but health care costs can be all-consuming, where every available dollar is allocated to cover those costs, leaving the person to live nothing but a minimal existence. These are problems, yes, but the larger problem is this: there are people who think that this is the way that it should be; that there is nothing wrong with the system as we have it and it should be maintained. It is not only these people at which these protests are directed, but also at those who sit by and let these people have their way.
I have no personal reason to protest the flag. But I know people who do, and I assume that Mr. Kaepernick’s circle of friends and acquaintances contains more people that have reason to do so than does mine. These people have long been largely voiceless, and to try to stifle protests like this is to try to take away what little voice they have.
And so, on this day or any day when people are protesting symbols of America, know that if you do not have reason to protest, then the protest is aimed at you. Do not deflect the protest to be one of our military; this is one thing the armed forces cannot shield you from. Instead, ask yourself if you lift up the downtrodden. Ask yourself if you help give voice to the voiceless or help the blind to see. Ask yourself if you are doing what you can to help your fellow Americans – or, even better, your fellow humans. Why limit compassion?