The flag and the furor: Who gets to say what’s American?

There’s something about one American telling another American how to behave when the national anthem is played that reminds me of a corseted school marm. 

I had one of those once, not a corset, but a corseted school marm. She stood before the class as straight as an arrow, as if she had swallowed a long stick whole. A big switch hung above the blackboard, her darting eyes ever in search of a place to use it. Her object was to right the world’s ills, starting with the fourth grade.    

For the most part we obeyed her, didn’t argue, and marched in line. She had words about respect that she was fond of throwing out, especially when she was annoyed, which was most of the time. Respect? If she knew what that word meant she didn’t show it to us. No child received an ounce of respect as she plunged ahead in her quest for obedience. No boat-rocking. Make no waves.

Americans, I’ve noticed, are not generally thrilled about making no waves. We’re an independent bunch, accustomed to speaking up, and that has marked us as puzzling, annoying, and admirable to the rest of the world. 

Of course we have traditions. Everyone has traditions, kept because they are comforting. They remind us that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves and maintain feelings of stability in shaky times. Sometimes they keep us from charging ahead too fast, before thinking things through. 

And sometimes they imprison us. Gotta watch that. They can be just as intimidating as a tyrant,  as dangerous as an invading army.        

One of our traditions is to stand, pay attention, and sing when The Star Spangled Banner is played. Just about every American claims to know that song, but if you want a humorous interlude sometime, watch the mouths of a crowd trying to fake their way through it. Not that I can talk. When it gets to the part about the rockets’ glare showing the flag still there, I have to stop and pretend to remove that thing that got into my eye. Every time. I’m no one to judge what it means to others, or what kind of courage it takes to tackle tradition and kneel in protest of wrongs done in our still-imperfect union. 

Without protest we’d still be a British colony, probably, still holding slaves, denying women the right to vote, reading censored news, allowing education only to the rich. Maybe some of us would still be working seven days a week for food and a bed in the barn, as some of our ancestors did when they came here in the 1600s, mine included. Maybe we’d have no national parks; maybe we’d still be in Viet Nam. 

Protest isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t done without a price, but it remains the American way. I feel a great surge of pride when I see young football players kneeling on the field. They’re telling us that something is wrong; something needs to be fixed. What could be more American than that?     

I have to hand it to ‘em. They have more courage than I. For my money, they’ve done more for football than all the tackles and touchdowns in the history of the game.   

They’re the light that shows the flag is still there. May she wave a long, long time.    

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