However, watching both this film (which I recommend) and recent news coverage, along with my stated interest in First Amendment issues (see “About This Website on this web site) has precipitated such strong emotions that I cannot, in good conscience, let the situation stand without comment. I refer, of course, to the recent statements of He Who Will Not Be Named (a.k.a. “Big D”) regarding the flag and the National Anthem protests which have become something of a preoccupation by so many.
While watching the movie’s episodes, I could not help but remember how I felt during the time period being discussed. I lived through this period. It was an important part of my youth. I (like all other male citizens of the time) was required to carry a “draft card” and I was subject to being summoned for possible service in the military. I was even “ordered to report” for a pre-draft physical twice. For reasons which I don’t intend to discuss, I was not required to actually report for service, but that is (in my opinion) irrelevant. I WAS subject to call and I did live through the period and am still grateful that I was not required to make a decision about either serving or fleeing the country to avoid service in a war which I always felt was immoral and unjustified. If Burns and Novick are correct, our political leaders throughout this period knew that this war was unwinnable and was based on a theory that we (the United States) had a right to interfere with another country’s destiny, because it was felt to be in OUR interest. But, I won’t dwell on that.
What the film brought to me was a sense of déjà vu over the attitude, quite common at that time, of the necessity for anyone who wished to be considered a “patriot” to support all actions of the country, whether one actually agreed with those actions, or not. The slogan “My country, right or wrong” was pretty common and anyone who did not “fully support” the country was often viewed as a traitor and certainly should have no right to express opinions contrary to established political policy. This led to the attitude that the flag was sacred and could not ever be used as a symbol of protest against established policy in any way. It even led to the now (seemingly mandatory) practice of political figures wearing a flag-shaped lapel pin. I remember such pins as first appearing during the Nixon presidency influenced, I believe, by The Candidate, a movie starring Robert Redford. Nixon, so the story goes, liked this lapel pin so much that he wore one and required it of his aides. I am told that ABC News (perhaps others) prohibited reporters and anchors from wearing them because it suggested a lack of appropriate neutrality for what wished to be seen as an “objective news source.”
However, in 1989, burning the flag was ruled by the US Supreme Court as “… symbolic speech that is protected by the First Amendment” as a form of protest (Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397). That ruling makes it acceptable (under law) to “disrespect” the flag as an act of protest. While probably not specifically covered by this ruling, it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that actions which some might see as “disrespecting” the National Anthem (by Francis Scott Key, which was not written until the War of 1812 and set to a popular British tune of the time) wasn’t established by Congress as “The National Anthem” until 1931, or the Pledge of Allegiance (which was altered in 1954 to include the words “under God”), nor the US motto, “In God We Trust” (which didn’t become official until 1956) are also protected. I remember the changes to the Pledge and the creation of the motto and I have always felt they were dangerously close to violating the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment, but I digress.
What bothers me, as someone who has studied symbols all of his life (Theatre IS symbolic in nature, after all.) is that far too many people seem to have confused symbols (“something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance”) with reality. It seems to me that there is also some confusion over the purpose of our patriotic symbols. These symbols represent the country by representing the principals of the country. They are NOT the country, itself, and they certainly are not the property of any specific political leader or philosophy.
Andrew Shepherd (a character in The American President by Arron Sorkin) said it pretty well: “America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man who's words make your blood boil, and who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
I believe in the First Amendment. If NFL players wish to protest what they see as racial injustice by peacefully and quietly taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem, that is their right! If Neo-Nazis wish to march in the streets of Charlottesville, that is their right! If the Westboro Baptist Church wishes to protest against equal rights for people whose sexual behaviors they deplore, that is their right! HOWEVER, they must do so peacefully and in compliance with reasonable laws regarding times and places of such protests. All Americans should support this.
That does not mean that I have to agree with them. It does not mean that I have to abdicate my right to protest against them. It DOES mean that I have to grant them the right to have an opinion, no matter how much I disagree with it. HOWEVER, they must also allow me the right to have that differing opinion! And, as a citizen, I have the right to present that opinion, provided that I do so peacefully and legally!
This is the especial obligation of our political leadership. Disagreement was the basis for the foundation of this country. I once quoted the character Stephen Hopkins (from Peter Stone and Sherman Edward’s 1776) during a potentially controversial discussion in the WCU Faculty Senate saying “Well, in all my years I ain't never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about.” We OWE it to our country to be willing to talk about anything and to insist that our leaders do the same.
I believe it was Edmund Burke who said "that a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion." That suggests a major obligation on those of us who elect our representatives at all levels (all too often far too few of us, I’m afraid). We should be electing people whose judgment we trust, not those who create their opinions by just responding to the polling data or the desires of their donors.
Another notion which has come to the fore recently is to refer to “our heritage” as if it was sacred and is often used to represent the idea that it is a denial of history to consider the removal of symbols of the Confederacy, be they flags, statues or other symbols. Now, I am not going to deny the historical fact of the Civil War, nor do I wish to get into a debate about its causes. Those issues go back a good deal further than many are aware. In 1776 (yes, I am VERY fond of that musical and movie) it is pointed out that the original Declaration of Independence included an anti-slavery section. In the script, part of the debate on that section runs as follows:
John Adams: That little paper there deals with freedom for Americans!
Edward Rutledge: Oh, really. Mr. Adams is now calling our black slaves "Americans!" Are they, now?
John Adams: Yes, they are. They are people, and they are here. If there's any other requirement, I haven't heard it.
Edward Rutledge: They are here, yes, but they are not people sir, they are property.
Thomas Jefferson: No, sir, they are people who are being treated as property!
Obviously, the anti-slavery section was ultimately deleted in order to allow the Declaration to be passed, which may be too bad, but IS a fact. It is also a fact that the whole idea of a colony, or group of colonies, rebelling was an unprecedented action. Again from 1776:
John Dickinson: … are you seriously suggesting that we publish a paper declaring to all the world that an illegal rebellion is, in reality, a legal one?
Benjamin Franklin: Oh Mr. Dickinson, I'm surprised at you. You should know that rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as "our rebellion." It is only in the third person - "their rebellion" - that it is illegal.
Yes, it is a fact that our “Founding Fathers” were traitors to the British crown. That is not debatable. But, as Franklin states, they won, so they became (at least on this side of the Atlantic) our “patriotic Founders” instead, at least in our history.
However, when the Confederate States was formed, its citizens (including its leaders) had been citizens of the United States. Now, I won’t debate the question of these men being caught in a difficult situation between their duty to the US and what they felt was their duty to their States. I see a parallel here with many men about my age who faced a difficult choice during the Vietnam era between “duty to country” and personal beliefs. On the other hand, the Confederate generals, in large part, were commissioned officers in the US military, hence they had taken an oath to defend the US. When the war broke out, many of them resigned those commissions in order to take up arms against the US. That would appear to be a textbook example of treason, which, I feel, in my own perhaps prejudiced way, is not paralleled by those of us who disagreed with the Vietnam War and were being forced to join the military against their wishes or to lose our citizenship.
I have often thought it odd that some people wish to honor a “heritage” of treason through honoring statues, flags, etc. which are symbols of those traitorous acts on the part of Confederates. When one combines that oddity with the fact that such Confederate notables as Robert E. Lee did not wish for monuments to be erected in honor of their defiance of the United States, it becomes even more puzzling. “It’s often forgotten that Lee himself, after the Civil War, opposed monuments, specifically Confederate war monuments,” said Jonathan Horn, the author of the Lee biography, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.
It is also, I believe, worth noting that many of the statues of Lee and other Confederates were not raised until well after the Civil War during the rise of “Jim Crow” laws, the KKK, etc. I find it strange that many people should wish to declare their pride in a “heritage” which was based on divisiveness, racism, hatred, and treason.
Of course, much of my concern about this may be my concern over the conflation of the ideas that patriotism means support for political leadership. I will acknowledge that “Big D” is the President, but I refuse to accept that that means I have to blindly accept his tweets as equivalent to Gospel. This is to say nothing of the fact that I believe that it is against established ethical rules for a publically elected official to interfere with the employment practices of a private company. If professional sports teams wish to try to create rules to abolish the First Amendment for their employees, that is their right, but I doubt if that view will stand up to scrutiny of the courts. But it’s not up to “Big D.” If members of any group don’t wish to support the policies (tweets seem to be all most of them are) of “Big D” and his buds, he doesn’t have to like it, but it is their right to do so. AND WE AS GOOD AMERICANS HAVE TO SUPPORT THIS! It’s what the flag, the pledge, and the anthem SYMBOLIZE! Not supporting the stated values of the country is the real way of “disrespecting” those who died to defend those values. They didn’t fight for a piece of cloth, a song, or a pledge; they fought for the IDEA of America! And that idea includes the right “…peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”