According to Wikipedia (not a great source, but convenient and often correct, at least on basic ideas), “A symbol is a sign that represents, stands for, or suggests another idea, visual image, belief, action or material entity.” The flag, and/or the National Anthem, are, therefore, symbols which stand for our nation and (one would think) for its values.
According to the Preamble of the U. S. Constitution, we are a nation which created its Constitution (statement of basic principles) “… in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,….” That seems clear enough, and seems easy to understand. The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids passing laws which restrict freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right to petition for a redress of grievances. The Pledge of Allegiance states that the nation stands for “…liberty and justice for all.” These appear to be what we SAY are the values of the country.
I confess that I find it hard to believe that those values mean that it is impermissible for a group of people who feel that they have a legitimate grievance are being “disrespectful” to the flag by simply exercising the very rights which the flag/National Anthem stand for. “Ah,” you say, “but it’s “disrespectful” of the veterans who have served to defend that flag!”
I’m sorry, but I disagree. First of all, “veterans” are not, or should not be, some sort of legally separate class of citizens who are “special” because they “did their duty to protect the country.” I do believe that veterans should be honored for their service, but some of us were not asked to serve (or were rejected from serving for a variety of reasons, like being female until relatively recently) and the Constitution doesn’t provide for “classes” of citizenship based on whether one was required to serve, or not. Legally, one is simply a citizen or one is not. Being a citizen is not dependent on military service.
Of course, there is also the simple fact that the “duty” for which we should respect the veterans was, most fundamentally, to support and defend the aspirations and rights intended to allow citizens to engage in the very activities which some now are trying to define as ”disrespectful.” I confess that I fine that hard to understand.
All of this upheaval is, at least to me, very reminiscent of the anti-protest movements during the so-called Vietnam War, where it was “unpatriotic” not to support our military efforts to support a religiously minority government which had been established by an earlier, colonial power in what was, for all intents and purposes a civil war because we, preferred that government over what was apparently desired by others in that country. I remember all too clearly the armed troops on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Convention of 1968; the deaths and injuries of Kent State, etc.
I also remember quite well the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s; the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington and across the Edmund Pettus bridge at Selma, as well as protests against US support of the apartheid government of South Africa. These protests also were viewed as “disrespectful” by some. Of course, I find the murders, the beatings, the fire hoses, etc. used to put down these protests rather disrespectful, as well. The fact remains that free speech is messy and can stir up strong feelings, but it IS what the United States is all about.
One of my favorite quotes is from Peter Stone’s musical 1776, spoken by the character Stephen Hopkins. It goes: “. . . in all my years I never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” Actually, I would go a bit further and support the idea which Aaron Sorkin put in Andrew Shepherd’s mouth in The American President: “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.’” But, the fact is that this is what free speech means!
There’s another favorite quote which I don’t know the source of, as it is apparently incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, but I have found no more correct source: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To me, that goes a long way to defining the spirit of freedom of speech. After all, there is no need to have a right to say only the most popular thing. That’s easy. No, real freedom of speech allows for the ideas which are NOT popular to be spoken out loud. This doesn’t mean that one has to agree, simply that opinions and ideas which differ from your own have a right to be peacefully expressed. That’s why restrictions on freedom of speech and the press are the first things established by dictators.
Given the fact that there is still injustice in the world, I don’t understand why it seems so difficult for some people, especially in a country which was created by dissenters (rebels and traitors, if one wishes to be precise), to advocate the notion that expressing a dissenting opinion is, somehow, “un-American.” To me it seems strongly within the American tradition. I’d hate to think that the current peaceful protests at football games are being rejected solely because of racist beliefs which are still alive in our society, but it is easy to see that as a possibility. I hope that it isn’t, but I haven’t been able to come up with any other explanation of what I see and hear.
Perhaps someone can explain it to me? I’d really like to know. I just don’t understand….