WATERTOWN — People who become more riled up over insufficient reverence for the U.S. flag or “The Star-Spangled Banner” than they do over the fact that many of their fellow Americans need to live on the street aren’t very patriotic.
If their affections extend only to symbols, how much do they really love our country? Can they truly claim that they care about our nation if they’re not concerned about the well-being of those who inhabit it?
In a column published Monday in the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker exemplified the absurd hand-wringing that’s going on regarding athlete Gwen Berry. She qualified for the U.S. Olympics track and field team by winning third place in the hammer throw during an event held Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
The national anthem played as the three winning competitors took the podium. Berry turned away and covered herself with a shirt that read: “Activist Athlete.”
Needless to say, acclaim for her action wasn’t universal.
“Imagine if a Chinese athlete did that — maybe raised a fist in defiance and then went to a press conference and demanded that the government stop oppressing Uyghurs or threatening Taiwan. Unless they have hammer-throwing competitions at re-education camps, it would be the last medal ceremony that athlete ever took part in. That’s true not only of communist China. In most countries in the world, if a talented athlete had been trained, developed and selected from thousands to represent the nation, then went and publicly trashed it all, the public opprobrium would be unrelenting,” Baker, editor-at-large for the Wall Street Journal, wrote. “In America, you disrespect the institutions of your country, and you get lionized by the media. You take a knee or turn away from the flag or refuse to take the field or the court while the national anthem is played, and you get nodding assent from the authorities who control the sport. You can denounce what your country stands for and get elected to Congress.”
Baker falls for a common logical fallacy by highlighting our country’s noteworthy qualities against a backdrop of brutal societies.
It’s easy to demonstrate how awesome the United States is when comparing it to governments that routinely imprison, torture and kill their critics.
Using China as a contrast is to set the bar incredibly low. Numerous other nations are much more humane, so it’s a silly analogy.
This doesn’t mitigate the concerns over how public policies affect Americans of various races in different ways. For example, minority communities often are subject to much harsher enforcement of U.S. drug laws than are white areas. This results in minorities being over-represented in prison for drug crimes and whites being under-represented.
So just because your country is leaps and bounds above some others in terms of how it treats its citizens doesn’t mean there are no problems.
And if those problems perpetuate inequality among certain groups of citizens, something needs to be done. Bringing attention to such issues is appropriate.
Baker also is wrong that people who protest against these issues are denouncing what our country stands for. They oppose the discrimination many Americans confront all the time — and I’d like to believe our nation stands for something better than this.
After making his point about how those who protest are heralded in public, Baker wrote: “That’s fine. It’s all part of the strange, perhaps ultimately unsustainable, contradiction of living in a genuinely free society. But can we at least acknowledge that it is an extraordinary privilege?”
No, we can’t acknowledge this. The ability of Americans to protest isn’t an “extraordinary privilege.” A privilege is an advantage granted to someone by an authority, and its continuation depends on the authority’s whims. The U.S. Constitution defines certain actions we can take as “rights,” and the Declaration of Independence calls them “inalienable rights.”
We naturally possess these rights; they are not given to us by the government. So Baker’s insinuation that protesters are abusing their “privileges” is erroneous.
While we may not agree with protesters, encouraging them is worthwhile. Expressing opposition to what we perceive as flaws is essential because it brings awareness to these problems. In addition, it’s important to exercise our rights from time to time lest we forget how integral they are to operating a civil society — and fail to notice when they’re infringed.
If Baker had a thorough understanding of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he may have a better appreciation of why many Black people don’t believe it should be our national anthem.
“[Francis Scott] Key prided himself as a humanitarian and as a young lawyer relished representing individual colored people in court. Some even called him the ‘blacks’ lawyer,’” former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley notes in his 2012 book, “Snow-Storm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835,” about the Maryland-born lawyer and writer. “At the same time, Key shared a general view of the free people of color as shiftless and untrustworthy: a nuisance, if not a menace, to white people. He spoke publicly of Africans in America as ‘a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.’”
Key’s 1814 poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” was eventually set to music and became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When performed, people normally sing only the first two stanzas.
Key was a wealthy slave owner. His poem centered on the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, another conflict in which U.S. slaves took up arms alongside British troops in the hope they would obtain their freedom.
Key’s final two stanzas revel in the preservation of our country and the defeat of those who turned against the Americans:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Slaves sought the protection of British troops during this battle. Key welcomed the death of those he believed betrayed the United States and looked forward to the punishment awaiting them. But thankfully, the British government refused U.S. requests to return the slaves after the war.
So it’s not the case that Berry and other activist athletes hate our nation. They hate the hypocrisy that has haunted our society since its founding.
As long as some Americans face discrimination due to their race or ethnicity, all “men” are not “created equal” — and the symbols that echo this falsehood ring hollow to those Americans who continue to confront oppression.
A flag is not our country; a song is not our country. All the people who make up the United States are our country. You can’t claim to love your country and hate your fellow citizens; fawning over symbols is nothing but patriotism on the cheap.
It’s easy to love inanimate objects; they don’t require any resources to keep them alive and healthy. But human beings do, and this is where a legitimate love of country makes itself known.
When millions of Americans are jobless, hungry, unable to afford medical treatment and/or living in fear for their safety, we’re not living up to our nation’s principles.
If you want to celebrate the Fourth of July in a way that promotes such lofty ideals, do something about these problems. The phrase “homeless veteran” should not exist in our lexicon — why not show your love of country by starting here? Griping about protesters who dismiss your cherished symbols won’t make us a better nation.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.