Gwen Berry, latest target of coercive patriotism

John Crisp

GEORGETOWN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Citizens of a certain mindset may be put off by their first sight of Gwen Berry.

Her eyelashes are disarmingly long, and sometimes her lips are neon-blue. In the past, she may have issued a few ill-advised tweets. She is a strong, no-nonsense Black woman who isn’t shy about speaking out.

And when I say “strong,” I mean literally. Berry is an athlete who has thrown the hammer more than 255 feet, which places her sixth on the all-time list. She is the world record holder in the weight throw.

She competed in the 2016 Olympics. She won first place in the hammer throw at the 2019 Pan American Games.

And on June 26, Berry qualified for her second Olympics in the hammer competition at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.; she also declined to face the U.S. flag or put her hand reverently over her heart during the playing of the national anthem.

The outrage was immediate. Sen. Ted Cruz: “Why does the Left hate America?” Rep. Jim Jordan: “The Left ruins everything. Even the Olympics.” Rep. Dan Crenshaw: “She should be removed from the team.”

Thus Berry becomes the latest target of what I call “coercive patriotism,” the indignant demand by some citizens that every other citizen demonstrate due reverence for our national symbols or else suffer consequences.

But what could be more un-American than an imposed obligation to behave in ways that conflict our consciences? In fact, the United States is close to unique in its willingness to favor freedom over forced respect for our national symbols, at least in theory.

For example, nearly all other countries impose penalties for desecrating their flags. Someone who burns a flag in China may be imprisoned for three years.

The same in Israel. And in Germany, one could spend five years in prison for desecrating a flag.

In the United States, however, the Supreme Court has ruled — in Texas v. Johnson (1989) — that acts as outrageous as burning a U.S. flag are protected by the First Amendment. In short, while most of the world sanctions free expression, we permit citizens to speak their minds.

Our national symbols are less important than what they symbolize. Now that’s exceptional.

Unfortunately, plenty of Americans would like to change this, to make their fellow citizens suffer if they don’t show proper obeisance to our national symbols.

This column isn’t about the validity of Berry’s reasons for her actions. I happen to think they are legitimate. It’s not hard to see why declining to show conventional respect to the flag is a reasonable response for a strong Black woman in America.

But the point is that it doesn’t matter what I think. Or what Cruz, Jordan or Crenshaw thinks. Real Americanism means that Gwen Berry does not have to justify her reasoning in order to claim her right as a citizen to respond in any way she wishes to the national anthem.

Unfortunately, we have a long history of coercive patriotism. The Pledge of Allegiance was invented in 1892, partly to sell flags to schools but also to enforce the loyalty of an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe whom many nativists considered undesirables.

Citizens who declined to recite the pledge because of conscience lost their jobs were assaulted and in a few cases were killed. And if you think that we’ve gotten past that sort of coercion, try not standing up the next time the pledge is administered at your local city council meeting.

Still, we must value real patriotism over coercive patriotism. What is real patriotism? Supporting the social contract that makes us a nation. Tolerating difference. Paying our taxes. Serving in the military. Respecting the outcome of elections. Honoring the peaceful transfer of power.

And, above all, patriotism means respecting the right of other citizens to think and act as their consciences guide them.

You may not like Gwen Berry. You may disapprove of her reasons for declining to behave as you do when the national anthem is played. But her actions will not destroy our republic; coercive patriotism will.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas. Readers may send emails to © 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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(4) comments

Charlie McGrath

It's not her patriotism which she lacks. Her actions do not represent the United States of America. I don't care what color or gender she is or what her politics are. If I had my way she would be immediately disqualified to represent us. She is an embarrassment and doesn't deserve the attention.


Looks like Jerry looked to his political kin, John "I need a shave" Crisp, to support his "real patriotism" push. Next, lets hear from Leonard Pitts! This is what passes for diversity of opinion at the failing WDT.


I think the idea is that behavior sets an example which can become a coercive fad in its own right if we we are not very careful to ensure that the right to express patriotism is just as protected as the right to decline to do so. Even then, with everybody doing their own thing, the question becomes, "Why provide these collective opportunities to express allegiance if responses to them are not collective?" So the result is then not sustained liberty but simply a short period of chaos between two periods characterized by different kinds of peer pressure. There is collective flag saluting, then there is optional flag saluting,then there is no flag being presented because saluting it is so unpopular what's the point. Can society really maintain a state of not being engineered on a sustained basis?


I think nothing would make a better presentation of the American form of saluting our flag than for us each to do our own thing. In each case that would be our salutes. It would be beautiful. Let's keep having it and let's go to each of us coming up with an original, totally personal response to it. Don't get caught doing the same thing as your neighbor, it would be totally unfashionable.

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