An autumn Monday morning in America has traditionally meant no more than a mild to medium hangover and either a smile on one’s face or a very strong opinion on one’s lips about what went wrong the preceding day. But in 2017, the news isn’t relegated to rushing yards, QB ratings, and sack totals. Dominating headlines, even before all NFL contests are over, is real-time reporting on who stood and who kneeled during the national anthem.
Those outraged that any American would fail to stand at attention during the national anthem should ask themselves why they feel the way they do. Stand or Kneel?
The ongoing protest was originally about alleged disparities in the way police treat people of different races. Last week, former NFL player Donte Stallworth claimed it was also about the supposed gender pay gap and housing discrimination. For some players, it’s hard not to wonder if they only joined in because a bombastic president told them not to.
There is a range of opinions among the public. Some people believe the players have a valid point. Others don’t believe most police officers today discriminate. Still, others agree there is a problem but want the players to stand anyway, out of respect for the flag and the republic for which it stands.
One thing is certain. The protests are unpopular with a significant enough portion of fans to show up in the league’s TV ratings. That has owners scrambling to try to appease players and fans, both of which are vital to their going concerns.
But even those outraged that any American would fail to stand at attention during the national anthem should take the opportunity to ask themselves why they feel the way they do. Is this just an ingrained ritual, devoid of any meaning, other than a vague sense of patriotism and duty? In other words, what is it we stand for?
What Are We Standing For?
If you ask most people, they’ll tell you they aren’t revering a piece of cloth, but the free republic the flag represents and the people who died to defend it. That’s been President Trump’s message over the past several weeks. But do most Americans really care about a free republic?
The Declaration says I have an unalienable right to pursue my own happiness, regardless of the needs of any collective. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence, he used his gift for brevity to squeeze the gist of an entire political treatise into 202 words. And although the Declaration isn’t a legally binding document like the Constitution, those 202 words describe the reason the Constitution was written – to secure unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Pretty as they sound, those words have specific meanings. They weren’t written to mean “whatever you want them to mean.” Jefferson opined many times about the meaning of the word “liberty,” and his definition was always the same. He always described liberty as the right to do as one wished as long as one didn’t invade the rights of anyone else.
Americans supposedly believe this right is “unalienable,” meaning it can’t be taken or given away, not even by majority vote. All voting is supposed to determine is who gets the job of protecting that liberty.
But if I have an unalienable right to liberty, I should be allowed to work for five dollars an hour if I am willing to do so. I’m not. I should be able to work under conditions others believe unsafe if I’m willing to take the risk. I may be able to charge a premium for that risk. No matter, I’m not allowed to do that, either. I should be able to purchase medications from any willing seller on the advice of the guy who cuts my lawn, or without anyone’s advice at all, rather than being required to seek a doctor’s permission. I cannot.
The Declaration says I have an unalienable right to pursue my own happiness, regardless of the needs of any collective. The collective’s sole purpose is to protect that right. That means that I have the right to dispose of the fruits of my labor as I wish, without them being confiscated by a Bernie Sanders to pay someone else’s college tuition or a Donald Trump to build a bridge in some other state I may never visit. I should be able to save for retirement as I choose to, or not save at all, rather than be forced into a government Ponzi scheme. But the republic doesn’t protect that right, either.
Back in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. intelligence community was routinely violating the 4th Amendment, a key pillar of American liberty. He said at the time his greatest fear wasn’t being whacked by the CIA or hauled up on charges. It was that even after his revelations, nothing would change. Nothing has. How many Americans care?
Fighting for Freedom?
Finally, on this hypnotic mantra to “support the troops,” it’s time to snap our collective fingers and ask ourselves just what we’re talking about. Certainly, any decent person has sympathy for the families of those who have died in America’s wars. But when was the last time an American soldier truly died for freedom? Would we be less free if the U.S. didn’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq? How? Exactly what threat to our freedom have the conventional wars in those countries thwarted?
“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” We were told in the 1950s and 60s that if we didn’t fight wars in Southeast Asia, communist movements in Korea and Vietnam would be the beginning of a “domino effect,” where one country after another would fall to communism until the United States eventually stood alone against an entire communist world.
If that were true, Vietnam should still be communist today, instead of a market economy and a major U.S. trading partner. In fact, dozens of previously communist or socialist countries have installed market economies since then, resulting in the world poverty rate falling by half over the past 25 years. The only truly communist countries left in the world are those with U.S. troops on their borders. But we go on talking about these wars as if fighting them somehow preserved our freedom when the facts say they didn’t.
The people who founded the free republic didn’t indiscriminately cheer anyone in a military uniform. They were suspicious of standing armies. The first three presidents’ primary concerns were avoiding war. When John Adams avoided one with France, he tried to outmaneuver Congress for credit for disbanding what biographer David McCullough called “the now useless and unpopular army.” James Madison famously wrote, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
It appears he was right.
There is nothing wrong with expressing love of one’s country and everyone has a right to vehemently disagree with the highly paid athletes choosing to kneel for the national anthem. But it would be much more encouraging if that sanctimonious anger were directed at the egregious loss of liberty itself, instead of those who exercise what’s left of their own in ways some people don’t like.
Would that we all took a knee, or better yet a stand, against what really ails the “land of the free.”