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The Flag Takes a Knee all the Time, and Nobody Minds

Symbolism and piousness are worse than hollow gestures, as they undercut democracy’s hard work.

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By Craig Axford | United States

Santa Fe High School in Texas, Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, a country music concert in Las Vegas, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando… The list goes on and on.

After each of these mass shootings, the flag gets lowered. It figuratively takes a knee as we collectively mourn a death toll that cumulatively rivals that experienced in some war zones around the world. I go downtown and see a flag flying at half mast and think nothing of it. It seems down as often as it’s up these days. No one seems to mind.

But there is at least one group for whom it never gets lowered. We kill, wound, and incarcerate our black youth at a rate that would make any ethnic cleanser proud. The flag keeps flying high. If athletes take a knee in protest we’ll lower our standards of free speech before we think of dropping the flag to half mast to mourn that particular senseless loss of life and potential.

The flag and the national anthem receive an unhealthy amount of attention in the United States. It’s unnatural for a republic built upon the enlightenment values of freedom of speech, freedom of association, and representative government to put so much emphasis on a piece of cloth that merely represents these values. We behave as though the red, white, and blue is where the value resides.

Consider the awkward wording of the Pledge of Allegiance:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Why would I pledge allegiance to a flag? I might as well pledge allegiance to a sheet or my favorite childhood blanket. But in this pledge “the Republic for which it [the flag] stands” is added almost as an afterthought. It’s the Republic’s flag, not the Republic, that gets top billing. The Constitution isn’t mentioned at all. I guess it is considered part of the “Republic for which [the flag] stands” and so it’s covered.

There is that bit at the end about “liberty and justice for all”, but it’s precisely our imperfect application of that ideal many NFL players are protesting. The Republic, or a significant portion of it, would sooner impose fines on NFL teams that allow their players to engage in liberties like freedom of expression than diss the flag.

There are still those that think we need a flag burning/desecration amendment because we’re in danger of forgetting that what makes this country great is a piece of fabric going up and half down the pole every month as if heads of state were dropping like aging Soviet premiers in the early 1980s. However, everyone should feel free to start their campfires with spare copies of the Constitution. Not even the president of the “Republic for which it stands” has bothered to take the time to read that document.

I’m tired of all the thoughts and prayers and all the visual displays of patriotism Americans are so fond of offering up at every sporting event and tragedy. It’s all bullshit. Symbolism and piousness are worse than hollow gestures if they only serve as a means of evading the actual hard work of democracy.

If our precious flag doesn’t serve as a reminder of the importance of freedom of expression, then we should just take it down and leave the flagpole bare. If our thoughts and prayers aren’t going to be followed up with action, then we should abandon the god under which our republic stands in favor of a deity less tolerant of our hypocritical displays of piety. Until then, I won’t be standing for the pledge or national anthem again.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com


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