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Of Anthems and Flags: Why Our Divisive Politics Continue to Get Us Nowhere

by Stephen Erickson, published

The fury over the proper posture to assume during the national anthem at NFL games represents everything that is wrong with American politics.

Massive and community-destroying controversy is created by selfish and self-absorbed elites while accomplishing absolutely nothing positive for ordinary people or those in need.

President Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he criticized NFL players for taking a knee during the national anthem.

It was a move out the playbook he has relied on since he began running for president. He looks for topics where his opponents are out of step with mainstream America, expresses himself on these topics in a bombastic way, which guarantees media coverage and allows him to dominate the national discussion.

The American Left and their allies in the media, who never fail to take the bait, erupt like a million volcanoes, which keeps Donald Trump’s choice of subject matter in the headlines for weeks or even months on end.

So where do we go from here? Now every NFL football player must decide whether to kneel, sit, stand, or do summersaults and backflips during the national anthem. The teams risk losing their cohesion as they are pressured to divide based on the political leanings of the players.

Meanwhile, the fans on the Right and Left, some of whom will be well-inebriated from pre-game tailgating, will start brawling in the stands during the national anthem, when some decide to sit. Punches will be thrown. Guaranteed.

For those interested in real-life televised violence, the action in the stands will be better than NHL hockey. The rest of the world will look at us like we have gone mad; only the English soccer hooligans will understand.

Taking a knee during the national anthem is a dreadful way to protest anything. It’s like burning the flag or insulting mom and apple pie. Politically, as President Trump realizes, taking a knee during the national anthem is a big loser.

Martin Luther King, who always invoked shared American values and symbolism, would be horrified by a tactic that can only alienate those who most need to be converted.

We are not Japan, France or China, with a thousand or more years of common national identity. The United States is a land of immigrants from diverse background; we are quite obviously and easily splintered into factions.

Standing together during the national anthem, like the pledge of allegiance, is a ritual that helps bind us together as a people behind certain ideals: representative government, liberty and equal justice for all.

Yes, the United States has always fallen short of these ideals, but that is no reason to signal enmity toward our well-intentioned though imperfect nation, or our fellow citizens. Many, with all manner of skin pigments, have given their lives for our country and what it stands for. We should stand up for them.

Those protesters will do a double protest, by insisting that they mean no disrespect toward veterans, their fellow citizens, etc. They will say that kneeling during the national anthem is not a middle finger to the country in which they live and are thriving as NFL stars.

Rather, they will claim that they are protesting against unequal justice, police brutality, etc.

But this argument doesn’t fly. Flags and rituals, like standing during the national anthem, have communal and historical meaning that individuals cannot change. It’s the same kind of argument made by defenders of the confederate flag who insist that the stars and bars are only about southern “heritage.”

They say it’s not about slavery, Jim Crow, and treason. Except, it is. The confederate flag is absolutely about those things.

Ironically, President Trump is leveraging the unifying ritual of standing for the national anthem as a wedge issue to divide the nation. As he says, NFL owners are now “in a box;” they risk alienating one side or the other. It’s the box the president put them in.

For a moment, imagine if these owners hired a team of politically balanced ordinary citizens to develop solutions to help get them out of their box. Given enough thought and time, what would a jury of representative ordinary citizens recommend?

First, ordinary citizens would suggest that NFL players and owners get off their knees and into their wallets. Among the wealthiest people in the country, NFL owners and players can lead the way funding scholarships for inner-city kids, big brother-big sister organization, after school programs, etc.

Second, they might urge NFL players to lead with their time and personal effort. Football stars have the status to broker meetings between police officers and inner-city youth -- or build bridges between poor communities and wealthy ones.

NFL stars are the perfect agents to promote love and understanding between communities, but that means they must roll up their sleeves and personally dive into our nation’s most intractable social problems.

Finally, ordinary citizens would press NFL players and owners to call on our elected officials to quit using poor people as political footballs.

Democrats say they want more money for Head Start and job training programs. Republicans say they want vouchers for inner-city kids so they can get out of failing schools, and often call for free-enterprise zones with lower taxes for businesses that locate in the inner city.

Rather than doing nothing as usual and pointing fingers, do all of the above. Give each side what it says it wants, and more.

We have war zones in our own country where our brothers and sisters are killed, and held as prisoners to poverty and poisonous values, each and every day. Rather than divisive gestures and polarizing political rhetoric, ordinary citizens of all political persuasions would call us to action to free our inner cities at last.

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