The right to dissent is what the flag stands for in the first place

Carl Schurz, German immigrant, revolutionary and Secretary of the Interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes

I grew up attending a private school originally created for the children of French diplomats. Besides receiving very little in the way of US History before 8th grade and learning Science, Math and even Latin (!) in French, one other byproduct of this atypical educational experience has left its mark on me: I was never exposed to the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance.

I did vaguely know about them, mostly from movies or TV (we weren’t, and still aren’t, a sports-oriented family). But I had very little personal interaction with them, and in fact, the first few times I attended baseball games, I was rather uncomfortable with the concept that everyone was expected to stand for the anthem. I was still American, after all, so why this “new” requirement? Even now, having been a classroom teacher for over a decade, when we have assemblies where the pledge is recited, I stand, but do not put my hand over my heart, and do not follow along. It may be a custom, but it’s not mine.

This isn’t to say that I don’t believe that patriotism isn’t important. My family came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe 100 years ago and we are all too aware of how much we have benefited from it. And last I counted, we numbered at least twenty American veterans in the last three generations, spanning World War I, World War II and the Korean War (plus my grandfather and a cousin who worked as civilians in the Navy Yards in Brooklyn and San Francisco).

I didn’t grow up having a flag in my home, but I knew that my great- and great-great-uncles had served and sacrificed to help protect us. My grandfather’s little brother Bill died at age 19 in the Solomon Islands during a Japanese counterattack on American positions. After the fighting, his body was buried and reburied five times across the Pacific before finally coming home to New York.

My grandmother’s cousin Sonny was in the Army Air Corps. He flew twenty-six bombing missions over Europe before his B-24 got shot down over the oil fields of Romania. Sonny bailed out of the plane moments before it crashed and exploded. Of the crew of nine only three survived the crash. Sonny’s left leg was crushed during his landing and, expecting he might be captured, he threw away his dog tags so his captors wouldn’t know he was Jewish. He was lucky; the three got picked up by Romanian guards and were kept in a POW camp for two and a half months before being sent back to the states — where he found out that he had been reported as Killed in Action rather than missing, and that when his mother got the news about her son, she had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on the spot. The first news Sonny got when he got home was that his mother had died — and he spent the rest of his life fighting the terrible feeling that he had been the one who killed her.

One of the ways I keep my family’s stories alive is through teaching. Every year I have my middle-schoolers write thank you letters to veterans before taking them to Washington D.C. I tell them about how my relatives served, suffered, and in some cases died, and ask them to think about how to say thank you to someone who has given so much for complete strangers. Every year, I and my fellow teachers coach our students to reach out to veterans on our trip, to thank them for their service, to give them their letters, to give them a hug and listen to a story. Every year, without fail, there are tears.

So I know what it means to be thankful. And that’s part of why I find it so upsetting to see American patriotism so abused and exploited, such as by President Trump and the current teapot-tempest distraction he’s trying to stir up by attacking NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. Trump and his surrogates are attempting to paint every kneeling player (or their supporters) as ungrateful and unpatriotic, as anti-American and anti-cop.

Let’s be clear: whatever your feelings about the flag, the anthem, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, or the NFL (and of this list, the latter is by far the least of my concerns), framing peaceful protest as somehow anti-American is yet another step towards poisoning our political discourse. If you want to know why someone’s protesting, the smart thing to do is to ask them, not rely on the people they’re protesting — especially when they’re the ones with significant power. The fact that so many seem willing to take President Trump as an authority on Black Lives Matter or on the symbolism of taking a knee speaks to our society’s increasing lack of intellectual integrity.

The accusation that taking a knee inappropriately inserts politics into sports ignores the fact that having the anthem play and expecting everyone to stand with their hands over their hearts is by definition a political act. No matter your personal politics, having the President call for people to be fired because he disagrees with their political positions (and how they choose to show them) should be chilling. And no matter how President Trump or his defenders try to spin this, let’s acknowledge that there are some clear racial elements to this discussion, that this is clearly designed to distract and deflect from his inability to either pay attention to or achieve significant progress on any Congressional agenda, and that it’s the height of hypocrisy for someone who received five deferments to presume to lecture others on what “real” patriotism is.

Yes, some may choose to see kneeling as a sign of disrespect to the flag or the anthem, and they may choose to vote with their wallets. Fair enough, no one said that the right to protest or the right to free speech was the same as the right to zero consequences. But on people’s way out of the stands or to change the channel, let’s at least try to have the honesty and willingness to acknowledge and engage with what the players say they’re kneeling for, and what their message is, not the strawman that the White House is trying to spin.

I respect players like Alejandro Villaneuva who choose to stand for the anthem, as well as players like Colin Kaepernick who choose to kneel. No one should have their patriotism questioned simply due to how they choose to stand (or not) during the anthem. We as a country are secure enough to be able to accommodate and try to understand both choices. At least we should be.