Tom West, West Words

Tom West

The latest skirmish in the national culture wars occurred recently in St. Louis Park. Its City Council decided that saying the Pledge of Allegiance before each Council meeting could be offensive to non-citizens visiting the Council, and thus dropped the ritual.

In response, about 100 people came to the next Council meeting, begging to differ. The Council, some grudgingly, reversed its decision on Monday.

One of the challenges with the flag pledge is that, like “The Lord’s Prayer” in Christian churches, it gets recited in unison so often that for most people it becomes a mindless chant. That leads some people to think that such a chant isn’t important.

Adding to the difficulty is that the Pledge inserts the flag into the middle of it, when the most important part of it are the words that don’t pertain to the flag. If the words referencing the flag were removed from the Pledge, here is how it would read: “I pledge allegiance to … the United States of America and to the republic … one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I’m not suggesting that the wording be changed, but without the flag reference, we all can understand what the pledge really means. It is aspirational in nature, and basically says the reciter is going to back this republic, which is ultimately ruled by the people who vote, against all threats to its existence, and that we will attempt to seek liberty and justice for everyone.

We can all agree that we have yet to reach the goal the Pledge invokes. That reality does not mean that we should love the nation any less, but the Pledge should remind us that we have a framework of government that allows us to respond to the challenges we face as a nation at any given moment.

The culture wars flared in the 1960s when anti-war protesters frequently burned flags, but died down after U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended. They resurfaced in 2016 when San Francisco ‘49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand before a game during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. He said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

His manner of protest, however, didn’t do much for his cause because many Americans still put love of the republic ahead of any particular issue. The anthem protests spread throughout the NFL, but in response, more than 1 million American males stopped watching the NFL on TV.

Kaepernick filed for free agency in 2017, but no team would sign him – apparently concluding that he was bad for business. (One should never forget that, for all the sound and fury generated by the playing of football games, the first priority of NFL owners is to fill the seats and boost the TV ratings and thus their revenues.) Kaepernick eventually reached a confidential settlement with the NFL.

Then, about the time that the St. Louis Park Council decided to ignore the flag, Kaepernick resurfaced. At his behest, Nike, the shoe company, withdrew the unveiling of a new model that had on the heel a portion of the U.S. flag designed by Revolution-era seamstress Betsy Ross with 13 stars in a circle.

The New York Times reported that Kaepernick, who serves as a consultant to Nike, told the company that for some people that flag represents “a painful history of oppression and racism.” That’s because at the nation’s founding, slavery still existed.

Kaepernick chose to ignore some other historical facts: that even though it didn’t get everything right at the beginning, this nation was the first to prove that the average citizen could prosper under self-rule; that we didn’t need a dictator to make life better for our families. And further, because of the framework set up at the time Ross created her flag, we ended slavery in the 1860s and passed sweeping civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

In his 2015 book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari looks at our species from the beginning of time. He compares the physical world of plants, animals, soil, etc. to the concepts created by humans’ fertile imaginations which we use to create order within society. The latter includes everything from nation-states to laws to money. He writes, “Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted almost 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.”

When protesters attack the flag or the National Anthem or choose to ignore rituals of patriotism like the Pledge, they weaken the bonds and beliefs that hold us together as a nation. They make their own goals more difficult to achieve because they create resistance among those who understand this threat to our national existence.

Better instead, they should do the hard work of democracy: getting people to vote for candidates who share their views, backing the enforcement of just laws and lobbying to change laws they view as unjust.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at westwords.mcr@gmail.com.

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