When (former) San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem last season, he stirred a controversy. Was he a traitor or a patriot? Let’s look at the example set by Bruce Maxwell.
A little background: Kaepernick appears to have cost himself an NFL job this season, but other players in the 75-percent black NFL followed his lead. Donald Trump called them sons of bitches who should be fired.
Last Sunday, many players—and some owners—responded to Trump. They knelt or stood with arms linked. Three teams, excepting one player, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, stayed in their locker rooms.
Bruce Maxwell, catcher for baseball’s Oakland A’s, is one of MLB’s relatively few African-American players in a sport culturally rooted in small-town, conservative America. He protested in a way every American can respect.
Maxwell knelt. He didn’t turn his back, look away or fiddle with his shoe laces. Son of a military father and a loyal American, he placed his hand over his heart and looked up at the flag. In doing so, he made a statement that inequities in the treatment of minorities must be addressed by the country he loves.
Some people believe athletes kneeling or linking arms dishonor the flag. The flag is piece of cloth. (See “Just What is the Flag?”) Likewise, the anthem is a musical composition. They are symbols. Americans can approach them in different ways without showing disloyalty to the nation, its military and its first-responders.
I still stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” though I believe playing it before sports events is unnecessary. Gazing at the flag, hand over heart, I say to myself, “May this flag fly over a nation realizing the high ideals it represents. When we fall short, may it inspire us to fulfill its promise.”
Opposition to recent protests seems to flow from the old bromide, “My country right or wrong.” (See “God Bless America! And Then What?”) That philosophy makes sense only when we acknowledge the nation’s shortcomings and make good-faith efforts to correct them. Blind allegiance to flag and anthem ignores our faults or, worse, gives them legitimacy.
I recall those who railed against protestors during the Vietnam War, pronouncing “America, love it or leave it.” I thought they misunderstood love of country. I was then an Army officer.
Can this nation heal? Eliot Cohen, who served in the George W. Bush administration, writes in the October issue of The Atlantic that no matter how soon Trump leaves the White House, the government and nation will sustain damage for years. Perhaps decades.
Our nation and government can overcome, but only when Americans listen to each other. Casting aside the far-right’s white supremacy, anti-Semitic agenda and the shrill, authoritarian aspects of the far left, we’ll discover that we often agree on desired outcomes. Our differences lie in the methods with which to achieve them. Realizing this, we can return civility to politics, the absence of which stalls improvement while distorting the concept of patriotism.
So here’s to Bruce Maxwell. Those who take offense at his approach might do some soul searching about the deeper meaning of symbols and slogans. Because our ongoing task is not to make America great again but to make America greater.
If you are going to Yom Kippur services at Sherith Israel tomorrow, please join me at 1:15 as I lead a class and discussion on the book of Jonah. And may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.
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