The Greatness of a Nation is Measured not by Rhetoric but by its Values

The new Nike commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick, with the tag line, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” has caused significant controversy.

He chose to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem as a symbol of protest against racial injustice. In his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,”

Our country seems divided between those who view his actions as courageous and those who see it as disrespectful. Whether by politics, age, or race, it is yet another reminder of how fractured our society has become.

There are really two components to the controversy. The act he committed and the implication in the advertisement that he “sacrificed everything.”

Many believe that a failure to stand during the playing of the National Anthem is disrespectful to the country, its protectors and its visible manifestation-the flag.

In order to evaluate this, we should understand what “appropriate” behavior ought to look like. In many ways, this seems subjective, but there actually are written standards.

According to U.S Code, “During the rendition of the national anthem…persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over their heart…(men) should remove their headdress…”

Congress also passed a joint resolution-the U.S. Flag Code. Among other things, it states that “the flag should not be… draped over a vehicle.” It should “never be used for any advertising purpose…nor used as any portion of a costume.” There are other prohibitions, but these serve the point.

Sadly, the only place I have truly observed a uniform commitment to both of these customs is at a military ceremony. Everyone pays their respects. In the words of one Sergeant Major, “We are honoring the nation the flag represents…. We are also honoring those who have fought under the flag, and in some cases are buried under it, to protect our constitution and preserve the rights and liberty we all enjoy.”

In fact, on military bases when the flag is raised (“reveille”) and lowered (“retreat”), the world takes a pause. People even stop their cars and dismount in order to render the appropriate courtesies.

Kaepernick clearly violate theses norms. However, he is not alone. These customs seem to be widely and deliberately disregarded.

At a recent sporting event, I saw a man walking and talking while those around clearly stood and displayed the appropriate decorum. He was oblivious to his actions.

I have seen flag festooned boats and automobiles on the 4th of July. Flag table cloths. Flag napkins (specifically prohibited). I have seen flag bathing suits. Is there anything that says disrespect quite like plopping one’s derriere down on the stars and stripes?

Yet, somehow these violations are not only tolerated, they often are seen as marks of patriotism and support. It seems that the more ways you “show” the flag, appropriately or not, the more patriotic you appear. It is quantity, not quality that matters.

We might also question what Kaepernick actually sacrificed? Money? A career?

Many others, unsung as heroic, have forgone those. Tanya Kyle, widow of “American sniper” Chris Kyle, pointed out that women who have chosen to stay home and raise the kids made that same sacrifice. She further stated, “How about other warriors? Warriors who will not be on magazine covers, who will not get lucrative contracts and millions of followers from their actions… THAT is sacrificing everything for something they believe in.”

It is hard to argue with those declarations. Life versus career is an unbalanced equation.

Why is there such a disconnect? Why is it that a sports figure is held to a different standard than spectator in the stands watching? Why is a bikini-clad girl seen as less disrespectful that a man on his knee? Is it the standard or the intent we question? How can we truly know what is someone’s heart that motivates their actions?

Moreover, is it possible that these personal feelings somehow represent our own latent prejudices? Celebrating one’s national symbol (no matter the methodology), particularly by members of your tribe, is acceptable. Questioning the reality of our national values, by someone in a different group (with a different perception of its meaning), is not. Our biases can be as deeply ingrained as the legitimate customs we wish to uphold.

As a former Army officer, I am deeply moved by the rituals surrounding the flag. I have stood at attention while a flag-draped casket of a fallen servicemember passed by. I resent the casual manner in which crowds react at a ball game. I am appalled at some of the screeching renditions  of the anthem spewed out by “entertainers” at some venues.

But, I understand that my view of the world is colored by my experiences, my socio-economic status, and, yes, my race. I also understand that the sacrifices I made, and the even greater sacrifices others have made, only have meaning if the freedoms we fought to protect are not just tolerated, but respected.

I am hurt and angry by those who disrespect the flag and the country for which it stands, but in my heart, when I am honest with myself, I know I have done so myself on occasion and perhaps for reasons much more trivial than the deliberate act of protest by a fellow citizen of this nation.

The greatness of this country is measured not by the rhetoric we speak but by the freedoms, tolerance and values we uphold.

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