photo: Sports Illustrated
flag and fortune: author
Last week I had dinner with an old friend. We ate upscale Chinese with a couple craft beers to wash it down. It was good. We’d hardly seen each other since high school.
We met in seventh grade. It was 1968, when Americans woke up every morning pissed off. Racism, patriotism, Vietnam, drugs, flag burning, police brutality, women’s lib, air pollution. Pick the issue and someone started screaming insults.
A lot like this election year.
We got up to leave and I finally brought it up. “Y’know, I gotta say, about this Colin Kaepernick thing…”
He dropped his eyes. “You thought of me, didn’t you?”
I fidgeted with my cookie fortune. “It is impossible to please everybody. Please yourself first.”
“You know I did.”
Years ago he was the one who didn’t get up for the anthem. High school gym, Seattle Coliseum, Husky Stadium. I stood next to my good friend, hand over my heart, glancing down at his shaggy hair and crossed arms. He was pissed off, like most Americans. He refused to stand and worship a symbol of violence and oppression. So he sat.
“I did think of you. I thought of you and how proud I was that my friend was strong and brave enough to do what he thought was right. I thought of how I could stand and sing the anthem while my friend refused, yet we could still respect each other. And I thought of how awesome our country is, where we’re not forced to honor the flag, and our right to refuse is as sacred as any other.”
He reached for a handshake, paused, and hugged me instead. No more words were needed.
But it took me back to an online quiz I spotted. A Patriotism Quiz. Guaranteed to prove how much I love my country. A couple dozen multiple choices on John Glenn, George Washington, and Mount Rushmore can measure what’s in my heart.
Click click. Congratulations, not bad, but you’re only 85% patriotic.
Real questions abide, unanswered. They’re deep. And troubling.
Our forefathers brought forth a nation conceived on stolen land, dedicated to subjugation and genocide of one race, prospering from kidnapping and enslavement of another. Two centuries later, that nation suffers unhealed wounds of institutional racism and broken treaties, wounds that still bleed in the streets of our cities and ooze across the open lands of our native reservations.
Can we not face these truths, yet still love our country and all the dreams it stands for?
The Greatest Generation defended us seventy-five years ago, and Johnny marched home to a white male society. Forgotten in the folklore are Native Americans who volunteered from the poverty of their reservations, black men who faced racism at home and found it worse in the military, and Americans who escaped internment camps to risk their lives for a country that stole their property and herded their families away like cattle.
Thousands of oppressed Americans sacrificed for us, and the lucky ones came home to a place that was anything but free. Can we not still love that country?
For nearly 150 years in this great republic for which that flag stands, half of our citizens could not vote. Our country’s boundless opportunity was a male thing. Lives, fortunes, and sacred honors were risked and sacrificed, but even now in this free land, strong women aren’t taken seriously. They’re harassed, ridiculed for their appearance and strength, and denied opportunities that We The People blithely hand to men.
Can we detest those fearful Neanderthal minds ruling the home of the brave? And can we not still love our country?
Our gay neighbors, feeling alone and hidden and wrong, ostracized even by their own families, have turned in outsized proportions to despair and suicide. Only now, after 200 years of freedom for straight white men with money, only now, while angry hordes still kick and scream and wave Bibles and guns, only now do we break this ground and turn the tide of history.
Can we not respect every proud and shameful moment of our nation’s yesterdays, and love our country today?
People in other lands, people of every color and religion and creed, love their nation’s blue skies, purple mountains and green fields, just like we do. They love their own homelands, warts and all. Patriots around the world, their hearts as true as ours, stand with glowing hearts as their flags rise. Men and women everywhere take up arms and risk their lives for their beliefs and for their nations, their own crumpled flags and letters and pictures of families in their pockets.
Can we not love that about them, honor that about them, and swell with pride at our own flag’s passing?
Generations of young men and women in our great free nation have put on uniforms and done their duty, in other nations’ sands and snows and jungles, allegedly protecting our freedom here in this untouched land. Our best and brightest lie dying, their honorable American blood soaking those snows and sands and jungle floors, so far from our borders.
We’re told to “Support the Troops.” So we stand and cheer as we send more of them off to die. We thank a vet for serving, for being so strong, for not complaining. Then we turn away quick, while we still feel good about it, before we catch that desperate cry for help in his eyes.
Can we rail against wars and those who profit from them, can we cry at every new death among our precious young warriors, can we demand an end to the carnage we wreak on other nations? Can we not do all this, and still honor the soldier’s devotion to duty?
Throughout history in this land of liberty, brave ones have used their words and unarmed resistance to demand truth and justice. They have risked gunshots and lynchings. Without donning a uniform or carrying a gun, they have sacrificed for our freedom.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, who doomed the slave economy with her pen, isn’t honored as a liberator like an armed soldier in uniform.
A Sioux family, their blood frozen in the snow of Wounded Knee, only wanted their freedom. They died for it, but they’re not revered like the soldier who murdered them.
Decades have passed since fire hoses and police dogs were turned on peaceful citizens who only sought their right to vote, here in our own great free land. Since three students were murdered and buried in the red mud of Mississippi. Since young Freedom Riders were beaten by savage mobs. All with the backing of police wearing that very flag we salute. They sacrificed to make us all free. But we don’t call that a Day of Infamy.
How can we stand tall as a free nation without sifting through the dregs of oppression? How can we love our country if we don’t expose and tend to its massive blemishes and festering wounds?
Can we not allow a friend to speak of those flaws? Can we not allow him to sit while we stand to honor our nation and flag?
This patriot can.
If the anger’s too much, if the outrage weighs you down and you can’t lift yourself up for the flag, it’s OK. Keep your seat, old friend. I’m standing right here beside you, one hand on my heart and the other on your shoulder.