Bob Costas and many others have sympathized with athletes who disrespect America’s symbols because those represent only the “ideals” of the nation, which America is supposedly failing. Costas, in fact, thinks the national anthem would be more “palatable” if sports fans were invited to sing it specifically to express America’s ideals.
The Star-Spangled Banner, and its eponymous flag, don’t represent the nation’s ideals. They represent the nation itself, and its greatness as expressed in our words when we honor it:
Our freedom. “Land of the free.” “Sweet land of liberty.” Freedom is etched in our nation’s character, even if we still occasionally fall short. How much do protesters know about life in 20th century Russia or 21st century China? Or in the British colonies before 1776? More than anything, America’s greatness comes from a reflexive embrace of liberty. Episodes in American history regarding slavery, internment camps, and separate bathrooms only underscore how astonishingly free Americans are today.
Our fairness. “And justice for all.” “And crown thy good with brotherhood.” Despite all the fuss, the number of unarmed black people shot by police is minuscule – only seven in the first six months of this year. A black man is as likely to be killed by lightning. In some of those cases, the shooting was justified; in others, reasonable doubt led to an acquittal; and no doubt a few guilty policemen go unpunished. But overall, justice is not an American “ideal.” It is an overwhelming fact of our lifestyle, of America’s nearly consistent national fairness. In fact, if 20 racial police shootings a year are the best evidence Black Lives Matter has that America is a racist country, they’re only proving America is, by and large, not a racist country.
Our opportunity. “Give me your tired, your poor.” “Ev’ry heart beats true.” The United States is a black swan regarding the opportunity it offers its populace for advancement and achievement. In fact, if protesters want to be angry at anything, it should be the selfish, stubborn teachers’ unions and the politicians in their pockets who block any meaningful reform that would help minority youth escape the failing public schools that deny them the equal opportunities they deserve.
Our faith. “One nation under God.” “God shed his grace on thee.” Religion has played a unique role in our nation’s history compared to other countries. It guides us, inspires us, and unites us – even while we have no established religion and all Americans have freedom to exercise it (or not) in their own way. But God has always been central to our self-conception as a nation.
Our landscape. “From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.” “For purple mountain majesties.” We don’t talk about it much anymore, but our nation’s physical beauty, natural resources, and frontier spirit are part of what make this country great. Saluting the flag and singing its anthem honor that landscape.
But most of all….
Our heroes. “Home of the brave.” “Land where my fathers died.” I tear up when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner (usually at St. Louis’s outdoor Muny theater) because I think of the boys we lost in too many wars. How is losing young men (and women) a national ideal? Ideally, we wouldn’t lose any at all. Disrespect for our nation’s symbols gives the finger to those who fought to keep us free – including the 110,000 white and black soldiers who sacrificed their lives to end the nation’s shameful institution of slavery.
Today’s protesters have chosen a terrible moment to begin dividing the nation along lines of respect vs. disrespect for America’s symbols. When increasingly prominent white nationalist marchers wave Confederate flags, patriotic Americans black and white should respond, “We reject the values your symbol promotes. We have our own distinguished symbols that celebrate this nation’s greatness.”
Our flag and our national anthem represent today’s noble nation, not just a fantasy future America. But even for those who disagree, what was once called “race relations” cannot improve if one race becomes associated with disdain for “the emblems of the land we love, the home of the free and the brave.”
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or Facebook, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.