Off the Record: Symbols meant to unite us instead are splitting us apart

There are few symbols more evocative than the sight of an American flag waving in the breeze on a sunny day. There are few songs more fraught with meaning and emotion than the U.S. national anthem.

These are wonderful expressions of what makes America great, expressions of our unity.

So why are they being used to split Americans apart?

I don’t know when it began. It was long before Colin Kaepernick that the flag became a way of declaring whether you were on the right side of patriotism. During the Vietnam War, protestors would sometimes burn an American flag as an expression of their disgust with what the American government was doing. Those who disagreed with the protestors put American flag bumper stickers on their cars and window decals on their windshield and flag pins on their lapels. That led John Prine to write the satirical war protest song, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”

Kaepernick, of course, started the practice of kneeling during the national anthem before football games, in protest of the killing of unarmed black by police. That move was misinterpreted as disrespecting the flag and the military veterans who fought to defend it.

President Donald Trump used those protests to whip his supporters into a booing frenzy and demand that NFL team owners fire anyone that didn’t stand straight and respectful. Trump himself likes to show what a great patriot he is by walking out on stage at his rallies and hugging the flag that set up there, as if to say, “Look at how much I love America! Not like those football players.”

It has gotten to the point that people start looking for reasons to be offended by someone else’s flag etiquette, or lack of it. A letter writer to this page earlier this week said he watched the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team win the World Cup, but all he took away from that was that the team’s captain didn’t hold her hand over her heart and sing the anthem before the game. The following 95 minutes of play meant nothing.

Local governments are starting to feel the pressure, too. The St. Louis Park City Council stepped in it earlier this month when it voted to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of their council meetings, because some people thought it might make some people from different backgrounds uncomfortable. So at their work session on Monday, a hundred or so protestors showed up to demand they restore this loyalty oath.

Nobody says the Pledge of Allegiance has to be recited before any kind of government meeting, and a lot of government bodies don’t. If they don’t, they probably shouldn’t start, lest someone accuse them of being insensitive to diverse groups. And if they do, they should probably keep on doing it, lest they be accused of being unpatriotic.

We need to get back to being the “United” States of America. We can start by not trying to determine whether others are patriotic enough by checking out their flag deportment.

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Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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