William Tell wasn’t shooting at an apple on his son’s head to show off; it was a cruel punishment for failing to bow to a hat, a symbol of a governor’s power. As a public-school brat, raised with civics and pride in America, I felt that a requirement to revere a symbol was ridiculous. Little did I realize much of America prizes the symbol over our freedoms.
A significant part of our country believes that genuflecting during the national anthem disrespects the flag and our country. The flag flies before, during and after the game, and the players kneel only during the anthem, a song whose author and third stanza are perceived by many to be racist.
The national anthem is not even the flag; it is only a song about a flag: a symbol of a symbol. I don’t even see how this is about the flag.
The Founding Fathers were overwhelmingly rationalists in the European Enlightenment style. They had no regard for icons. Their Constitution demands loyalty, not to a king, or ruler, or president, or even the country, but to the specific form of government adopted by the people: the Constitution itself. Patriotism was prized, but it was something to be earned, and could be lost (as the Declaration of Independence explains at length). In America, patriotism was to be rational, scientific and voluntary; it was not to be like religion.
There was no pledge of allegiance or national anthem, no hat on a stick or required obeisance in our Founding Fathers’ time. Under our Constitution, the country is not even borders (many states and territories were ill-defined in the Founding Fathers’ time); the country is the ideals stated in the Constitution.
Chief among them is freedom of thought: of speech, of religion, of assembly, and the absence of royalty (unearned power or respect). These freedoms were revolutionary then, and still are rare in the world.
For our country, freedom of speech includes allowing protesting, irreverent, revolutionary and other speech distasteful to many; speech vilifying religious, sexual, racial or cultural minorities disgusts me, but I welcome it as part of our unique experiment in freedom of thought, and hope that the expression of opposing ideas exposes its ugliness and vacuity.
Many America regressives might be more comfortable with the policy in China, where religion, politics and freedom of thought coalesce into the Communist Party. Irreverence to their anthem is punishable by imprisonment.
Here, it is recognized that even burning the flag is protected free speech, within the core of our Constitutional values.
Our national ideals, including equality before the law and equality of opportunity, are laudatory. We are far from realizing them, and must not let the symbol replace the reality, although that would be comfortable for those for whom the laws work and opportunity is available.
Large sections of our population, especially minorities, the poor, the different and the average, see clearly that some are more equal than others before the law and in availability of opportunity in America.
Thank you to all peaceful protesters for making sure we don’t become complacent.
Jed Somit is a resident of Kapaa.