William Larsen: Are we living up to what the flag, national anthem represents? | TheUnion.com

William Larsen: Are we living up to what the flag, national anthem represents?

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William Larsen

The folks so upset about athletes "taking a knee" need to look deeper into this issue.

As a veteran, I know vets who feel similarly. I also know many who don't. Just like any issue.

What I don't know is how this simple act of civil demonstration got turned into a litmus test for patriotism. Politics is a blood sport, so there's nothing new here. But dragging our beleaguered armed forces into this political quagmire is nonsense and a misguided attempt to politically manipulate public opinion.

Individuals making a lawful, nonviolent, symbolic statement about the welfare of our country are in no way denigrating America or our troops. In fact, whether anyone agrees with the specific complaint is irrelevant. These players are exercising their constitutional right to free speech and redress of the government. As such, "taking a knee" is a patriotic act for which the players should be admired. The freedom to voice such grievances is, after all, what we in the armed forces fought for.

These players are exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and redress of the government.

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Oh, I get it. Some people revere symbols almost as much as the reality they represent, whether it be a wedding ring, communion host, flag or family crest. Important stuff, but still only symbols of what we honor. So what exactly is a "symbol"? My definition is: "a token of identity representing something else by association, resemblance or convention." That is, we attach our identity to the symbol, even though it is not the actual person or quality we revere.

Big mistake.

Let's go cautiously here. By itself, the flag is a bit of colored cloth. But it stands for so much more, the very values on which our representative democracy is based. But when we attach our very identity to external objects, we risk trivializing (and distorting) that which we hold most dear. I spent 10 months in army hospitals after getting riddled by AK-47 rounds in Vietnam. Believe me, I honor the freedom and opportunity our county provides. But as I observe this America I fought for, one thing is starkly clear: all of us may have the freedom, but many of us don't have the opportunity. To my mind, this is not only wrong; it is a constitutional crisis — volumes of statistics substantiate the social inequities in our country.

For sure, our flag stands for the liberties that we, as citizens, are privileged to enjoy. However — in its tight cluster of 50 stars — it also stands for something else: unity. Well, in case you missed it, our nation is not unified. Maybe half-way? Kind of like a flag at half mast? Or a person taking a knee to point out obvious shortcomings in our society? So perhaps flying the flag at half-mast is an appropriate symbol for our wounded democracy.

Personally, I'm tired of people proclaiming they're "proud" to be American. What did any of us do to create this wonderful country? Nada, none of us. We didn't earn the enormous privileges we enjoy; they were given. So perhaps we should focus on being grateful rather than proud for what we have. And with gratitude comes responsibility. As patriotic Americans (as opposed to symbolic patriots), maybe we should be more concerned for our fellow citizens who are clearly not being given those same constitutional rights.

Several years ago a Medal of Honor recipient named John Caviani spoke in Nevada City. John was a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton for several years, and had something to say about this issue. If Joan Baez came into the room, he said, he wouldn't have a problem sitting down with her having an amiable conversation. She had ideals she stood for, John said, and paid a price for doing so. However, if Jane Fonda entered, he would leave because Fonda gave aid and support to the enemy. The critics of the kneeling athletes might consider this wise distinction.

So, let's not stumble into the future with stars in our eyes.

We need to look squarely at this issue and see clearly what the national anthem is saying on a level beyond the single war story its lyrics relate. My wife made an interesting observation in this regard. The anthem, she said, does not make a firm declaration (e.g. "America, love it or leave it."). No, the lyrics ask a question: "Can you see?"

Since this entire issue is about symbols, maybe we need to look beyond the anthem's surface meaning, and examine whether our country — government and citizens all — is living up to the standard the flag represents.

At this point, given our disunity and equal opportunity denied to all, a positive response would be most difficult to justify.

William Larsen lives in Nevada City.

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