Do you know the name George Santayana? I suspect not, unless you are a student of late 19th and early 20th century Spanish philosophers. Heck, I had to look him up myself, and learned that he was born in Madrid, was educated at Harvard, and died in Rome in 1952. You may not have heard of old George, but I very much suspect you heard a phrase he is credited with first uttering, something like: Those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. There are other versions, of course, but the basic thought is that if we don’t remember the lessons taught to us by our own history, we may well repeat the same mistakes.
In general, we do pretty well on the basic stuff that Santayana’s admonition suggests – we don’t touch hot stoves again, we don’t eat the stuff that made us sick, and hopefully we don’t forget the danger to liberty that, I dunno, Nazis, represent.
Or do we?
As I type these words we’ve just been through a weekend in which we saw a US President call a group of football players “sons of bitches” and we saw a dramatic increase in the number of both players kneeling during the national anthem, and of team owners (hardly the most liberal of political thinkers) supporting those players. I’ve seen my social media filled with statements ranging from outrage to support, from people across the political spectrum, and whom I know personally and like and respect. Each side has those who call the other side un-American and who challenge each other’s understanding of fundamental American principles.
During my many years teaching cadets at the Air Force Academy, I regularly taught freedom of speech classes when discussing the Constitution. I always offered the thought, not original with me, that the best reason not to burn the flag is because you can if you want to. I told my students about something that happened when I was in grad school. At my university, the campus American flag was becoming worn out, and there was a ceremony, hosted by the local ROTC unit (of which I was an alum), wherein the frayed and tattered flag was solemnly and respectfully burned, and a brand new flag raised in its place.
I asked my students to then consider the most repulsive type of protestor they could imagine, who lit up an American flag and burned it at a political protest. I asked their thoughts. They were, understandably, upset and angered by the vile flag burner. I then asked them to consider what had happened in both examples – a particularly colored section of fabric was set on fire. The physical act was the same. What was the only difference? The message both the university and the protestor were trying to send. In other words, speech.
I suggested to these future military leaders that their commitment to the Constitution and the principle of free speech was never tested by those who say “huzzah for America” but rather by those who say America “stinks” (or, of course, much worse). I argued that our freedom depends up on a commitment to defending free speech we find repulsive, not just that with which we agree.
Which brings us to the President and the football players. First let me state that I can’t imagine why President Trump would, on a Friday afternoon, kick up a dust storm about football players exercising their free speech rights. Given that we are not free from the consequences of our speech, it would seem to me that if various team owners decided to fire players for kneeling, and assuming their contracts legally permitted such actions, this issue was between the players and the owners, and of course the fans, if they decided to never again watch football because of this perceived insult (this is not entirely hyperbole, given some of the more dramatic statements I’ve seen on social media). A more cynical view might be that the President would very much like to divert attention from a variety of “challenges” facing his administration, much of which is due to his own actions, but that is for another column.
Which brings us back to George Santayana. It is no secret that I did not and do not support President Trump’s policies. But thoughtful people of good will can agree to disagree on political matters, while still accepting that each side loves our country. This becomes harder when a President suggests that protesting makes a person a son of a bitch. Only the shallowest interpretation of these players’ actions can lead one to conclude this was about the actual anthem itself. Rather it was about the profound and concerning situation of race relations in our nation today.
I consider race to be the greatest social challenge in the United States today, precisely because so many are quite sure it is not. I recall asking my students to raise their hands if they ever had been stopped by law enforcement for what they viewed as no reason (I served as a military police officer myself and I do think I see both side of this story). Over the years, when asking that question, I would see a small number of white kids raise their hands, while virtually every young man of color raised his. Such experiences cannot help but influence one’s outlook on life, freedom, and quite likely, the national anthem.
Mr. Trump himself has made some horrific statements, but it is hard to find any that top his response to the KKK/neo-Nazi (and apparently some “very fine people” as well) marching under torchlight in Charlottesville. Perhaps he did not recall, if he ever even knew, the symbolism of such a march, while chanting slogans borrowed from the era of kristallnacht. Perhaps the President did not recall, if he ever even knew, the chant of “blood and soil” by these “very fine people” had a history as well. Lastly, perhaps the President did not recall, if he ever even knew, that the chat of “you will not replace us” carried a deeply sinister message. I would assume that even Mr. Trump got the message when the protestors (including some “very fine people?”) changed the chant a bit to “Jews will not replace us.”
Likely you have heard the phrase “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.” Sinclair Lewis, usually the presumed author, did not write it, and the phrase’s origin is unknown. But I argue that it is far too prescient to be ignored. Combined with the words of Santayana, we are given an important warning about the true danger of insisting on a single view of what is patriotic and true. We must accept that given the different life experiences we each undergo, we are very likely to come to varying views of what it means to be an American.
And so I urge caution when judging those who knee at football games and those that condemn them. Do you always stand in your own home when the anthem plays on TV? Ever get a hot dog during the anthem at a stadium? Ever forget to put your hand over your heart when saying the Pledge? If so, did that shortcoming render you un-American and a son of a bitch?
More importantly, ever take a stand for what you believe is an important principle of liberty?
I served in uniform for over 25 years because I both believe in and love my country. And yet I can both see and accept that my wonderful nation is not perfect, and that those with different life experiences may have strong opinions on what needs to be changed. That doesn’t mean they love the nation less, and it might mean they love it a bit more, because they are willing to fight for what they think is right. Free speech rights are absolutely critical for those who kneel and for those that are “very fine people.” I guess the question might be, do you love freedom of speech enough to protect speech when it offends you to your core? Freedom is best protected not by those who wrap themselves in the flag and call those who don’t sons of bitches. It is best protected by those that remember the lessons of the past, and say “never again” to the sins and outrages of the past. We must find a way to avoid becoming a nation of shortsighted outbursts of “super-patriotism” and become those who are truly committed to justice and freedom, warts and all. We must accept that there is no single standard for what it means to love this nation.
(This essay first appeared on ColoradoPolitics.com)