Kneeling, the flag and the true meaning of patriotism

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As NFL players, coaches and owners prepare for their league meeting today to discuss the ongoing kerfuffle over the kneeling protests I wanted to pause briefly to voice my opinion on this as an American veteran.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this. Frankly I thought the uproar over this would have subsided by now, and I believe it would have had the president not chosen to manipulate the situation for the sake of political stagecraft, using Americans’ misplaced sense of patriotism to pit us one against another. Also, I’ve just had too much going on to spend much time writing about another American’s legitimate exercise of their First Amendment rights. It seems maybe the president should have been at least that busy.

But, let me make this one point clear: I do not, in any way, want my status as a veteran invoked by the president, by the media or by my well-meaning countrymen to silence any American’s right to free speech. I’m sick and tired of hearing that the players need to be compelled to give up their free expression of dissent because of the military. Because of the veterans. Because of the flag.

I’ve had several friends who were laid to rest far too young beneath that flag. I served beneath it for 11 years, as have my brother, father and uncles. I still get a chill in my spine when I hear the first strains of the anthem played and I still stand at attention out of respect for my brothers and sisters in arms who have served and who still serve. I love the ideals for which our nation was designed, and for which we still strive and in many ways persist in falling short.

It is because I served and because I love those ideals – even if they are yet to be fully obtained – that I cannot abide by any American’s right to free speech being infringed upon in the name of some forced, insincere display of “patriotism.” I served, and vowed to die if necessary, to protect all Americans’ right to determine how they feel about this country, and how they express those feelings.

Forced patriotism is no patriotism at all. It is completely contrary to the founding ideals of this nation, and it should be offensive to all who embrace the real reason for the honored sacrifices of our fallen service men and women. My love of this country does not depend on whether or not NFL players stand for the anthem. My patriotism is predicated on the fact that we live in a country in which none of us can legitimately be forced to swear oaths to or display reverence for something in which we do not believe. Free and sincere expression of dissent was the genesis of our nation, and it is at the heart of what it means to be American. Suppressing that free expression is antithetical to everything that already made this country great.

The president’s inability to grasp this essential aspect of our rights and values, his immature ranting on Twitter and adept chicanery in stirring up hatred with just-subtle-enough racist undertones all are more than a little disturbing, and should be the real concern in this whole episode. That the NFL owners and Roger Goodell started caving to the president’s Twitter-orchestrated public outrage just when financial sanctions were threatened (even if they’re not feasible) betrays the league’s true and only motivation here: ratings and cash.

For the president and for the NFL this issue has nary a damn to do with patriotism, our veterans and the flag. It has everything to do with worshipping the golden calf of civil religion in this country. It has everything to do with accumulating and worshipping money and power.

I don’t know what course the league will take today. I pray it is a course that respects what it truly means to be an American. I pray my fellow Americans can get back to enjoying the game, while loving a country in which generations of men and women have suffered and sacrificed so that we all may define patriotism for ourselves. I pray our president desists from misusing his office to pit us one against another, and that he respect the rights of all Americans.

As for me, I will continue to stand for the anthem. And, I stand by my oath to protect the rights of others to decide for themselves how they define and express their beliefs in this country.

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