It’s Memorial Day weekend, which means it’s time to dust off those flags in the back of the closet, fire up the grill and indulge in our annual orgy of patriotic fervor.
It is appropriate to honor our nation’s fallen service men and women, and to thank veterans, especially those permanently damaged by war in body, mind and spirit.
I encourage you to attend a Memorial Day service, pray for the military (and for peace, while you’re at it) and thank veterans. And yes, if you’re so inclined, enjoy a barbecue or flag-draped mattress sale.
That’s all appropriate.
What is inappropriate is suggesting that people who dare to protest inequality and social injustice shouldn’t be considered Americans.
Unfortunately, our president once again advanced this autocratic notion of patriotism Thursday on his favorite unofficial state “news” program, “Fox & Friends,” when he said this of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem: “You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
What’s important about that quote isn’t the NFL, the NFL Players Assoc. or even the First Amendment legalities surrounding speech in the workplace.
What’s important is that the president of our republic is asserting that “maybe” you shouldn’t be American if you have the audacity to question the government or protest conditions in our society.
In this misguided and historically myopic view of patriotism, you’re only an American if you accept the status quo as inviolate, and refrain from the audacity of believing our country can and should move toward a more just, equitable society.
There are many things to celebrate about America. And, if you choose, go celebrate.
But, there also are many causes for concern that demand attention — attention that may only be won if enough people have the courage to stand up (or kneel) and say something.
Racism is resurgent in our country. The wealth gap between black and white families is widening, not narrowing — it grew from an average factor of five in 1983 to seven in 2016.
In 99 percent of American neighborhoods, black adults earn less than white peers who started at the same socioeconomic level.
Hate crimes were up in 2015 and 2016 — numbers aren’t yet in from 2017 — disproportionately affecting Muslims, Jews, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community.
One in five American children live in poverty, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. One in six children are food insecure, in a nation that exported roughly $140 billion in food and threw away another 72 billion pounds of food last year.
Income inequality continues to grow. In 2014, the bottom 50 percent of wage earners were paid just 12.6 percent, while the top 1 percent took home 20.2 percent of all earnings in the country. That inequality affects every geographic and racial demographic, but disproportionately affects minorities and women.
And, just in case you work up a thirst with all the flag-waving this weekend, consider this: 3,810 American neighborhoods recently recorded child lead poisoning rates at least twice those found in Flint, Michigan, at the peak of that city’s water contamination crisis.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t celebrate Memorial Day. We should. And, I’m not saying you shouldn’t stand for the national anthem. If you’re so inclined (and I am), stand for the anthem.
But, those who suggest there isn’t anything worthy of protest are willfully blind to conditions in the America we all share. And, suggesting it’s unpatriotic to protest ignores the very nature of what it means to be American.
Our nation was birthed of righteous protest, and the right — and I’d say, responsibility — of every American to speak out against injustice and inequality is far more sacrosanct than standing for a song or a flag.
Patriotism in states like Syria, Iran and North Korea means unwavering support of the blessed leader and lock-step adoration of state symbology.
Patriotism in America means constantly evaluating and holding responsible our elected leaders, and using our power as free people — including the power of protest — to create a society that better reflects our ideals and better serves our children.
The flag and the anthem only have meaning when we live up to that obligation. The sacrifice of our veterans is squandered when we fail in it.
I’ll be standing for the anthem when I hear it. But, even more so, I stand for the right — and the responsibility — of all Americans to oppose injustice and defend equality.