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Roger Ebert vs. Flag-Tee Teens


Over the weekend, movie critic and political tweeter Roger Ebert wrote this:

@ebertchicago Kids who wear American Flag t-shirts on 5 May should have to share a lunchroom table with those who wear a hammer and sickle on 4 July.

Which, as you might imagine, led to quite a few responses. Ebert answered his critics here:

Now what do you suppose I meant by that? It was tweeted at the height of the discussion over five white California kids who wore matching t-shirts to school on Cinco de Mayo, and were sent home by their school. This inspired predictable outrage in the usual circles.

Tweeted from lonestarag05: Its the USA not Mexico. They are allowed to be proud of their country. I wonder sometimes why you even stay here.

Many others informed me that Americans have the right to be proud of our flag, and wear it on T-shirts. Of course they do. That isn’t the question. It’s not what my Tweet said. What I suggested, in its 108 letters, is that we could all use a little empathy. I wish I had worded it better.

Let’s begin with a fact few Americans know: Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is an American custom. The first such celebration was held in California in 1863, and they have continued without interruption. In Mexico itself it is not observed, except in the state of Puebla — the site of Mexico’s underdog victory over the French on May 5, 1862.

Cinco de Mayo’s purpose is to celebrate Mexican-American culture in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants, and have many such observances, for example St. Patrick’s Day parades, which began in Boston in 1737 and not in Ireland until 1931. Or Pulaski Day, officially established in Illinois in 1977, and not observed in Poland. The first Chinese New Year’s parade was held in San Francisco in the 1860s, and such parades began only later in China. In Chicago this August we will have the 81st annual Bud Billiken Parade, one of the largest parades in America, celebrating the African-American heritage.

I invite you to perform four easy thought experiments:

1. You and four friends are in Boston and attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing matching Union Jack t-shirts, which of course you have every right to do.

2. You and your pals are in Chicago on Pulaski Day, and wear a t-shirt with a photograph of Joseph Stalin, which is your right.

3. In San Francisco’s Chinatown for the parade, your crowd wears t-shirts saying “My granddad was at the Rape of Nanking and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

4. In Chicago for the Bud Billiken Parade, you and your crowd, back in shape after three hospitalizations, turn up with matching t-shirts sporting the Confederate flag.

The question is obviously not whether Americans, or anyone else, has the right to wear our flag on their t-shirts. But empathetic people realize much depends on context. If, on Cinco de Mayo, you turn up at your school with a large Mexican-American student population wearing such shirts, are you (1) joining in the spirit of the holiday, or (2) looking for trouble?

I suggest you intend to insult your fellow students. Not because they do not respect THEIR flag, but because you do not respect their heritage. That there are five of you in matching shirts demonstrates you want to be deliberately provocative.

Well, one, his examples above are wrong. The equivalent in each case would be: What would happen if, say, a protestant wore an American flag T-shirt to the St. Patrick’s Day parade? Ummm, nothing? Would anyone even notice? Probably not.

And two, the question is not whether wearing the shirts consituted a provocation, but if the decision of the principal to force the kids to turn the shirts inside-out was appropriate. I think columnist Scott Herhold for the San Jose Mercury News, sums it up nicely:

Let us grant that the four boys at Live Oak High School who wore American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo were not behaving sensitively toward their Latino classmates.

Let us acknowledge that they were immature, even offensive, when they picked a Mexican holiday to exhibit their patriotism.

It was a more subtle message than the Border Patrol T-shirts that some kids tried wearing in the San Jose Unified District. But given our battles over immigration, it was not a wholly friendly message.

Let us grant all that. It was still a mistake for an assistant principal to ask them to turn the T-shirts inside out or go home. It was a mistake not to let them wear the flag.

I don’t say that because I’m a big flag-waving patriot. I loathe the simple dictums of the tea party movement. I hate the Arizona law that allows cops to demand papers on the street.

But as a professional rabble-rouser, I believe in free speech, even offensive speech. And I don’t think an American flag T-shirt meets the standard for squelching — not even on Cinco de Mayo in a Morgan Hill high school that is 40 percent Latino. [...]

It’s a job that demands judgment. That’s why we’ve allowed school administrators to ban gang colors. It’s why San Jose Unified was right to ban the Border Patrol T-shirts. These can be deliberate, even deadly, provocations.

But the fundamental issue here is whether wearing the American flag, with all its freight, is the same as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

I don’t think anyone has made that case.

We went through a national debate 40 years ago when people burned the flag to protest the Vietnam War. As free speech advocate Peter Scheer points out, the law that protected the desecration of the flag also protects wearing it.

You can’t simply say there’s a possibility of hard feelings or that anger could erupt. You need a threat of riot. And in retrospect, Morgan Hill school administrators have acknowledged the right to wear the flag, saying the incident was “extremely unfortunate.”

As for some of the outrageous stuff that’s been thrown at Ebert for his view, that’s wrong and unnecessary. As for me, I give Ebert’s blog post, and his original tweet, two very big thumbs down.


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