The Corner


‘Respect the Flag’ — Some Thoughts

(Jonathan Bachman / Reuters)

A headline yesterday said, “NFL requires players on field to stand for anthem.” Vice President Mike Pence tweeted this out and wrote “#Winning.” Then he typed an American-flag emoji.

In recent years, a lot of us have been thinking about patriotism, more than usual. I thought about it yesterday, when writing about Mike Potemra. I said, “He was as patriotic a person as I ever knew. Not a nationalist, far from it, but a deep-dyed patriot, who thought America was a divine gift to the world. ‘This is America!’ he would say, and not ironically.”

Mike was an odd kind of patriot because he loved all of it, from sea to shining sea (as WFB would say). Most of us pick and choose, I think. We love VMI but not Haight-Ashbury, or vice versa. Mike, that weirdo — that glorious weirdo — loved all of it. Most of us have “real America” and, by implication, unreal America. “It’s great to be out here in real America!” politicians will say. A few individuals like the whole star-spangled thing.

Vice President Pence further tweeted, “Today’s decision by the @NFL is a win for the fans, a win for @POTUS, and a win for America. Americans can once again come together around what unites us — our flag, our military, and our National Anthem.” Okay. You can’t include everything, but what about the Constitution? Or the Declaration of Independence?

As the definition of patriotism is up for grabs, so is conservatism. Pence is seen by most of the Right, I suppose, as a true-blue conservative (or I guess we would say true red these days). He gave the commencement address at Hillsdale College. In the days leading up to that, he saluted Sheriff Joe Arpaio as a champion of the rule of law.

George F. Will demolished Pence in a memorable column. Some of my colleagues think that Will is not a conservative at all. Others of us consider him a bona fide one. Again, conservatism is up for grabs.

What about McCain? James Mattis, the secretary of defense, said, “Everything I love about America is resident in this man.” (A lot of us would say something similar about Mattis, too.)

Talking to Fox & Friends, President Trump said, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there — maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

I noted some things in a post last month — a post headed “Our Flag Is Drooping.” Trump called Putin to congratulate him on his “reelection.” It was not a real election. Putin made sure he had no real opponents. They are in prison, in the grave, or otherwise unavailable.

Then Trump called Sissi, the Egyptian dictator, to congratulate him on his “reelection” — same deal as Putin.

Realpolitik does not require such behavior by the American president. And we all have different ideas about standing up for American values — about what constitutes such standing up.

On July 13 last year, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese democracy leader and political prisoner, finally succumbed to his torments. On that very day, Trump spoke a valentine to the boss of Communist China, Xi Jinping:

“He’s a friend of mine. I have great respect for him. We’ve gotten to know each other very well. A great leader. He’s a very talented man. I think he’s a very good man. He loves China, I can tell you. He loves China. He wants to do what’s right for China.”

And so on.

John Kelly, the presidential chief of staff, said this about China: “They have a system of government that has apparently worked for the Chinese people.” Well, it’s not working so well for people in the gulag, but maybe they’re insufficiently patriotic, as the Chinese state says?

In a recent interview with me, Jerome A. Cohen, the veteran China scholar, said that China is in its most oppressive period since the Cultural Revolution.

Last month, in that “Flag Is Drooping” post, I noted a painting, called “Respect the Flag.” It is a hot number in some circles. As Breitbart explained, this is a painting that shows “a somber-looking Trump holding a battered American flag close to his heart while standing on a football field.”

Respecting the flag — what does that mean? I think that most people who “take a knee” during the national anthem are probably jerks and ignoramuses and ingrates. But I’m not sure that forcing them to stand advances the cause of patriotism. I’m not sure that patriotism is compatible with compulsion.

Anyway, a thorny and enduring issue. Justice Stewart was famous for saying that, while he couldn’t define hard-core pornography, he knew it when he saw it. How do we distinguish patriotism — genuine patriotism — from jingoism, exploitation, and the like? With our nose and gut, in part.

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