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standing versus kneeling

Samuel Johnson Was Right*

While I haven’t yet chosen to kneel during the playing of our national anthem, I don’t take off my hat and place my hand over my heart either. I don’t even wear a hat to events where the anthem might be played, at least in part so that I don’t have to take it off. And rather than putting my hand over my heart, I only stand with my hands at my side.

I joined the US Marines when I was 17 years old and voluntarily fought in Vietnam, where I was wounded in combat, and eventually promoted to sergeant and awarded an honorable discharge.

By no stretch of the imagination can any knowledgeable person construe what I did in Vietnam as having anything at all to do with your right to go to the church of your choice or marry the person you love or choose the brand of shampoo you want. I did serve proud and arrogant men who, however well-meaning they may (or may not) have been, were utterly ignorant of what was happening in Vietnam and why, but I most assuredly did nothing to protect my country, let alone serve my country or the best interests of humanity. That anyone would respect me or want to thank me for my “service” always leaves me wondering.

And I wonder how many of today’s American servicemen and women are actually engaged in protecting our country. Do we really need to deploy U.S. military forces to at least 150 other countries around the world? Do we really need twelve aircraft carrier battle groups to protect our country when the next largest carrier fleet consists of one used ship the Chinese bought from Ukraine? Is deploying NATO troops to former East Bloc countries and placing missile defense systems in Rumania any less aggressive or provocative than Russia annexing the Crimea?

We could debate those points, perhaps, but here are some other points to think about:

According to the World Health Organization, the United States ranks 37th in health care (quality, accessibility, and cost) behind such nations as Portugal, Colombia, and Morocco. Our infant mortality rate is the highest in the developed world, surpassing such nations as Slovakia, Belarus and Cuba.

Depending on which barometer one uses, U.S. secondary education ranks as low as 29th (behind Slovenia, Latvia, and Vietnam) or as high as 14th (behind Russia and Poland). No survey in recent decades has placed the U.S. in the top ten.

The U.S. puts more of its citizens behind bars than any other nation on earth (724 out of every 100,000). Our closest competitor is Russia at 581 per 100,000.

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African Americans comprise 13.2% of our population, but since 1976 have made up 34.6% of those we put to death by state-sanctioned execution.

If the number of Americans living in poverty were organized as a sovereign state, those 45 million Americans would be a nation larger than 165 of the 195 countries in the world today. Meanwhile, the top 1% of our population possesses 40% of our national wealth while the bottom 80% possesses only 7% of our national wealth.

For the most recent figures I could find (2013), 11,208 Americans were murdered by other Americans using firearms. Between 2005 and 2015, 71 Americans died by acts of terrorism in the US while 301,797 died by gun violence.

When we play the national anthem before sporting events as a sign of “respect,” I wonder just exactly what it is that I’m being asked to respect?

Annual US military spending is greater than the next 17 countries combined. We spend six times as much on defense as China does, and 11 times more than Russia. At the same time, we provide 50% of all arms sales to the rest of the world. Russia, our chief competitor, provides less than a third of that amount.

And we haven’t even gotten to the problems Colin Kaepernick was trying to bring to public discussion when he chose to kneel last year during the playing of the anthem: police brutality and minority oppression. In 2015, for instance, 102 unarmed black Americans were killed by police; only ten officers were charged with a crime, and only two were convicted. While unarmed whites are also killed by police, blacks make up 37% of the total although they are only 13% of the population, figures which uncannily reflect our legal execution rates as well.

While one might quibble with the exact statistics in any given example above (as Mark Twain famously said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”), the substance of each of the statements above is true.

So when we play the national anthem before sporting events as a sign of “respect,” I wonder just exactly what it is that I’m being asked to respect? It seems to me that I’m being asked to forget, ignore, overlook, or condone a whole lot of stuff we all ought to be ashamed of and trying to do something about.

When I hear people accusing these NFL players of disrespecting our country, or our servicemen and women, or our flag, I find myself wondering what any of them have been doing besides feeding at the trough. Consider, for instance, our current commander-in-chief’s military service record. Oh, wait! He doesn’t have one. It’s easy to stick an American flag pin in your lapel and get all teary-eyed when “The Star-Spangled Banner” gets played. But Carl Shurz did not say, “My country right or wrong.” What he said was, “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” What have those who’ve been dumping on Colin Kaepernick and his fellow kneelers done to set our country right?

And if Kaepernick or anyone else wants to sit through the national anthem, or kneel, or stand on their heads and blow bubbles, that’s their right. Not their privilege. Not an act of treason or a lack of patriotism. It is their right as Americans. When the symbols of freedom replace the substance of freedom, we’re all in a whole lot of trouble.


WD Ehrhart

*Back in 1775, according to James Boswell, his biographer, Johnson famously said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”