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Patriotism vs Reckoning
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Has Achieved Nirvana
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Opinion A son kneels for the anthem. A father raises the flag. Both are patriots.

By Theodore R. Johnson
Contributing columnist
March 8, 2023 at 2:39 p.m. EST

A participant holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services annual Independence Day celebration on July 1, 2022 in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
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One morning many years ago, my young son wondered why our car was idling in the middle of the road. “What’s wrong?” he asked from the back seat. We were on a military base, and everyone had stopped. I caught his eyes in the rearview mirror, just beyond the gold oak leaves on my uniform. “Nothing’s wrong," I answered. "The national anthem is playing.” He looked out the window, furrowed his brow, and nodded once his ear caught the familiar melody.

Now a teenager, my son wore his own uniform of jersey and pads at a recent high school football game. While I stood at attention in the stadium bleachers, he knelt on the field as the anthem played.

As many athletes and others had done for years, he took a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality, especially against Black Americans. And as a dreadlocked Black teen coming into his own, his decision to kneel was as personal as it was political.

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From the next section of bleachers, I heard scoffs coming from a man who was nudging his wife and motioning toward my son. The couple shook their heads in annoyance. Their faces dripped with a holier-than-thou animus. Then, as the anthem concluded and the players huddled for their pregame ritual, the team’s American flag tumbled from its bracket on the sideline fence and fell on the ground. My military training kicked in, and I bounded down the bleachers to repost it.

The same man who had sneered at my son stepped into the aisle as I climbed back to my seat. “Appreciate you doing that for us, for respecting the flag,” he said. He couldn’t have known the parental fire burning in me over the hateful looks he had shot at my child. Another part of me was indignant: What did he mean by “us”? It wasn’t clear that “us” included me; indeed, his demeanor suggested that my action was more a service rendered to him and his family, rather than something we all shared — my son included. I kept my cool, sidestepped him with a nod, and focused on enjoying the game.

This moment of Americana stays with me because it’s symbolic of how uncomfortable we are as a society when pride coexists alongside reckoning.


Our politics seem increasingly to demand all of one and none of the other. But reasonable people, whether pride or reckoning resonates more with them, can sincerely ask: How can we take pride in a nation with a history of such injustice and unfairness and inequality? How can we reckon with a nation that we refuse to take pride in? The truth is, the two are inseparable. Pride includes a faith in the nation’s ability to learn and improve and atone. Reckoning implies faith in a fundamental goodness to which the appeals of justice can be made.

Pride and reckoning feel especially pressing now that we are just three years out from the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026, marking 250 years since the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. The toxic partisanship and bad-faith ideologues poisoning our politics threaten to turn an occasion for civic solidarity into yet another issue with which to demonize each other. Those who benefit from the intense divisions have little interest in a nation that hews more closely to its professed ideals. Instead, they are more than happy to pit pride against reckoning — which pits Americans against one another.

Pride and reckoning fit together as naturally as the sun and horizon. Nearly every American alive today descends from a race, ethnicity or nationality that was excluded in some way, at some time, from the full rights of citizenship and barred from participation in our democracy. Each group’s journey has been distinct — some more arduous than others, and none completed. But the nation we have today, with all its imperfections, is a product of the energy and work of previous generations who insisted that the nation do a better a job of living up to its promises. We should be proud of those who came before and bent the nation, often against its will, toward equality and justice.

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In Black America, pride and reckoning have long been bedfellows. In calling out the United States’ hypocrisy on race and slavery, Frederick Douglass remarked he was “discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is the lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.” In a 1902 speech, Black feminist and scholar Anna Julia Cooper stated the “American ideal is perfect” but that “the American conscience would like a rest from the black man’s ghost.” W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote that America was worth fighting for because it held lessons for the world, but that he “simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous oration at the 1963 March on Washington was a demand for reckoning delivered from place of pride in American ideals. And, of course, there is James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Furthering this American experiment, however, requires more than pride and reckoning. As Cooper asserted, with a nod to the Bible: “Where there is no vision, the people perish. A nation cannot long survive the shattering of its own ideals. Its doom is already sounded when it begins to write one law on its walls and lives another in its halls.”

Adding aspiration to our pride and reckoning creates a framework for a better future. America will persist another 250 years only if “We, the people” is broadly conceived and if we are willing to work with one another to protect and continue the progress that is our birthright, though this is not inevitable.

At a Friday evening high school football stadium, my family demonstrated that it is possible to take pride in our country while calling for a reckoning with injustice and inequality. We were living out our vision of a country that permits honesty and aspiration to advance together.

WaPo


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Several people have eaten my cooking and survived.

 
Posts: 25616 | Location: Still living at 9000 feet in the High Rockies of Colorado | Registered: 20 April 2005Reply With QuoteReport This Post
czarina
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did you see the video of the police standoff in Seattle on Feb 1? Neighbors came out to confront the police who had a huge rifle aimed right at an unarmed black man. The police backed off.


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fear is the thief of dreams

 
Posts: 21228 | Registered: 18 May 2005Reply With QuoteReport This Post
Has Achieved Nirvana
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quote:
Originally posted by piqué:
did you see the video of the police standoff in Seattle on Feb 1? Neighbors came out to confront the police who had a huge rifle aimed right at an unarmed black man. The police backed off.


Yes. Would like to think the tide has turned. Too many believe their racism makes them better than others.


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Several people have eaten my cooking and survived.

 
Posts: 25616 | Location: Still living at 9000 feet in the High Rockies of Colorado | Registered: 20 April 2005Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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