A Lesson in Civics

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how a government works. It is a dry and often uninspiring topic, which I paid little heed to when it was part of the mandatory curriculum of my 8th grade education. Compared to the thrill of military action, which comprised the greater part of our history texts, civics was a pallid subject, burdened by the focus on processes that a twelve year old was too young to take part in other than to write an essay or give a speech about why America is the greatest country in the world. I chose to play outdoors instead of writing that essay.

I did not think of it as civics when I later marched to protest the war in Vietnam or occupied the administration building demanding the resignation of the college president over his response to some friends of mine, who took down the school’s American flag as a means to state their opposition to the war. And I certainly did not make the association with my actions to those who bombed the Bank of America building in Isla Vista shortly thereafter. Their extreme and irresponsible behavior could in no way be linked to my well-reasoned and civil actions, at least not to my way of thinking. In the opinion of others, however, the bombers and me were of one mind and purpose. It was my first real lesson in civics; my personal motives were subsumed beneath the interpretation of others, who viewed me from an impersonal distance and reached a conclusion, which I could not control.

Now, we are seeing that lesson demonstrated for us again, although in a much milder form. It happens each week at multiple locations during the playing of the National Anthem prior to every professional football game. And what started as an individual’s protest against the perceived treatment of African-Americans by police as popularized by the media has escalated into something far beyond the original act of one person sitting out the playing of our Nation’s song. The drama of being encamped alone on a bench evolved into kneeling on the sidelines in company with one’s standing teammates, which then became a group-think effort when joined by fellow sympathizers on other teams and even in other sports.

As the movement expanded postures changed. Some knelt with heads bowed, while others knelt but remained looking up at the flag. Still others knelt with the appropriate right hand over their hearts. The chosen pose and number of participants changed as each person brought their own perspective to making a statement in a well-publicized forum. Team owners took sides with some supporting the right of the players to express their dissent, while others mandated that their players abide by the league rules governing a player’s stance during the playing of the National Anthem if they wished to remain employed. Even our President fumbled his way into the controversy with a further divisive statement about firing players who will not stand when the anthem is played, negating their right of free speech as well as their right to endure the consequences of speaking, however non-verbal their message may be.

One person sitting has now become a whole team staying out of sight during the playing of the National Anthem, while others have chosen, as a team, to stand with arms linked in the formation of a human chain to show their unity. And this has inspired another team to issue a statement calling for those in attendance to stand and link arms as well in the hopes that the sense of unity between players and fans remains intact amidst an ever escalating conflict over civic duty. This last effort is in response to the opposition being expressed by fans at the perceived unpatriotic gesture of players boycotting allegiance to one’s country.

Here we need to cue the late Peter Finch to proclaim his infamous line from the movie Network, letting everyone know that “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Football fans are posting anti-player messages on Facebook with images showing them burning season tickets and jerseys, while calling the players out as fake heroes. There is also an attempt at rebuttal by those football faithful appealing to all to remember the reason why the anthem dis was implemented in the first place, police harassment and not a revival of the Vietnam era better red than dead sentiment. This latter group would do well to recall the words of a former President, our first one by the way, whose prescient words still inform us all about the loss of control inherent in free speech. George wisely stated “Those who rouse cannot always appease civil convulsions.” And therein is that civics lesson making its presence known again.

Perception is reality and everyone who kneels or locks arms during a moment in time when our most prominent national symbol is supposed to be honored will unknowingly take on the persona of another’s choosing. And that persona is not a very welcomed sight right now. In fact we can anticipate the arrival of a Tea Party supported senator who will demand to know of each NFL player “Are you now or have you ever been a kneeler?” with its associated blacklist as a consequence of saying yes or even equivocating when making one’s reply.

Despite all, America remains the land of the free and the home of the brave. Some of us brave the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune by kneeling. Others of us occupy administration buildings. And though we may be true believers of our respective causes, the results of what we say and do cascade beyond our ability to control their direction or their intensity. Things will settle down like the calm which follows every storm. But there will be damage and we the people will never be exactly the same as we were before the latest hurricane made landfall.

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