Framing the Flag Fight

When someone criticizes NFL players who sit or kneel during the US national anthem for disrespecting veterans, it’s reasonable to reply that they are not disrespecting the military, because the protest is not, in fact, about the military. In the face disbelief, it is also reasonable to marshal the testimony of veterans who support the protest. These responses, however, leave dangerous assumptions untouched: namely, that respect for the military should have priority over all other considerations and that the opinions of those who have military experience are more valuable than those of of other citizens. These assumptions are not characteristic of a civil democracy. In a democracy, civil society takes priority; there is a reason that the Command In Chief is a civilian.

The better response when someone claims that a protest against unjust killings of citizens disrespects the military is “So what if it did?” A society that prioritizes the feelings of the military is already approaching military rule.

Of course, in this case, racism has enabled the focus on military feelings. Racism has made black people vulnerable not only to police brutality but also to having their lives regarded as less important than perceptions of respect for soldiers. That does not mean that the expectation that the military be venerated will never be placed above other citizens’ lives, or even above all civilian lives. Rather, it is a toehold, as toeholds for authoritarianism and other oppressions have often begun with already oppressed groups.

To be clear, I am not advocating for disrespect of individual soldiers or veterans any more than I would advocate for the disrespect of other individual citizens (Nazis being an exception). What I am doing is to point out the danger in accepting the terms of an argument in which deference to symbols associated with the military takes precedence over everything else.

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