According to calendars across America, last week, the country observed National Flag Week. Any reference to the flag in recent times, though, hardly feels like a celebration. On the contrary, the thought of the flag and the controversy associated with it has begun to make American’s cringe from the correlated vitriol. This matters, because a flag’s worth is exclusively dependent on what it represents to the people.
Indeed, what the flag represents is precisely what has divided America. Colin Kaepernick, in competition with Jussie Smollett for being America’s biggest racial divider and hoaxer, believes that the American Flag represents an evil country with bad motivations. Patriots on the other side of the argument disagree.
Kaepernick isn’t incorrect to acknowledge injustice in America. Of course injustice exists in America as it does in any society. His mistake is associating it with the flag. The flag, and the tunes that oft accompany it, are meant to articulate that this country’s ideal is to provide equal freedom and opportunity to all whom reside in it. The idea of the flag is to recognize and honor those who have fought to preserve those luxuries on our behalf.
Drew Brees set the NFL community on fire by making statements in support of the flag. In response, fellow NFL champion and quarterback Aaron Rodgers posted a photo of himself on Instagram with his teammates standing, arms interlocked, during the national anthem prior to a game.
The caption and the timing made it clear that this was meant to be a rebuke of Brees’ comments. What’s ironic is that Rodgers’ actions as depicted in the picture were directly in contrast to the point he (and other Kaepernick cronies) try to make. The American Flag is supposed to represent American unity. The American Flag is supposed to represent a communal effort to continuously better our union. The American Flag is supposed to represent a band of brothers, statesmen, or teammates, working together toward a common goal and appreciating common blessings. In that way, Rodgers’s actions were entirely appropriate in the context of the flag and the anthem. Kaepernick’s kneel, in contrast, was designed to overtly undermine America and its values. What Kaepernick neglected to realize is that standing for the flag isn’t an acknowledgement of a perfect America or a perfect history. Rather, standing for the anthem is a communal recognition that we all want to use America’s unique stature in world history and in the global community to continue to perfect our society. This is the opportunity that America’s system of governance and values uniquely present.
Therefore, Kaepernick et al are missing the point.
The conservative side of this argument, if it wants to be taken seriously, must concede that America has imperfections. We stand for the flag despite those imperfections because we maintain that the flag represents the best that we have to offer now and the potential for an even better future.
But if that is so, conservatives cannot be hypocrites, and must therefore change what seems to be a prevalent opinion in the party about the Confederate flag. The logic is the same. The overwhelming ethos of the American Flag is freedom and sacrifice and so that overrides all other associations. So too, the overwhelming ethos of the Confederate Flag is slavery, and so that overrides all other associations. A consistent American must support the American Flag in its complete glory, and despise the Confederate one and its unfortunate symbolism.
If an alien fell on earth today, he would likely be confused why the greatest country in the history of the world is being torn at the seams by a debate about two pieces of cloth. But unlike that alien, we know that a flag is not just a piece of cloth, a flag is a symbol. The American Flag represents a land of opportunity and our efforts that brought us here. The Confederate Flag represents the south’s attempt to secede and hold on to slavery. In both cases, there is no room for anything else. As Aaron Rodgers unknowingly symbolized, the statement of a flag isn’t to make a referendum solely on the present state of the country, but to make a statement of unity tying us to values that all of society agrees are of extreme importance. Thus, when it comes to a flag, it is all or nothing. Vis-a-vie the American flag, I take it all. On the Confederate flag, I want nothing to do with it.
Many arguing that the political Right should abandon the Confederate adulation that exists in our midst have conflated the Confederate flag with historic statues. As one author put it at National Review: “I think that too many of my fellow conservatives are too defensive of the Confederacy, and too ardent in favor of the Confederate symbols…You can have your Stars and Bars and your lee; I’ll have my Stars and Stripes and Lincoln.”
This conflation, though well written, is a mistake.
Whereas a flag represents a broad message, a person and his stone countenance cannot represent a similarly wide concept. If perfection is what we seek when we attempt to honor a man or woman, honoring any man or woman would be impossible, for no man is perfect. No matter the caliber of the individual, no one is flawless, and so honoring any individual would be impossible if an entire life were to be considered before erecting a monument.
When it comes to honoring a person a distinction exists that must be drawn as follows. In a person, we are honoring particular actions of that individual. We can honor George Washington with a statue, for his founding of America, not his slave ownership. We can honor Christopher Columbus with a statue, for his conquest which led to the creation of our great country, not the more unfortunate realities of his time period. If one wants to argue that Robert E. Lee did nothing worth glorifying and that his statue only exists for negative purposes, then, according to my reasoning, relocating his statue to a museum for posterity (I still don’t view vandalism as the answer) would make plenty of sense. As one conservative commentator put it in Politico, “Many of [the statues] were erected as part of the push to enshrine a dishonest, prettied-up version of the Confederacy—they weren’t a testament to our history, but a distortion of it.”In instances where historians recognize that the sole purpose of the statue was to distort American history, sure, we can remove those from public spaces. But statues of our early founders or presidents, and pictures that reside in Congress of previous Speakers of the House, like those taken down by Nancy Pelosi last week, clearly do not fall into that category. They obviously made contributions, their often vile views notwithstanding, that are worthy of recognition in this country.
Detractors may say that just as a person cannot be perfect, nor can a union, and so there is no difference between a statue of a man and a flag. But it isn’t so. Because while a statue represents a person which is by definition imperfect, a flag represents an idea, and the American idea is a perfect one even if the society we built around it cannot reach those ideals. Plato wrote extensively about the Theory of Forms, which states that perfection as an idea exists even when in physicality mankind cannot actualize that level of perfection.
Therefore, it is imperative that we are judicious in which statues we do away with and which are allowed to remain. It’s nonsensical to discard statues of major historical figures who have contributed to our country’s greatness because they were simply products of their time in other areas of their lives.
When vandalizers deface a sculpted rock it’s silly because what they are defacing is not the person, but the objectively positive success that the particular individual was being honored for. Outside a sports stadium, teams often erect a sculpture of an elite player. The idea is the same. The person isn’t being memorialized because the athlete is a model citizen. On the contrary, sometimes athletes aren’t so. The statue is placed there to commemorate the specific performance by that player in that location. When it comes to statues, then, society must realize that a nuanced and delicate distinction needs to be made. The person depicted is being honored for a specific or a slew of specific glorifiable actions. But the imperfect nature of man necessitates that we are not making an ode and paying tribute to everything about him.
This is where a statue differs from a flag. The flag represents the focal point of what its camp has to offer. A flag speaks in generalities and paints with a broad bush. For the American Flag, that means freedom, sacrifice, and opportunity. For the Confederate flag, that means slavery. In contrast, a statue can only be commemorating specific aspects of any individual’s life, and tearing those statues down would require that we could never glorify any particular action.
Any American who wants to be intellectually honest and consistent must take on the following perspective. Americans should stand for the American flag, and all it represents. Americans must retire the Confederate flag, once and for all, and do so proudly. Lastly, we must recognize and thank our forebears who got us here; to the greatest, freest and most prosperous country in world history, where equality is attainable to anyone who seeks it.
Elliot Fuchs is a political consultant, commentator, and writer. Follow him on twitter @Elliot_Fuchs.