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Rubel: Expensive Displays Make It Hard For Any Message To Be Understood During National Anthem

Aug 7, 2018


Commentary: Those reading this column online get the bonus of seeing photos of me and the Hill Junior High School Color Guard taken for the 1972 yearbook. I’m the gangly kid second from the right with the big circle around my head, drawn 46 years ago in fear that when I got to be this age I would forget who I was.

I got the junior high gig after first learning about flag etiquette and how to serve on a color guard in the Boy Scouts. We would occasionally be called on to post the colors at some important, adult function, and I remember taking it very seriously. It felt like one of the most important responsibilities I had back then.

A lot of that has stayed with me. I still cringe anytime I see a flag touch the ground. I still believe the flag represents the sacrifices of those who have come before me, and should be respected for that reason. I still fly my flag on the national holidays when I’m home.

But the certainty of my youth has been replaced by pestering nuance.

Like most American children, I was taught to recite the pledge of allegiance long before I knew what it meant. Indivisible? What’s a republic? We learned the sounds of the words, not the meaning. And I went for years reciting it exactly how I had learned it, repeating the words without giving thought to the meaning.

When I did finally stop to consider what I had been saying, it occurred to me that an unthinking pledge of fealty to any power is a dangerous thing.

That doesn’t mean I have given up on the pledge. When at public events, I’ll stand, remove my hat and place my hand over my heart, just like always. But now I think about what I’m saying, and when I get to a part of the pledge that I disagree with, I simply stay silent.

Commentator Walt Rubel with his junior high school color guard in 1972.
Credit Hill Junior High Yearbook, 1972

If I had ever felt compelled to take my protest beyond silence, I would expect a harsh rebuke, even if the cause of my protest were just. As described above, there are well-established rituals we are all expected to follow in regard to the anthem and the flag.

Which brings me to the start of another NFL season, and the ongoing controversy over players, mostly black, who have sought to draw attention to the problem of police violence against black men by kneeling during the national anthem. They have spoiled what had been a costly production. Most professional sporting events start with the national anthem, but nobody does it up like the NFL – flags the size of a football field, jets flying overhead, fireworks exploding. It’s not just patriotism that has led to the increasingly elaborate displays. It turns out the Department of Defense has paid millions to NFL teams for these pre-game extravaganzas.

Players exercising their first amendment rights don’t fit with the narrative of unthinking patriotism. And fans getting ready for the opening kickoff, whose greatest concern for the day is how long their quarterback’s gimpy ankle will hold out, certainly don’t want to be confronted by weighty issues like police bias.

Add to that a president always on the lookout for a cultural battle to satisfy his base, and you have the lost cause that this effort has become.

I’m not in a position to tell African-Americans how they should respond to racist policing or where they should protest. But understand that any message delivered during the anthem will get lost in the din.

Walter Rubel is editorial page editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News.