The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Crack-Up,” an essay published in Esquire magazine in 1936
I was raised by an American patriot (my daddy), a man pledged to give his life for this country for the twenty-three years he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. He raised us all to show respect for the flag, and I do. I do. I can even tear up, as he always did.
And yet, as an American, I also support the right of the football players who’ve chosen to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, as a protest for the many things they see wrong in our society. I see those wrongs too.
I can hold these two opposing thoughts in my head—my love and respect for the country of my birth while I note that not everything is perfect here, that there are deep wrongs we need to right. But there is a certain ilk of people in this country who cannot (actually, will not) do that, hold the conflicting thoughts. They condemn this peaceful protest.
I wonder what they would think if they read this book? By historian/professor Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America shows us an America most people don’t want to believe exists. And I’m not talking about the connotation you may get when you read the title. No, I’m talking about our revered Founding Fathers. This book made me think differently about them.
The Founding Fathers. You know: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others. Those guys to whom this ilk—the folks who can’t stand it when a football player quietly takes a knee during the national anthem—rush to ascribe all sorts of signs and wonders. I did, too, honestly, until I read this well-researched book. The thing is, those guys were really just very privileged white English assholes who brought their class superiority with them when they left England. They talked a good game—all men (though not women) created equal, being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights indeed—but they really didn’t walk the walk. Those blessings of liberty were really only intended for, you know, white men of the monied class.
And yet, and yet. That Constitution. And that Declaration of Independence. They’re things of beauty. We’ve been clinging to them for 240 years. So there’s two opposing thoughts for you, yes? I can hold them both in my head. I can love and respect the dream manifest in the words We hold these truths to be self-evident—self-evident, y’all!—and hate the fact that the writers of those words brought both black and white* slaves to this land to do (ahem) the hard work. The work that well-bred, well-off white men shouldn’t have to do, they thought.
These are perilous times we live in, friends. Hate speech—particularly toward people of color—abounds. My husband and I were just having this discussion at breakfast. “You can change your accent and your address,” he said, “but you can’t change the color of your skin.” I look around at my fellow Americans and I’m appalled and ashamed by their behavior, not by the behavior of the peaceful protesters. I’m shocked that some Americans presume to judge others for a quiet, peaceful protest, something granted to all citizens of this country. Peaceful protest. Free speech too.
Two opposing thoughts.
As humans, we’re capable of that.
In the 5 September 2016 issue of Time magazine, there was a ten-question interview with legal scholar/professor Akhil Amar of Yale University. His ethnic heritage is Indian, his parents having immigrated to the United States from India before he was born. The last question in the interview was this one:
Q: When you emptied your pockets so we could take your picture, you pulled out three copies of the Constitution. One wasn’t enough?
A: People died for these words, so we should have the words literally close to our hearts. You should have more than one copy because if someone asks you a question about the Constitution, I think it’s wonderful and democratic if you can give them a copy and you can read it together.
This made me tear up when I read it.
This is patriotism, y’all. Loudly demanding that someone stand during the national anthem because your small-minded idea of what America is can’t survive without a faked-up show of respect,** because you are incapable of holding two opposing thoughts in your tiny little head is not patriotism.
* They were referred to as “trash people”—because the wealthy landowners literally intended to work them to death, then throw them away like trash. Nice.
** How many times in years past have you tuned in a televised football game and watched as the camera panned down the line of athletes waiting to play? There was a time in my life when I spent every Sunday during football season doing this. I remember: some sang, some put hands over hearts, some did neither of those things, some swayed, lifted legs, bounced (staying loose), or grimaced (already in their game faces), some might have even been finishing off a quick exchange of words with the guy next to them, trying to be discreet. Think about it. You’ve seen it, don’t deny it. So tell me again why you’re so outraged now?