Symbols are powerful because they remind us of particular ideals and values. But a symbol is not itself an ideal or a value. And when symbols become more important to you than the values they symbolize, then you’ve betrayed yourself. You've given your heart, and your soul, to a dead thing.
Drew Brees, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, has unfortunately become the poster child for what happens when you venerate a hollow space wrapped up in red, white and blue. In an interview Wednesday with Yahoo Finance, Brees was asked to comment on the actions of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police violence against black people in the United States. Brees said that he saw all people as equal, but insisted he “will never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag." Kaepernick was, in his view, protesting in the wrong way.
Brees believed that his comments honored the flag and America's ideals. But valuing a symbol of justice over justice itself isn't moral or righteous.
Brees believed that his comments honored the flag and America's ideals. But valuing a symbol of justice over justice itself isn't moral or righteous. It's the opposite. When honoring the flag is the price of justice, then the flag does not symbolize justice. It symbolizes force, inequality and racism. It's a flag of conquest for white people, not of mercy or freedom for all.
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Brees is hardly the only one who has insisted that respect for things and for symbols is more important than protesting against violence, injustice or racism. Since George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police, and after then-police officer Derek Chauvin was seen in a video digging his knee into Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes, many people — and especially many white people — have come forward to express their respect for property or order or religion or anything other than the lives and safety of black people.
This was epitomized by President Donald Trump himself, who had peaceful protesters dispersed with tear gas so that he could walk to a church and stand outside with a Bible in his hand. For Trump, a photo op with a Bible (not even his Bible) was more important than — or even given additional importance and virtue because of — an assault on black protesters.
Brees says that when he hears the national anthem and sees the flag, he thinks of his grandfathers who served in World War II, "risking their lives to protect this country and try to make our country and this world a better place." That's his interpretation of the symbol; that's what it means to him.
But other people have different views. Frederick Douglass, speaking about the Fourth of July in 1852, said the observance of Independence Day "only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common…. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me."
Brees wants his interpretation of the flag honored; everyone, he insists, should put their hands on their hearts before the flag to show "that we are all in this together." But some people, like Douglass, or Floyd, or Kaepernick — banned from Brees’ league for his protest — are not equals in America. Brees will not stand in solidarity with them unless they first respect his symbols. You have to say the nation is righteous before the nation will consider whether to stop murdering you.
In 1968, Adrienne Rich wrote a poem titled "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children." The poem, written partially in prose, starts with a discussion with a neighbor, who is upset that Rich's son and his son have burned a book. "There are few things that upset me so much as the idea of burning a book," the neighbor tells her. But Rich responds in the poem that "the burning of a book arouses no sensation in me." The end of the poem references napalm, and the people America was killing in Vietnam.
You have to say the nation is righteous before the nation will consider whether to stop murdering you.
The poem is experimental, but Rich's point at the end is clear enough. Books are just words and symbols. They aren't moral beings; you don't owe them anything. If you have to choose between burning a book and burning a child, you burn the book. Our language, our knowledge, our symbols, can be a resource. But if in venerating them we forget to love and protect each other, then they don't grant us wisdom. They rob us of it.
Brees may have come to understand some of this. On Thursday, he issued an apology on Instagram. “In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused,” he wrote. “In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark.”
There is no unity and solidarity centered on the flag, because the flag, and the nation, don't have any virtue. Only human beings can have that. Kaeperneck asked his country to think about its own symbols, rather than blindly worshipping them. Brees, and white Americans in general, have not risen to this challenge. This nation must care more about its soul than its symbols. It's better to burn a flag than a person.