By Tom Robotham
On September 3, The New York Times published an article about renewed efforts in China to instill patriotism into the hearts and minds of its school children.
“Sparkling red stars and bloody tales of military sacrifice accompanied 200 million Chinese children into the new school year this week,” the article stated, “with the Education Ministry requiring them to watch a television show extolling the spirit of the Communist Red Army as it escaped its enemies on the Long March.”
Thank God we live in a free country, right?
Well, not so much. After all, is this kind of thing any different from the patriotic propaganda to which American school children have been exposed for generations?
Take the Pledge of Allegiance, for example—and set aside for a moment the controversial words “under God,” which were only added in 1954 as a bit of propaganda to reinforce the notion that Americans were better than “Godless communists.” With or without those words, I’ve always had an issue with the Pledge. It seems to me that the ritual of requiring any kind of Pledge of Allegiance—especially from children who have no idea what it means—is fundamentally un-American.
The National Anthem is even worse. I have nothing against national anthems, per se. But ours is a glorification of war. If we’re going to have one, why not replace it with “America the Beautiful”—or better still, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”—very much including its usually overlooked verses—which was written in response to the insipidly nationalistic “God Bless America.”
I started thinking about all of this more deeply in the wake of the uproar that followed Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem.
Predictably, Donald Trump weighed in, along with many others. “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him,” said the Republican presidential nominee, echoing the grumblings of countless Trump supporters.
Trump’s response was simply a rephrasing a popular expression from the political right in the 1960s—“Love it or leave it.”
That always struck me as a strange notion—the idea that if you criticize something, it means you don’t love it. But if that’s your vision of America, so be it. At least try to be consistent.
The trouble with Trumpsters is that they want it both ways. Indeed, of all the hot buttons that Trump has pushed, none, to my mind, has been more effective in rallying his base than his complaints about “political correctness.”
“I don’t have time for political correctness,” he has said. “And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
Let’s take a closer look at this: When a person refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the National Anthem (God forbid you don’t also put your hand over your heart), it’s appalling, and the individual in question must be ridiculed and ostracized. But when a person calls for ideological litmus tests for would-be immigrants, that’s just “keeping America safe.”
This is simply political correctness of a different stripe—and nothing could pose a graver threat to our nation. As Timothy Egan wrote in an excellent New York Times op-ed piece recently, such litmus tests would have likely barred Albert Einstein from entering the country—not to mention many other people over the years.
Let me be clear about something, though: This sort of ignorance and hypocrisy is not limited to the political right.
As a lifelong advocate for freedom of speech, I have long abhorred mindless political correctness from the left, every bit as much as I abhor the right-wing version. When student groups rise up, for example, and demand that a particular guest speaker be disinvited because that speaker’s views are “offensive” (read: not in keeping with the most current consensus on what it means to be “progressive”) they are closing their minds off to thought—and demanding that everyone else on campus must do so as well.
Another manifestation of this trend is the push for so-called “trigger warnings” in college classrooms—the demand by students that they be given some kind of alert, akin to a parental advisory before a film, before being subjected to potentially “offensive” material.
Part of this is rooted in ignorance. Over the years, to cite one example, many people have clamored for removal of the word “nigger” from editions of Huckleberry Finn—never mind that the word—spelled out—is essential to the message of the book, which is one of the most powerful statements against racism ever penned by an American author.
I have introduced many groups of students to the book over the years. Each time I do, I instinctively offer a “trigger warning” of sorts. I did so long before the term ever existed. I acknowledge that the word is difficult to confront, given its history in our country. But my overriding message is that we our doing ourselves a disservice if we shy away from troubling words and ideas. That said, whether or not I offer “trigger warnings” should be my own affair as a professional educator. Any administrative edict that requires them would lead to a chilling of thought and discourse.
Another part of this is rooted in cowardice. As my longtime mentor and friend Nat Hentoff has often said, the best way to deal with offensive speech is with speech. Attempts at censorship are nothing more than admissions on the part of would-be censors that their intellects are too weak and fragile to engage in debate.
Thus, the left and the right often meet full circle. In the wake of the Kaepernick controversy, some critics acknowledged that he had the “right” to do what he did. And yet they suggested he should face repercussions. A local police union, in fact, threatened to stop working 49ers home games. That, decidedly, is not their right, since they have sworn to uphold the law, regardless of whether they like it in any given circumstance.
In the end, though, this is not about the law but about the spirit of America at its best—and its worst. The choice is ours: Will we embrace diversity in all of its forms—diversity of race, religion, ethnicity and ideas—as our greatest strength? Will we accept this premise and then try harder every day to understand other points of view, while articulating our own with both intelligence and vigor? Or will we try to muzzle and punish those with whom we disagree, out of some desire to live in a country that reflects our views and no one else’s?
The former approach is not only in the best interest of the nation, but in the best interest of every individual. Confronting ideas that trouble us, after all, is how we grow, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Robotically adhering to any ideology, by contrast, is the surest way to stifle growth of both individuals and the nation as a whole.
With this in mind, I stand squarely behind Kaepernick as he refuses to stand for an anthem. I’m not arguing that no one should. I’m simply saying that it should be a personal choice—and that personal choices of expression should tolerated, even when we find them offensive. For as Noam Chomsky once put it, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”