The Flag Itself Is Kneeling. Does That Bother Mike Pence?

Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a Colts game because some players knelt during the national anthem. But at the president’s request the flag itself was kneeling, lowered to half-mast in honor of those who died in Las Vegas. 

We need leaders, not leavers; statesmen, not showmen.

These days in American life are revealing some fundamental contradictions, which our thoughtless news cycle obscures. When the cast of Hamilton lectured Mike Pence who was in the audience last November, the veep listened and later replied graciously. "That's what freedom looks like," he said. So why then could he not tolerate the kneeling at the Colts game?

It is because flag-waving and flag-pin-wearing have become the measure of patriotism. No matter how bad your policies, how inconsiderate your attitudes, as along as you wave the flag, you're a patriot. It's a nice cover. 

But it is a charade. Pence took an oath to uphold the Constitution. The flag is not in the Constitution. No citizen is actually bound by the U.S. flag code. Mandatory flag actions, enforced by the law or the mob, have the strong whiff of tyranny. "Stand up and pledge your allegiance!" is a far cry from Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death!" 

And this introduces another irony: Trump and Pence cannot accept citizens kneeling but Trump has ordered the flag to kneel to mourn the Vegas tragedy. On Saturday, I was in Chapel Hill at the North Carolina-Notre Dame game and I saw every single U.S. and state flag and every single Carolina pennant lowered. On top of that, we had a moment of silence for the Vegas victims. This was a good thing, but could we not have moments of silence before every game? As a Catholic, I would be all right with that, a brief pause acknowledging all the suffering in the world before enjoying a football game with family and friends. But in our hyper-politico-media culture, such gestures are not about meaningful pondering. The flag is never lowered for a bad night of shooting in Oakland, or for the old lady dying alone in Racine, or for hundreds of thousands who cannot catch a break, or the thousands who die in carnage on our highways. The flag is ordered to kneel for horrible tragedies that have reached the magic level requiring a constant media frenzy. It is a gesture performed by politicians eager to appear sympathetic and eager to let a tragedy give them a few days of cover. It is a product of our cable news culture: Stand up or you hate America! Lower the flag for this tragedy (but not for that one) or you don't care! No time to have a discussion. Just make a show of it all. In this frenzy, it is hard to initiate discussions.

So maybe this is why some choose to kneel during the anthem. They pay their damn taxes, they follow the law. Can they not communicate what is in their hearts?

The President and Vice President have a platform. People listen to them. What's wrong with letting citizens express their constitutional rights of assembly and protest, especially if done in that most respectful of postures -- kneeling? And what better venue, ahem, Mr. Vice President, to make a statement than an NFL game with the cameras on and a captive audience?

The notion that standing for the anthem is a signal of respect for the troops is a trope created by politicians, businesses, and corporate media seeking cover for their actions while gaining support for promoting that upon which we all agree: We support the troops. Protesting our governments during what are supposed to be public displays of fealty in no way disrespects those who have given their lives for our freedom. It honors them. (If you have access to WSJ, read Christopher Hitchens on "The Flag Fetish.")

The suffocating sanctimony governing these disputes is why I left my position as protégé to Roger Ailes at Fox News. In that frenzied world, there was no time for reflection; there was no room for nuance or discussion. Fox News did this better than anyone perhaps but the attitude infects our culture, on both the so-called left and right. We are all at each other's throats, looking only at surface statements and actions and not taking time and effort to explore underlying arguments. 

He knelt during the anthem! Off with his head! 

She didn't sing with enough emotion during anthem! Off with her head!

He stood during the anthem! He doesn't care!

And on and on. It's all very French-Revolutionary.

The only way out of this, as I have seen in my own escape from Fox News is, to start listening, stop talking, stop dividing.  We need leaders, not leavers; statesmen, not showmen.

JP Lindsley escaped his former life as apprentice to Roger Ailes, creator of Fox News, elector of presidents, and master of American images. His forthcoming book Fake News, True Story is the saga of the demons that drove both him and Ailes to the maddening summit of power, from which they could control American discourse. Politico calls it a "psychological reckoning." Pre-order it here



Joe Lindsley