Schwab: Protest honors the nation by exercising the rights we enjoy

By Sid Schwab

In college, I played Conrad Birdie in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at a neighboring women’s school. Washing cafeteria dishes for dollars, a friend and I did Everly Brothers well (or maybe just loud) enough that other students came by to listen.

I still love singing. A song with a suitable arrangement gets me belting it out, especially harmony-rich Christmas songs and our national anthem. Baseball games, Sounders games, I’m standing up, harmonizing happily.

I dislike singers turning the anthem into a dirge, or adding their personal trills. I love the guy who leads it for the Sounders. The best I ever heard was at a Dodgers playoff game: Linda Ronstadt. (Wasn’t there. Saw it on TV when making rounds as a tired and otherwise deprived surgical resident in San Francisco. With her impossibly pure voice, wearing a Dodgers jacket, she sang it straight up.) If for no other reason than the joy of singing, you’ll never see me sitting during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Plus, I’m not that brave.

It’s curious that the people lining up behind a candidate whose campaign is based on declaring how terrible America has become are outraged at the simple act of sitting, or kneeling, or locking arms during the playing of the national anthem.

If you think about it (couldn’t hurt!), there’s no greater homage to what America stands for (pun intended). Try it, for example, in the country run by Donald Trump’s inamorato, Vladimir Putin, or in any of the others for whose dictatorial leaders he’s expressed admiration. The freedom we enjoy in this county began with, is predicated on, and is directly descended from the right to criticize government openly, to take actions, symbolic or otherwise, aimed at making things better as one sees it.

That people, whether athletes or protesters in Ferguson or Selma or Stonewall or (illegally) Malheur feel moved to demonstrate their displeasure at aspects of our society is, in fact, a much greater tribute to the republic for which our flag stands than standing during a song. Activism for change assumes it could happen; in the U.S., we know it can. At its essence, then, protest is an expression of confidence in America, acknowledgment that in our society, as opposed to those whose leaders Trump would emulate, committed people can effect change.

Our view of patriotism has turned upside down. Is it defined by standing up for songs or for what you think is right?

Who was more patriotic: Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge, or those who beat them? People searching for survivors at Ground Zero, or Donald Trump bragging after the attack that his building was now the tallest in lower Manhattan (YouTube: tinyurl.com/tall-trump)? Children courageous enough to integrate schools, or the people who spit on them as they walked through hate-spewing mobs? Our veterans, or Republicans in Congress who voted down bill after bill aimed at providing for their needs? Working people who pay taxes, or Donald Trump who stiffs employees and brags about not paying taxes? People burn Colin Kaepernick’s jersey, but not those of football players convicted of spousal abuse. Whose is the greater transgression against American values?

While I served in Vietnam, my wife worked for anti-war candidates. She sent packages of goodies for me to share with other troops, and joined hands with war protesters. Some would call me a patriot (not now, of course, because I’m a liberal writer) and not her. I got drafted. She chose to commit to what she thought was (and which turned out to be) right. Who’s the better American?

Our Constitution was crafted around the idea of protecting individual rights, and on the recognition that wrongs, even in its own words, need a framework for amelioration. Words and actions of protest have always (if slowly) awakened our better instincts, engaged us in difficult discussions, called the complacent to action, made this country better. In the midst of WWII, the Supreme Court recognized this, too (The New Yorker: tinyurl.com/supreme-statement).

To misunderstand that is fundamentally to misunderstand America. Like Donald Trump, who has threatened, were he to become president, to punish those who disagree with him; and like those despots whose praises he sings.

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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