If I had a hammer: Speaking out for Uncle Sam

MARTY ROCHESTER

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry achieved notoriety recently when at a U.S. Olympics trial she turned her back to the American flag as the national anthem was played and covered her head with a black T-shirt. She had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team at the Tokyo Olympics. 

She certainly is entitled to protest. However, she is not entitled to represent the USA if she rejects the country whose uniform she wears. If one feels that strongly about racial justice, then you should make the supreme sacrifice and supreme statement: Forgo your participation in the Olympics. Otherwise, shut up and throw the hammer.

(Sorry if I offend. But she offended many of my brothers and sisters.) 

Of course, Berry is not the first to dishonor the flag. John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously gave the Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics. However, such behavior is becoming more commonplace in sports and other venues.

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One definition of patriotism is Samuel Johnson’s: the last refuge of a scoundrel. I prefer Webster’s more conventional definition: love for or devotion to one’s country. In the wake of our recent celebrations of Memorial Day and Independence Day, it is worth considering the current state of patriotism in America.

Full disclosure: I am a true patriot in the traditional sense. I teared up when my granddaughter Lottie recently celebrated her bat mitzvah around Memorial Day. I teared up just as much when around the same time she did a school project on the history of a family member and chose to study my Uncle Sam (her great uncle), who was killed during World War II. A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for valor, he was one of the more than 400,000 American servicemen killed during the war that saved us and the rest of the world from German and Japanese fascism.

J. Martin Rochester

Sam was a gunner and radio operator whose B-17 Flying Fortress bomber crashed into the sea in September 1943 upon returning from a bombing mission over Germany. My grandmother received the following letter from the War Department: “I deeply regret that it is necessary to inform you of the death of your son, Technical Sergeant Samuel B. Rochester, who was killed in action on 26 September 1943 in the European zone. … I realize that there is nothing that can be said or done that will in any way minimize your sense of loss or lessen your sorrow, but I hope in the days to come the memory that he heroically gave his life in the service of his country in her hour of need may be of sustaining comfort to you.”

It is unimaginable to me what that generation of Americans must have experienced during wartime when so many families were similarly touched by tragedy. In my view, nothing since can compare with that level of pain an entire generation felt. 

As I visited the American cemetery at Normandy a few years ago, watched this year’s National Memorial Day Concert co-hosted by Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna, and observed the recent July 4 celebration honoring the nation’s founding, I was reminded of how much we take for granted the freedoms we enjoy and how much is owed to those who helped build and sustain the nation throughout our history.

I fully realize how imperfect our democracy has been and continues to be. Yet I could not resist standing up at 3 p.m. on May 30, when the entire country was invited to participate in a playing of taps to honor our war dead. To me, it was a solemn moment worthy of our deepest observance. 

Yet, sadly, patriotism is in decline. As one observer (Dave Seminara, National Review, July 4, 2020) wrote: “When Gallup started asking Americans how proud they were of their country months before the 9/11 attacks, 87% claimed to be ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ proud, and only 2% said they were only ‘a little proud’ or ‘not at all’ proud. … [The latest poll shows] the extremely/very proud cohort has fallen to an all-time low of 63%, while the only a little proud/not at all proud group has swelled from 12% to 21% in the last year.

“The Gallup poll revealed that 88% of Republicans said they were very or extremely proud to be American, compared to just 42% of Democrats. College graduates, people of color and young people were the least proud to be American. … In March 2017, 43% of respondents in their 20s said they were extremely proud to be American. Today, that figure stands at just 20%.”

Perhaps we should not be surprised that young people especially are so cynical toward their country. After all, schools now teach not so much about how Uncle Sam and his compatriots saved the country and the world from fascism but rather how racist the country is and how evil our capitalist system is. Long before George Floyd was killed by police last year, American schoolchildren were more likely to know about the Japanese internment camps during WWII than they were able to name a single U.S. general or battle (Jay Mathews, “A Battle on the WWII Learning Front,” Washington Post, May 28, 2004). 

It has only gotten worse of late. Even the founding date of 1776 is now in question, thanks to the adoption of the New York Times “1619 Project” in many schools, never mind that the nation’s leading historians, such as Princeton’s Sean Wilentz and Brown’s Gordon Wood, have criticized the slavery-centric curriculum as bogus. 

For sure, we should continue to work to redress racial discrimination, economic inequality and the other wrongs that have persisted in our society. But we should also work to correct the utter, growing ignorance of our youth and many segments of the population who remain clueless about why the United States of America, on balance, deserves their patriotic support. 

If disrespecting the flag were only about displaying lack of patriotism, it would be bad enough. Worse, it undermines an important source of institutional authority and national symbolism at a time when the country is desperately in need of greater order and unity.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

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