“In Memory of the Men of Yale who true to Her Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not perish from the Earth.”
So reads the World War I memorial on the Hewitt Quadrangle (aka Beinecke Plaza) in the heart of the Yale University.
Because the Hewitt Quad is in the middle of Yale’s campus and is the location of Woodbridge Hall which houses the university president’s and corporate offices, it is often the site of political protest and politically motivated displays.
During the 1980s, when many activists sought to encourage university divestment from corporations doing business in South Africa, numerous protests were staged on the Hewitt Quad. During one, protesters draped an African National Congress flag over the war memorial, covering its dedication. To many observers, this act, however inadvertently, overshadowed the protesters’ message. Whether the protesters realized it or not, covering the war memorial turned an anti-apartheid demonstration into the defacement of a solemn place. This may not have been what the protesters intended, but it is the message many received.
The current conflagration over NFL national anthem protests reminded me of the Hewitt Quad controversies because I suspect the same dynamic is at play.
Just as many members of the Yale community — alumni and veterans especially—saw the war memorial as a sacred remembrance of a debt owed, many Americans see the national anthem, and the ritualistic presentation of the flag at sporting (and many other) events, as a sacred remembrance of those who have given their lives for the freedoms we share and the principles to which this nation aspires.
However well-intentioned or justified a given protest may be, when political protests occur during the national anthem, many Americans see a defacement of something sacred — and this message completely overshadows the intended content of the protests. As experienced and understood by many, the protesters were not merely seeking to advance their own cause; they were advancing their cause at the expense of something of transcendent importance to many others.
To be clear, my claim is neither that this is what anthem protesters intend nor that this is the “best” interpretation of their acts. (Indeed, I share many of the protesters’ concerns about persistent racial inequality and the problem of police misconduct.) I am merely making a claim about how these protests are perceived and understood by a sizable share of their audience. The protests occur during the anthem and therefore, in the eyes of many viewers, detract or distract from the anthem and the message it is meant to convey.
However much some protesters insist that they are not intending to protest the country or the flag (and certainly that they have no intention to protest the troops who serve for the benefit of the rest of us), this message is inevitably lost on a certain share of the audience. After all, some might claim, if the point is not to protest the nation or the flag, why not hold the protest at some other time? (The obvious answer is that if done at another time, it would not attract the same attention, and there’s the rub.)
Perhaps all this was understood when the protests began — perhaps there was a calculated judgment that the platform a pregame protest provides outweighed the risk of confusing the message — but I am not so sure. Some protesters seem genuinely surprised at the pushback their actions have engendered, and I take them at their word.
This episode, like that on the Hewitt Quad, is a reminder that the messages we intend are not always the messages that are received. In these highly polarized times, this is true more than ever. Scroll through Twitter and you will see those attacking the protests and those defending the protests frame the entire controversy in wholly different terms. Different groups of people are talking about the same event but experiencing it in radically different ways — but unless and until either or both are willing to consider the other’s perspective, no real communication can take place.
Whichever tribe you prefer in this controversy is beside the point. On both sides are Americans with a stake in our common civic project. If we can’t learn to understand what motivates, excites — and, in this case, enrages — those on the other side, we won’t be able to communicate about the things that really matter.
In previous rants to the Times-News, I’ve stressed the fact that what makes America great is our freedom and liberty. Take the First Amendment because that’s what this letter concerns. Recently Matt Christensen wrote an editorial for this paper justifying printing all points of view, even those of the far-left fringe. That’s what freedom means. I, along with thousands of other Magic Valley residents, don’t agree with left-wing politics, but that doesn’t mean I oppose their freedom to express their viewpoints.
This past week demonstrated a glaring example of free speech protest when many of the National Football League players chose to kneel for the national anthem. Fuel was thrown on the fire by the courageous and outspoken POTUS when he tweeted they should all be fired, using his First Amendment right just as the players did. What disturbs me about the protest, as a veteran U.S. Marine, is that the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marines serve to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and that many service men and women can’t take a knee because they lost it defending our free speech.
I don’t watch pro football because I don’t feel like wasting four hours of my valuable time viewing spoiled, overindulged, semi-literate individuals who don’t have my interests at heart. What consequences are there for a fan who has no financial interest in a team? The NFL is self-destructing as a business entity.
When I talk with pundits about next year’s governor’s race, I hear a lot of opinions about Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist’s chances. Most of them are negative.
The old sages say he’ll never gain enough name recognition to win … that his polling numbers are low … that he does not have enough government experience … that he really is a Democrat running as a Republican. Blah, Blah, Blah.
But Ahlquist has two wild cards on his side – charisma and plenty of money. Ahlquist is in this to win, and he’s a hard-driving guy who usually gets what he wants.
Ahlquist, who last week launched his tour of 44 counties in 44 days in Meridian, showed plenty of charm in his address to the crowd. Granted, some of it was staged. Supporters were told that the event would be filmed and were asked to cheer enthusiastically. But as Ahlquist started hitting more home runs than Yankee slugger Aaron Judge, the crowd reaction became genuine.
“On March 1st, we announced our run and the career politicians and political insiders laughed. They made it very clear that they did not think we had a chance,” Ahlquist said. “But we knew better. We believed that our state was ready for new ideas and a fresh approach.”
As he was speaking, I started imagining Bill Clinton’s voice to Ahlquist’s words – and this is not a slap to Ahlquist. As a reporter in Arkansas during the late ’70s and early ’80s, I had occasion to cover Clinton during two runs for governor (1978 and 1982). Ahlquist’s speech practically was a mirror image of what Clinton talked about back in the day – short on specifics, but long on personal appeal.
No Republican in Idaho, including Ahlquist, would want to be compared to Bill Clinton in any way. But in this case, it’s a compliment. Few people in the history of American politics were a match for Clinton in his ability to rally a crowd to his side. During Clinton’s years as governor, he ran as a conservative – knowing that Arkansans never would go for a “liberal blueprint” for the state.
“Too often in life, and especially in politics, we jump right into the HOW … so let me start with the WHY,” Ahlquist told the Meridian crowd. “Why? Because we have incredible families in this great state. Why? Because Idaho is built on values and heritage of hard work, and we deserve a governor who works as hard as we do. Why? Because Idaho families deserve to be put first.”
He masterfully weaved in stories about an Idaho entrepreneur being held back by government mandates and a fourth-generation dairyman from the Magic Valley who is “tired” of skyrocketing health insurance costs.
“We need a governor that comes from the real world and knows what it’s like to sign the front of a paycheck, not just the back of a paycheck,” he said. “No more last, or near the bottom, in high school graduation. No more being OK with 1,350 homeless students in the Nampa school district. No more being near the bottom in the country in median wage. No more losing our kids to other states because they cannot find good paying jobs right here in Idaho. … Some say it can’t be done. But we must, and we will.”
On education, he says, “I promise you that when I am governor, every single day I will focus on education from dawn until dusk and we will not stop until we lead the nation in education,” he said.
Much of Ahlquist’s rhetoric doesn’t seem to fit with the “conservative blueprint” he’s touting – it was more like something stolen from Barack Obama. But from a crowd standpoint, a speech that has high ambitions generally gets a better reaction than one that promotes gloom and doom, and saying “no” to everything.
“Together, we will build an even better Idaho … an Idaho that doesn’t accept mediocrity … an Idaho where families prosper and businesses thrive …an Idaho with new ideas and a fresh approach,” he says. “Together – we must and together we will,” Ahlquist said.
I’m not sure about this, but I thought I heard someone in the audience saying, “Yes, we can.”