Schneider: What it means to be the land of the free

October 7, 2017

I have sometimes been moved to tears by The Star-Spangled Banner. The image of the flag enduring after a night of bombardment is a moving one.

But it is not the flag itself I find stirring, but what it stands for: a nation dedicated to liberty and freedom even if it sometimes fails to live up to those ideals.

Now we are embroiled as a nation in a debate over those ideals and what they really mean. On college campuses, people have protested to the point of violence the airing of speech that they find—often with justification—hateful. And our president has blasted any NFL player as a “son of a bitch” for protesting racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem and demanded the firing of those who do.

Both seem to have little respect for what freedom means.

Yes, you can be fired for expressing views your employer finds distasteful or embarrassing to its brand. And your employer can do that whether you shoot off your mouth at work or in an ill-considered Facebook post after hours.

What’s different here is bringing the power of the White House to silence dissent. Trump’s White House hasn’t just aimed that power at NFL players but at TV commentators. It is an abuse of office that only further divides this nation.

Make no mistake: Being compelled to perform and conform to what most people think is proper behavior debases what the anthem and flag stand for.

I stand for the flag at parades and public ceremonies. I hold my hand over my heart. I am proud of my father who fought in World War II and the grandfather I never knew who fought in World War I.

And I fully support the right of other Americans not to—or it all means nothing.

In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its opinion (from only three years earlier) when it ruled children in school could not be compelled to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Seeing totalitarian insanity in Germany had a way of focusing the argument.

“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote. “… Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

This is as true for those who cheer Trump’s call for NFL firings as it is for liberal zealots who want to silence any conservative who comes to campus. One of the first books I was assigned at the University of Illinois in the midst of anti-war protests in the early 1970s was John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” If every person on earth believed one thing except for one man, there still would be no excuse for silencing that lone dissenter, he wrote.

The solution to speech we find repugnant is not the suppression of speech, Mills argued, but competing arguments that expose the truth.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” Mills said.

You don’t have to agree. You can boycott NFL games if you like. You can protest speeches you find repugnant.

But you cannot use the power of government or violence to silence those who disagree with you and still say that you believe in what that flag and anthem stand for.•

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Schneider covered Indiana government and politics for The Indianapolis Star for more than 20 years. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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