The latest target of coercive patriotism

by John M. Crisp

Citizens of a certain mindset may be put off by their first sight of Gwen Berry. Her eyelashes are disarmingly long, and sometimes her lips are neon-blue. In the past, she may have issued a few ill-advised tweets. She is a strong, no-nonsense Black woman who isn’t shy about speaking out.

And when I say “strong,” I mean literally. Berry is an athlete who has thrown the hammer more than 255 feet, which places her sixth on the all-time list. She is the world record holder in the weight throw. She competed in the 2016 Olympics. She won first place in the hammer throw at the 2019 Pan American Games.

And on June 26, Berry qualified for her second Olympics in the hammer competition at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.

She also declined to face the American flag or put her hand reverently over her heart during the playing of the national anthem.

The outrage was immediate. Sen. Ted Cruz: “Why does the Left hate America?” Rep. Jim Jordan: “The Left ruins everything. Even the Olympics.” Rep. Dan Crenshaw: “She should be removed from the team.”

Thus Berry becomes the latest target of what I call “coercive patriotism,” the indignant demand by some citizens that every other citizen demonstrate due reverence for our national symbols, or else suffer consequences.

But what could be more un-American than an imposed obligation to behave in ways that conflict our consciences? In fact, the United States is close to unique in its willingness to favor freedom over forced respect for our national symbols, at least in theory.

For example, nearly all other countries impose penalties for desecrating their flags. Someone who burns a flag in China may be imprisoned for three years. The same in Israel. And in Germany one could spend five years in prison for desecrating a flag.

In the United States, however, the Supreme Court has ruled — in Texas v. Johnson (1989) — that acts as outrageous as burning an American flag are protected by the First Amendment. In short, while most of the world sanctions free expression, we permit citizens to speak their minds. Our national symbols are less important than what they symbolize. Now that’s exceptional.

Unfortunately, plenty of Americans would like to change this, to make their fellow citizens suffer if they don’t show proper obeisance to our national symbols.

This column isn’t about the validity of Berry’s reasons for her actions. I happen to think they are legitimate. It’s not hard to see why declining to show conventional respect to the flag is a reasonable response for a strong Black woman in America.

But the point is that it doesn’t matter what I think. Or what Cruz, Jordan or Crenshaw think. Real Americanism means that Gwen Berry does not have to justify her reasoning in order to claim her right as a citizen to respond in any way she wishes to the national anthem.

Unfortunately, we have a long history of coercive patriotism. The Pledge of Allegiance was invented in 1892, partly to sell flags to schools but also to enforce the loyalty of an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe whom many nativists considered undesirables. Citizens who declined to recite the pledge because of conscience lost their jobs, were assaulted and in a few cases were killed.

And if you think that we’ve gotten past that sort of coercion, try not standing up the next time the pledge is administered at your local city council meeting.

Still, we must value real patriotism over coercive patriotism. What is real patriotism? Supporting the social contract that makes us a nation. Tolerating difference. Paying our taxes. Serving in the military. Respecting the outcome of elections. Honoring the peaceful transfer of power.

And, above all, patriotism means respecting the right of other citizens to think and act as their consciences guide them.

You may not like Gwen Berry. You may disapprove of her reasons for declining to behave as you do when the national anthem is played. But her actions will not destroy our republic; coercive patriotism will.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.)