Printed: 2020-08-11

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Kneeling is NOT Disrespecting the Flag

Tsvi Bisk

Ethical Technologies

June 07, 2020

Given that our emergent technologies have provided the entire human race with a ringside seat to the horrors of recent weeks, on the streets of the United States, it is entirely appropriate that the ‘pages’ of IEET reflect on the issue of kneeling NFL players, but do so in a deeper philosophical manner.

Living outside the United States for 50 years has given me a better perspective of America's true grandeur – much like seeing the Manhattan skyline from a distance as opposed to being stuck in Manhattan traffic. Perhaps this is why I perceive NFL players taking the knee as a celebration of the American flag rather than an affront; it shows proper respect for what the flag actually represents.

Raised in Philadelphia, I traveled abroad to clear my head after two years of army service from 1965 to 1967 (not a good time to serve). I eventually ended up in Israel where I made a life and raised a family – respectfully displaying my American army honorable discharge on my office wall. Amongst other things, I taught American and European history. This provided me with insight into what was truly exceptional about the United States. I had the Middle East and Europe for comparison. The closer one gets to other civilizations the more attractive and sweeter-smelling America becomes.

The United States has certainly committed great historical sins; only a liar or an ignoramus would deny this. The wholesale slaughter of Native Americans and the horrors of Black slavery cannot be whitewashed by glib justifications about "context". But when one reads history with an inquiring intellect rather than a preexisting ideological agenda, one realizes that while the sins of America have been similar to the sins of every civilization – slavery, genocide, persecution of minorities – America's virtues are it's alone; its primary virtue being its ability to self-correct and reinvent itself to an unmatched degree. The United States has been history's great self-correcting machine.

Its primary instrument for self-correction has been the Constitution, especially the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. This has enabled generations of Americans to bring attention to wrongs; always the first necessary step to correcting them. It is the Constitution that causes us to venerate the flag; the flag is the physical representation of the values of constitutionalism. The flag as a physical object is simply a multi-colored rag on a stick. To idolize it, in and of itself, is idolatry. We venerate it as the symbol of the Republic; of that constitutionalism which enables the United States to be the great self-correcting machine. Consider the Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the flag

of the United States of America, and

to the Republic for which it stands.

The flag is the Republic and the Republic is the Constitution; it is the First Amendment. Adherence to the spirit and the intent of the Constitution is true patriotism. It is respect for what the flag truly represents. This is the core of American exceptionalism. Most countries throughout history have judged patriotism according to one’s allegiance to ruler, soil, blood, or state ideology. America was the first country in history to make loyalty to abstract principles of fundamental human dignity written on a piece of parchment, the true test of patriotism – to be a patriotic American is to defend and uphold the Constitution and the values it reperesents. So when NFL players exercise their First Amendment rights by drawing attention to the legacy of historical wrongs, with the intent to repair the festering wounds of these historical wrongs and thus improve the Republic, they are not disrespecting the flag; they are venerating everything the flag stands for; they are showing true patriotism.

The Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and others have seen the Republic as an unfinished project that every generation is obligated to make better (to form a more perfect Union as an ongoing civilizational mission). Thus, the political history of the United States has been the ongoing democratization of constitutionalist protections; the stubborn insistence for equality before the law and by state institutions, no matter what your race, gender or sexual inclination. We are ALL persons with certain inalienable rights and Black lives DO matter just as much as white lives, as a matter of fundamental American principals. Refusal to recognize this with an indignant huffing and puffing, belching out the self-evident fact that "all lives matter" reflects a dismissive, purposeful ignorance that historically,  Black lives have not mattered as much as white lives.

Can any rational and intellectually honest person deny that despite the tremendous progress in civil rights and racial attitudes people of color are still treated differently in the United States? Consider how inner-city Black kids found to be in possession of pot or hashish have been treated by police and courts in comparison to white middle class kids or Wall Street brokers. Consider the consequent disproportion of incarcerated black people, which in many states subsequently denies them the right to vote for life. Consider the disproportionate percentage of black drivers pulled over by police in comparison to white drivers. Driving while black is a potential misdemeanor in many jurisdictions (in some it even warrants the death penalty as we have seen all too often)

Progress in civil rights and racial attitudes notwithstanding, why shouldn't black people feel frustration and resentment at these inequities? Why should they feel satisfaction with "the great progress so far"? Paradoxically, progress does not give birth to satisfaction, but rather to increased dissatisfaction with the remaining inequities. Rights are not granted as a favor, they are inherent in human personhood, and nobody should be 'thankful' for having some of their rights recognized. Dissatisfaction is the proper (patriotic) emotion every generation of citizens should cultivate in order to fulfill their civic task of contributing to the improvement of their country.

The kneeling NFL players are fulfilling that civic task, showing true respect to the flag and to "the Republic for which it stands". They are the true patriots. I hope to see, in the coming season, every player (Black and white) on every team take a knee; with hand on heart to show love and respect for what the flag truly represents, but kneeling to demonstrate that its potential for human dignity has not yet been realized and that it is the duty of every citizen to dedicate him or herself to making the Republic "a more perfect Union".

Tsvi Bisk

Author of The Suicide of the Jews


Tsvi Bisk (site) is director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century (Maxanna Press, 2007). He also is Contributing Editor for Strategic Thinking for The Futurist magazine , the official publication of the World Future Society, and he has published over a hundred articles and essays in Hebrew and in English.


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