By Alan W. Dowd, 12.2.16
The Board of Trustees of Hampshire College in Massachusetts ordered the U.S. flag on campus lowered to half-staff after the presidential election “to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many.” The school’s president explained that lowering the flag was supposed to promote “meaningful and respectful dialogue.” The school then decided to take the flag down because—unsurprisingly—lowering the flag in reaction to a presidential election did nothing to promote respectful dialogue. The school’s leaders are now considering “how we fly the flag going forward.”
Where to begin?
In a nation of many colors and creeds, the flag is one of the few symbols that unites us to something bigger than ourselves. Symbols like the flag and civic rituals like voting and standing for the National Anthem remind us, in some small way, that we are connected by something more than our iPhones.
Speaking of voting, I had concerns about both major-party candidates (see here and here). Hence, I did not cast my ballot for either. In 26 years of voting, I’ve been on the losing side more often than not. Even so, I understand—like most Americans—that the election of a president is never reason to lower the American flag to half-staff. Presidents have ordered the flag lowered after natural disasters and man-made carnage, after the loss of astronauts reaching for space and the loss of soldiers fighting for civilization, after a day of infamy in 1941 and “a day of fire” in 2001. Presidents do so to remind us that there is a time to mourn.
Regardless of the message some cocooned group of academics is trying to send, the election of a president is the very opposite of such a time. The peaceful transfer of power—the bloodless revolution that occurs every four or eight years in America—is something to celebrate.
So revered was Washington that he could have been president for life. But by resisting the temptation to amass personal power, by surrendering his office, Washington made it clear to his successors and his countrymen that no president is bigger than the republic. Just as Washington set lasting precedents in how he left office, Jefferson set lasting precedents in how he entered office. Jefferson’s election marked the nation’s first transfer of power from one party to another. It was a peaceful transfer of power largely because Jefferson calmed his supporters and waited for the system to work. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said poignantly in his inaugural, thus laying the foundation for a political system where winners are not coronated like kings and losers are not treated like conquered foes.
Americans don’t delay presidential elections or extend presidential terms because of world wars or civil wars or electoral stalemates. Look around the world and scan the history books; this is rare and precious and wondrous. But here it is commonplace.
Not long ago, in a foretaste of what Hampshire College did, Goshen College decided to ban “The Star Spangled Banner.” The school declared that the National Anthem was—suddenly—“inconsistent” with its values. A statement explained that the board of trustees wanted an alternative that “resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.” A Goshen student noted that she and her classmates “appreciate America but also don’t want to have that violence.”
In fact, “The Star Spangled Banner” is not about violence. It’s about freedom and peace. Just read Francis Scott Key’s poem.
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” Key was asking if the flag was still flying—and more specifically, if his country was still free. After all, his homeland was under attack. And when he learned that “our flag” was “still there,” he was overjoyed. “Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, in full glory reflected now shines in the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
To be sure, Key penned the poem after a battle, and we can gather from context that he didn’t view war as the enemy. But he wasn’t glorifying war or violence. In fact, he was celebrating his freedom and his country’s independence from an enemy that brought “the havoc of war” to America’s shores.
It may not mean much to those who confuse moral relativism for wisdom, but freedom and peace aren’t preserved by protest marches, UN resolutions, academic lectures, Wall Street or Wal-Mart. They are preserved by warriors. As Key knew firsthand—and as they have proven repeatedly in the centuries since—America’s warriors are not enemies of peace.
In fact, it’s America’s military that has kept the peace and prevented great-power war for 70-plus years. Too many Americans take this for granted; we take our security for granted; we take our freedom for granted.
For those who exult in political freedom, the U.S. military is freedom’s greatest defender. Think about it:
The U.S. military provides a security umbrella to more than 50 nations, keeps the sea lanes open, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics want America’s help preserving their freedom. The Iraqi government begged America to return in 2014. Libyans appealed to the U.S. for protection in 2011. Korea and Kuwait, Jordan and Japan, count on U.S. troops to maintain regional stability—and their sovereignty—in the face of menacing neighbors. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against Russia. And across the Asia-Pacific, those who fear China’s rise are strengthening their U.S. ties.
Critics of American power may refuse to recognize this special role, but by turning to the U.S. when tyrants are on the march, when terrorists strike, when free government teeters in some faraway nation, when chaos overtakes a friendless place, they are conceding that the United States is, well, special.
For those who value the freedom to worship or not worship, it is the U.S. military that protects us from enemies who would either stamp out all faiths or force submission to one faith.
Consider what ISIS has done: mass-beheadings of Christians; the attempted genocide of Yazidis (a Kurdish religious tradition that blends aspects of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam); a systematic campaign of rape against Christian and Yazidi women; Christian and Yazidi children sold children into slavery. Trapped by ISIS on Mt. Sinjar, the Yazidis faced extermination in summer 2014. “That’s when America came to help,” as President Obama explained. U.S. cargo planes dropped pallets of food to sustain the Yazidis, while U.S. fighter-bombers dropped ordnance to stop the ISIS assault. America’s military saved 40,000 Yazidis, who were attacked simply because of their religious beliefs.
This is only the most recent example of America’s military promoting and protecting freedom of conscience. General Lucius Clay ensured that Germany’s postwar constitution protected religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Likewise, General Douglas MacArthur delivered a constitution to the Japanese people that declared, “Freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated.”
In the Balkans, American troops have protected churches and mosques alike, escorting Christian kids to school in the morning and Muslim kids to the same school in the afternoon.
Fifteen years after the U.S. military ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Freedom House reports that “Religious freedom has improved…faiths other than Islam are permitted.” Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Baha’is have served in government. Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh places of worship are opened.
Finally, for those who benefit from globalization—and Americans top that list—the U.S. military is essential to keeping the global commons open for business. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” Thomas Friedman observes. “And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe…is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” In other words, the liberal international order forged after World War II did not emerge by accident and does not endure by magic. It depends on America projecting power, backstopping free government, promoting free trade, defending freedom of the seas and skies, deterring aggressive states, and enforcing international norms of behavior.
In short, America is a great and good nation; there’s no reason to lower the Stars and Stripes or ban “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Even so, Goshen and Hampshire have a right to slide down the slippery slope of moral relativism. That’s one of the great things about America: College kids, professors, trustees, voters, columnists have a right to be wrong—and foolish. But free speech does not give anyone the right to say or do things free of consequence. Those of us who disagree with these schools have the right to point out how utterly misguided and unequivocally wrong their views and actions are. As one veteran noted after the Hampshire College episode, “They took down my flag; they have a right to do that; I’m here to defend their right to do that, but I want them to understand how bad that hurts me.”
Thankfully, not everyone has succumbed to this post-patriotic pandemic.
Like most universities, Purdue University has a pregame tradition that includes the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the American flag flying at full-staff. For the past 50 years, Purdue’s home football games also have included a stirring pre-kickoff ritual known as “I Am an American.” With an arrangement of “America the Beautiful” playing softly, fans are invited to rise and read the following words: “I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four: you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across a bright autumn sky. But remember too, that they are more than just words. They are a way of life. So whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!”
When the crowd roars those last four words, it’s a reminder that we are indeed united—no matter what college kids are being taught, no matter who wins on Election Day.