By Paul V. DeMarco
Many people are rightly offended by hammer-thrower Gwen Berry’s disrespect of the American flag after her third-place finish in the U.S. Olympic Trials on June 26. The response from certain sectors was swift and predictable. Ted Cruz castigated Berry on Twitter, asking “Why does the Left hate America?” You’re shocked, I know.
But in addition to flame-throwing politicians, many fair-minded Americans expressed legitimate displeasure. In addition to scorning the flag, Berry was criticized for self-aggrandizement and for failure to understand her role as a member of the U.S. Olympic team and as an ambassador to the world.
I think all those criticisms are fair. It is reasonable to hold the flag as sacred and to be protective of what it represents to you and your fellow citizens. Many people see disrespect and desecration of the flag as unforgiveable sins. This is the same flag, they argue, that led soldiers into battle and represents the freedom for which so many have died.
I have a less rigid view of the flag, and one that has changed over the last decade or so. For me, the flag represents America, both its great strengths and its deep flaws. When I look at the flag I see both sides. One side represents our ideals, our desire to be Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” On the other side are the many American mistakes and cruelties.
This two-sided view came naturally with the Confederate flag. From the moment I was old enough to be able to comprehend the realities of the Civil War, seeing that flag unsettled me. The bumper sticker defense of proponents was “Heritage not Hate.” But for me it was always “Heritage and Hate.” I understood what Confederate flag advocates were seeing on the front side of the flag – the bravery of Southerners who refused to capitulate to what they viewed as a tyrannical federal government. But I, along with many others, saw on the back side of the flag the horrors of slavery.
In contrast to my understanding of the Confederate flag, my current faceted view of the American flag was not immediate. For me and my family, America has been the land of opportunity promised by Lady Liberty, who greeted my paternal grandfather when he immigrated from Sicily. The flag, for most of my life, has been a symbol of unalloyed pride and devotion. Massive American flags that some businesses fly never fail to inspire (the closest one to me is in front of Shuler’s BBQ near Latta (worth the trip!)).
But over the past decade, I’ve become gradually aware that my wholesome view of Old Glory was not universally held. My first epiphany around my unexamined patriotism came with the Pledge of Allegiance. After repeating it for years, I finally thought about the last line from the perspective of someone whose family had not had the opportunities that my parents and grandparents did. If my ancestors had been born with exactly the same intellect and skills, but been Southern blacks, my view of America would be less sanguine, and “liberty and justice for all” might induce anger for America’s unfulfilled promises rather than pride. When I had that small but significant revelation, I had to do some soul-searching about my lazy self-satisfaction. Did it change my love for my country? Not one bit. But it has changed my understanding of what America has meant to people who don’t look like me.
Speaking of people who don’t look like me, let’s return to Gwen Berry. Berry is a powerful woman who is taller, stronger, and braver than I. She is an exhibitionist who wears lipstick like war paint. I admire her athletic ability as I do that of DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen (who finished first and second in the competition, respectively). I think Berry made an impulsive and self-destructive decision to turn her back on the flag. It was the wrong time and place. What bothers me most is that it was likely ineffective. Indeed, it may have hurt her cause more than it helped. But part of me is glad she did it. Here are my reasons:
First, her actions say to me that she believes in America’s capacity for change and improvement. You don’t take a stand like she did for a lost cause. But the pace of change in America is slow, and she is impatient. “America is the greatest country in the world,” she said. “We are capable of fixing these issues. I am tired of talking about them. I won’t do it anymore.” What do you do when you are tired of talking? You act.
Second, she made a sacrifice to promote her beliefs about America. She is not unique in this regard. America’s men and women in uniform do this daily. But few of us act on our beliefs in ways that put our reputation and careers at risk. Berry states her motivation was “to represent my communities and my people, and those that have died at the hands of police brutality, those that have died to this systemic racism.”
Third, the greatness of America lies not in our reverence for the flag, but our reverence for the freedom it represents. Some people are incensed by protesters who burn the American flag. And my first thought when I see images of the flag on fire is “Don’t do that. It’s disrespectful and not likely to help your cause.” But my second thought is, “I’m glad I live in country where that kind repulsive expression is allowed.” And to know if America is truly still that country, we must regularly be put to the test.
So I thank Berry for testing us, and for America once again passing the test. No one is calling for her to be jailed, although some have suggested, with some merit, that she be banned from the Olympic team. My hope for Berry is that she will represent America well in Tokyo. If she makes the medal stand, I would advise her not to use it as a protest venue. The name recognition she has gained through her gesture at home will allow her to promote anti-racism in more effective ways.
Dr. DeMarco is a physician who lives in Marion, and a long-time reader of this blog.