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Letter writer Aaron Kusmec evaluates the notion of respect in response concerning the American flag. 

Editor's Note: This letter is in response to Trystian Schupbach's "Stop disrespecting our flag." 

It is noteworthy Schupbach cannot decide what force, if any, 36 U.S. Code 301 has in his view. The argument slides in the space of two paragraphs from “kneeling during the anthem is something strictly not allowed” to “is not necessarily law, so standing is not required.”

Correctly, the next sentence links to an article where multiple legal scholars concur this section of the US Code (1) has no penalty attached, (2) would likely violate the First Amendment if enforced with a penalty and (3) uses suggestive language that lacks the obligatory force of “shall” as used in other laws. Thus, a central assertion of the article — “they are not … allowed to disrespect our national anthem” — fails on the article’s own terms.

This makes it clear that 36 U.S. Code 301 is normative in a voluntary sense: I may assent to the respect deemed appropriate by the statute and demonstrate it, but my assent may not be compelled. We should ask, then, under what conditions ought we to demonstrate the respect for the national anthem codified in 36 U.S. Code 301?

Schupbach’s answer is there are no conditions under which we ought not to adhere to the recommendations of the statute. This answer, however, fails because it misunderstands the nature of respect and conflates it with patriotism.

First, Schupbach holds that respect for the national anthem is something that should be given categorically. However, respect is a responsive relation between myself (the subject) and the national anthem (the object); it cannot be compelled but arises as an appropriate action that I perform because I deem the object worthy of that action — that is, the respect stems from a perspective I have on the object and a valuation of the object I make.

To show respect for something or someone is an expression of my agency. Challenging the status quo through civil disobedience, protest or legislation is an expression of a fundamental human agency, to ask the question, “Ought I to do what I think I ought to do?”

Second, in the case of kneeling during the national anthem, Schupbach and others argue kneeling shows disrespect because it does not follow common social practices described in 36 U.S. Code 301. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, the act of kneeling is meant as a visible sign of disrespect. What of it?

Respect is an expression of valuation, and in denying the national anthem the respect so many think it deserves, the athletes express the failure of what the national anthem symbolizes to rightfully claim their respect. From their perspective, the athletes are asked (required by some) to demonstrate respect for a country that does not promote the general welfare or protects the rights of people like them to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Recognizing the cognitive dissonance in this position, the athletes make visible their valuation that the symbol (and, by extension, the country) fail to live up to these ideals.

Third, while we might reasonably disagree about the conditions under which the national anthem should be respected, Schupbach’s final move is to assert the complaints of the athletes and activists cannot be taken seriously until they show proper respect for the flag.

This is not dissimilar to the charge leveled against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 53 years ago when his protests were accused of not being “well-timed.” It is the classic defense of those in power or those not subject to injustice. It is precisely the tension created by the apparent disrespect of the national anthem that is needed to “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” ("Letter from a Birmingham Jail").

To argue in this way is to address the effect without considering the cause, to erase the suffering of human beings in favor of decorum and civility.

Finally, Schupbach conflates respect for the national anthem and patriotism. Patriotism is often simply defined as “love of one’s own country” and often simply applied as uncritical regard for one’s own country. Stephen Nathanson in "Patriotism, Morality, and Peace" identifies four facets of patriotism among which is special concern for the well-being of the country.

It is the concern expressed by the athletes that defines them as patriots in this sense. They are not committed to the status quo of power, a particular instantiation of the government or a particular symbol per se but to the country as an ongoing project that seeks to more fully embody the ideals set forth in its founding documents (Alasdair MacIntyre, "Is Patriotism a Virtue?").

To disrespect the symbol and remain a patriot is not a paradox. Dr. King demonstrated his disrespect for racist laws by breaking them, but we hardly regard him as unpatriotic today. Indeed, his civil disobedience was motivated by the belief the country could become more just.

In summary, if the athletes show disrespect by kneeling during the national anthem, it expresses a negative evaluation, that the national anthem does not in fact symbolize “the land of the free and the home of the brave” in their experience.

To say the symbol is not worthy of their respect is not to lack concern for the well-being of the country.

It is to exercise their critical judgment and call the nation to self-reflection and self-improvement.

Aaron Kusmec is a graduate student in genetics.

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Letter to the Editor Submission Link

(4) comments

Maggie Lynott

Thank you for submitting such a thoughtful and engaging response to Schupbach’s letter.

Steve Gregg

The core of the problem of athletes kneeling during the national anthem is that they do so to promote the racist lie that Michael Wood and Trayvon Martin were shot and killed for racist reasons, when, in fact, they were attacking the people who shot them. They courted their own deaths. The athletes promote a dishonest narrative out of ignorance and racism. They blame the country instead of the black criminals who were the cause of their own deaths.

Aaron Kusmec


You raise an important point that I didn’t have room to address in my letter: the difference between philosophical and empirical claims. Both examples you use—the circumstances of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Wood [Brown, I assume]—are empirical claims made by the athletes to justify kneeling during the national anthem. More recent examples are proffered by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Any of these events—whether singly or in combination—could be offered as justification for the protests. The key point for the distinction is that they are all specific events.

By contrast, Schupbach makes a sweeping, philosophical claim that disrespect for the flag and national anthem is categorically impermissible. He neither notes a specific empirical claim that the athletes make which he disagrees with nor advances an empirical claim of his own. Rather, his position is stated categorically: The national anthem must be respected at all times. The question then becomes “Are there any conditions under which it is permissible to demonstrate disrespect for the national anthem?” My answer to Schupbach is that such conditions do exist given a proper understanding of the nature of respect.

Having established the existence and requirements of the conditions under which disrespect for the national anthem is permitted, we can evaluate the empirical claims that you advance with respect to those conditions. As we have seen, that evaluation is highly contested, but, in principle, such an evaluation should allow us to discover whether the form of protest that the athletes have chosen is justified or not.

You bring up two other points that I want to address as well.

The first is implicit in your choice of examples that occurred eight and six years ago, respectively. The last few months alone have sadly provided more examples of police violence that are also offered as empirical claims to justify the current protests. Without adjudicating on the truth or falsity of the specific claims with respect to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the position implicit in your comment is that the falsity of the claims then necessarily delegitimizes the protests now. As an analogy, consider the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” In the end, the wolf was present as an empirical fact, whether the adults did or did not believe the boy’s claim on the basis of his earlier lies. One claim of the protesters is not that all police killings of people of color are unjustified but that some of them are. The fact that some such killings may be justified does not preclude the possibility of unjustified killings in the future.

The second point is the attribution of causation of individual deaths to individual choices and not the country (i.e., systemic/structural factors). The atomistic moral agent of the post-Enlightenment who acts in isolation from external factors denies the fact that human beings are embedded in, shaped by, and constrained by social institutions. The social contingency of human beings, however, has been recognized since Aristotle and has found modern expression in the work of, among others, Alisdair MacIntyre (“After Virtue”) and Martin Hagglund (“This Life”). Richard Rothstein in “The Color of Law” provides a study of the empirical effects of housing segregation as another example. Assuming your characterization is correct, attributing sole causation for the death of Michael Brown on his decision to attack a police officer is to substitute a single cause—the decision made in that moment—for the myriad factors that could have influenced that decision. This is akin to treating the symptoms of a disease but not the disease itself. It is as wrong to insist that all causes are individual as it is to insist that all causes are structural. Both are analytical errors.

Thanks for the providing the opportunity to discuss these additional points.

Steve Gregg


Your argument is sophist.

Black Lives Matter specifically cited Brown and Martin as their reason for being, claiming these two black boys were gunned down just for being black. Those were racist lies. Both attacked their victims without provocation and were rightfully shot in self defense. Colin Kaepernick specifically cited Brown and Martin as the reason for kneeling. He kneels for a racist lie.

Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are different cases from Brown and Martin. Taylor was innocent, not a criminal like Brown and Martin. She was shot down defending herself at home from invaders unknown to her. The cops were clearly in the wrong for carrying out a no-knock raid against an innocent person and should be held responsible.

However, the claim that it was racist is feeble. The cops were not serving a warrant for an arrest against Breonna Taylor, but rather a raid on a house they believed, in error, to be a drug den. It looks like they got the address wrong, which was a deadly error of incompetence but not racist discrimination.

The case of George Floyd is ambiguous. While BLM and liberals claim he was killed by a knee on his neck, his autopsy showed he died of a heart attack. Strangulation and asphyxiation were excluded as causes. He had heart disease, was high on fentanyl, and had recently taken meth. Had he struggled wildly during his arrest, the stress might well have killed him, given his health issues.

I’d like to see the police body cam video of the minutes immediately before he was restrained by four cops. Very often, cops restrain intoxicated criminals like Floyd who resist arrest to stop them from hurting themselves, particularly to prevent self-inflicted head wounds which are very bloody. We don’t have all the facts, yet, on Floyd to render a judgement.

You make a good argument against Schupbach’s position, the only defect of which is that I am not Schupbach and do not support his position that respect for the flag must be absolute.

You avoid my argument that the two cases that Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick cite as the reasons for their protests are racist lies and desperately cite other, later, cases as substitutes for them to justify their initial false and racist actions. You go on to claim that such justification may appear in the future. What a crazy claim, to protest false cases of racism now in the hope that real cases of racism may happen later. The fact is that most police killings of blacks are justified because those criminal blacks were attacking them.

Your claim that society, not Michael Brown, is responsible for punching the cop in the face, without provocation, while fleeing a robbery and then diving in the window to grab his gun, is an old and wrong argument. The overwhelming majority of people in housing projects do not attack the police. There are far more decent people in the housing projects than criminals.

Again, the Federal Reserve reports show that 95% of people in the lowest quintile of income ascend to the middle quintiles, ie the middle class. That missing 5% are criminals, drug addicts, and the unlucky. The rest are working jobs that lift them up out of poverty.

Michael Brown was a dead man walking, He was a big stupid bully who learned that he could get what he wanted through intimidation and force. It was just a matter of time before he met someone in his criminal world who would shoot him dead, as so many ghetto kids die. The only unusual wrinkle in his story is that he stupidly tried to intimidate an armed cop and got shot for it, as he deserved. Brown lived a stupid life and died a stupid death.

However, I find myself in strange agreement with you in that there is a disease at work, here. It is the dysfunctional ghetto culture that is the cause of too much black suffering. Both Michael Wood and Trayvon Martin were expressions of that. Black Lives Matter is not protesting racial injustice but really defending that ghetto culture, which is why they ignore the thousands of black-on-black murders while raging about the two hundred cop-on-black criminal killings. It is not cops nor whites nor America which need reform, but rather the black ghetto.

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