The fine art of taking offense at things reached an absurd new height last week.
Nike, the tennis shoe manufacturer that makes most of its shoes in semi-communist and entirely authoritarian Vietnam and China, canceled a sneaker that would have been emblazoned with the 13-star American flag sewn by Betsy Ross.
The reasoning, according to Nike, was that the shoe seller’s millionaire celebrity spokesman and resident expert on oppressed classes Colin Kaepernick informed them the Betsy Ross flag was offensive to some people and had even been adopted as a symbol by racist hate groups.
Whether hate groups have a particular affinity for the Ross flag is doubtful, although we can certainly expect some of them to adopt it now, just as some of them adopted the “OK” hand gesture after the fact. That was a case of someone’s internet joke being taken seriously and accidentally creating the phenomenon it was lampooning in the first place.
But even if the Betsy Ross flag were a favorite symbol of hate groups, why should the rest of us let them have it?
Most of us know the 13-star Stars and Stripes for what it is: The first true flag of our nation and the flag of the War for Independence. It’s the flag of the first nation ever founded, not as a breakaway religious sect or ethnic group or as a blatant power grab by some despot, but on an idea: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Since 1776, most of American history has been about what that idea truly means and whether we’re living up to it.
Certainly, in 1776, America was not living up to it. Slavery was the obvious blight on the young America’s record, our “original sin,” as some have called it. Some of the nation’s founders dealt with the inconsistency head-on, while others tried to excuse it, and a few waved it off with a blatant racism that defended slavery by claiming enslaved Africans and their descendants weren’t fully human.
In a speech in 1852, Frederick Douglass addressed the contradiction of the American Revolution, asking, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity ...”
Yet, Douglass also said, “Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem may have backfired by diverting attention away from the cause he was attempting to highlight: ending racially motivated police brutality. But at least that is a legitimate cause. Being upset at the display of the United States’ first flag, however, isn’t much of a cause at all.
Nike is, of course, free to design and sell whatever shoes it wants. People who say they will now boycott Nike over this latest flap are free to do that, too, although one would assume many of them were already doing so for having Kaepernick as a spokesman in the first place. The genius of America is it was founded on the proposition that people should be free to do largely as they choose — even if they choose to make fools of themselves. In this debate, you are also free to decide who is the more foolish. Ours is a flag that represents freedom, including, as the U.S. Supreme Court has held, the freedom to burn the flag.
That, not hate, is what the 13-star flag of Betsy Ross and the nation’s founding represents.