Arrogance is a poor defense for flag and anthem

Gregory Fisher, in his commentary of Sept. 11, demonstrates conclusively why men like Mr. Colin Kaepernick must continuously bring forward issues for public debate. Moreover, the arrogance of his commentary is breathtaking, as he labels all who disagree with him as the opposite of "right and good-thinking people."

In his commentary, Mr. Fisher does cede that (a) the flag and National Anthem are but symbols of these United States, and (b) that "My country is not perfect. No country is. My country has wronged many." From these statements he argues that his country is not a country of oppression. And that is where his intellectual disconnect is. A country that has wronged many is a country that has oppressed many. It therefore cannot be a country as pure and clean as he states in support of his argument.

Based on the photograph accompanying his article, and by personal acquaintance, Mr. Fisher is not a person of color. Therefore, any oppression by an agent of any governmental entity, such as the licensing division, or the DMV, that may have ever been felt by Mr. Fisher could not be based on his status as a person of color. But such limited experience is generally not a bar to commentary, as so notably explained by Leonard Pitts recently in these op-ed pages ("How To Talk To Black People In 8 Easy Lessons").

[Kaepernick sits for anthem, tests our free-speech convictions]

Mr. Kaepernick, who is in fact a person of color, states that he will not honor a symbol of a nation that has oppressed and continues to oppress persons of color. Almost (but certainly not all) U.S. residents today, yes, including those who have entered without inspection, will agree that there is a history of oppression of persons of color in this nation. A startling example is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1862, generally not taught in U.S. history classes, which excluded all Chinese laborers from the nation. Mr. Kaepernick contends that this type of oppression continues today against people of color, and calls out the killing of unarmed black men as his example. Whether you agree with that contention or not, and many certainly do, what is it that Mr. Fisher puts forward that should trump (no pun intended) Mr. Kapernick's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and to petition his government for redress? (Both of those rights are settled law, guaranteed by the First Amendment, a document certainly studied by Mr. Fisher before he could graduate law school, and which he affirmed — in his first affirmation — he would uphold when he took his oath as a lawyer admitted in Alaska). Mr. Fisher's argument is this: The flag means peace, stability, tolerance and every life-affirming value cherished by right and good-thinking people whether they are American citizens or not.

[Obama says NFL's Colink Kaepernick is exercising his constitutional right]

By this argument, Mr. Fisher labels people who agree with him as "right and good-thinking people." He casts everyone who disagrees with him as wrong and bad-thinking people. Those are words of oppression. "You cannot disagree with me because I am right and you are wrong and I think good and you think bad."



But if it turns out that he is wrong, are those who disagree with him still bad-thinkers? Is it only him and those who agree with him that may ever be good-thinkers? This language of his is nonsense. To my knowledge, Mr. Fisher has not been elevated to the position of sole arbiter of right versus wrong, and good-thinking versus bad-thinking.

What he doesn't get is that a flag, while a symbol of a nation, can still have different meanings to different people. If you are a middle-aged white guy, it will likely mean something close to what it means to Mr. Fisher. But to millions of people of color, it does not mean that at all. Any symbol of any governmental unit of this nation, whether a flag, a voter's registration application, or a police badge, is a symbol of oppression. The privileged, such as lawyers, are treated one way, and the under-classes, including many people of color, are treated another. Those symbols and the actions of the government agents are or may be seen as oppressive by some. Denying there is a tie between the symbol of the government and the actions of its agents is, in my view, both foolish and distinctly unhelpful.

The United States and its symbols are not uniformly looked upon with kindness throughout the world. In my recent travels through Europe, the Balkans, Asia Minor and Central Asia, Americans (of which I am readily identifiable as one by skin color and language) are not always welcomed. On many occasions I was the target of hateful stares and gestures. And if I had been able to understand the Kurdish and Kyrgyz languages, my ears would have likely burned. That flag, stamped on aid bags, is not perceived as Mr. Fisher would have us all believe. It often means war, pestilence, the killing of innocents, and intolerance for the views of entire nation-states. And that is a fact. If you don't believe it, ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who has returned from serving in a combat zone whether people were trying to kill her or him because of the flag on their shoulder. Don't be surprised if their answer is "yes."

Later on in his commentary Mr. Fisher states "… the spoiled self-indulgence of those who refuse to honor the flag is not a brave act. It is, instead, a legacy of victimhood. I despise it. You should too." Once again, you must agree with him. But why? Is the status of victim of oppression unseemly to him? If you feel affiliation with those who are victims, shouldn't you speak out about the oppression? There are plenty of people, including those with financial resources, to speak out whenever the Koch brothers or their enterprises feel oppressed (including on the editorial pages of this newspaper). But who is going to speak out for the people of color who feel oppressed by police officers who violate their basic human rights? The rights of the Koch brothers to unfettered profits are not rights at all. But the right to life? That is a right for which men and women fight and die around the globe every day.

Black athletes have used their celebrity status on many occasions to bring forward issues for national debate. In 1968, black athletes stood on the winners' podium at the Olympics and raised black-gloved fists while the American flag was raised and the National Anthem was played. To what end? To emphasize the civil rights struggle in the U.S. I remember it well, as I had just arrived back in the States from my extended tour of duty as a Marine in the then-Republic of Viet Nam. I struggled with it then, and I struggle with it now. But my conclusion was then and is now that I and others (but certainly not all others) served this nation so that everyone may be free here to speak out against perceived oppression, no matter their status or color, and whether I agree with them or not.

And I suppose that to Mr. Fisher that makes me wrong and a bad-thinker. If so, this Marine is proud to be wrong and a bad-thinker. Semper Fi.

Dan Cooper served with the U.S. Marines from 1965-1969, and was discharged as a staff sergeant. He retired from federal service as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2013, and surrendered his law license to ride his motorcycle in far-away places with strange-sounding names. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Dan Cooper

Now retired from the practice of law, Dan Cooper is a former president of the Alaska Bar Association, and served as both a state and federal Prosecutor. His last trial as a Federal prosecutor, U.S. v. Mujahid, was of a federal prisoner held in custody by the State DOC who was accused and convicted of assaulting state prisoners at the Cook Inlet facility.