It was the American flag as click-bait. It was Old Glory weaponized to inflame emotions.
But most of all, the fake flap over displaying the American flag at UC Davis student government meetings was about how dumb we can become when the stars and stripes are waved in our faces.
For days, on mostly conservative websites, an intellectually dishonest story about the flag and Davis students has gained lots of clicks and media attention.
On April 10, the student senate at UC Davis passed a bill making it optional to display the American flag at student meetings. The bill amends bylaws that required a U.S. flag to be on display at every senate meeting of the Associated Students, University of California, Davis.
The key word here is optional. It’s not an outright ban. Senate leaders will decide if the flag will be displayed at future meetings or not. The senate president will either make that call or put it up to a vote.
No matter. “UC Davis Bans American Flag” read the headline on one conservative site. Another site said the Davis students “voted against” the American flag.
By the time this column was being written, student senators were getting threatening emails. Their amendment had become a full-blown “controversy,” complete with local veterans and fraternities weighing in, offering to provide flags to patriotic Davis students.
“We’re getting threats because of a non-story,” said Jose Antonio Meneses, the Davis student who introduced the bill. “I find it really stupid.”
Meneses isn’t the only person to find himself at the center of a ridiculous flag controversy in recent days.
On Sunday, Craig Calcaterra – a baseball writer for NBC Sports – ignited a firestorm on Twitter by writing these words below a photo of an American flag unfurled at a big-league game in Atlanta: “Will you keep politics out of sports, please. We like sports to be politics-free.”
Calcaterra posted his message in the early morning hours and woke to find tweets calling for NBC to fire him for this thoughts. One gentleman tweeted that he hoped Calcaterra would contract cancer for being so unpatriotic.
Like the Davis students, Calcaterra was getting blowback for how his words were interpreted – not for what he actually said or meant.
“I tweeted out a little joke, poking at those who claim that sports and politics never go together,” Calcaterra later wrote on nbcsports.com. “I did so by sarcastically adopting the voice of one of the many ‘stick to sports’ people (who often criticize sports writers who delve into politics).”
But Calcaterra also had a legitimate point about how the American flag and patriotism are often trotted out in public forums for calculated effect. “Especially when (the Atlanta Braves) just made those fans hand over their tax dollars for a new ballpark the team didn’t really need,” he wrote. “So hey, let’s make sure we create the impression that this is about more than the Braves’ bottom line.”
The Davis students became fodder for conservative websites whose bottom lines are enhanced by red-meat stories of patriotism in peril. But what makes the Davis story even sillier is that the students who voted to make the American flag optional said they were just trying to obey the law.
Meneses told Diana Lambert of The Bee that he and other students feared they were violating federal law by having a policy mandating that a flag would stand visibly at each student senate meeting.
“It wasn’t political in any way,” Meneses said. “Because it is the United States flag … it’s a touchy subject to talk about. We want to make sure we are not sued.”
The truth is, the kids were making a political statement by making the flag optional – even if by Tuesday they were clearly unnerved by the reaction to their decision. As a student government, the Davis student leaders wanted to decide for themselves if the flag is appropriate at their meetings.
Do they have the right to do that? “Yes,” said Carlton Larson, a professor of law at UCD. “The government, in this case a student a government, is free to express certain viewpoints and not others.”
We all are free to express ourselves, even if our views on the flag and patriotism are unpopular. And fighting over the American flag is hardly new. In my hometown of San Jose decades ago, I can recall seeing a Vietnam War protester during a Fourth of July parade lunge at National Guardsman carrying the flag. The look of rage on that protester’s face is forever burned in my brain.
Back then, an immoral war that killed thousands of Americans was justified by supposed patriots mouthing the words: “America. Love it or leave it.”
Last week, I got an email from an elderly gentleman who said he would pay for my one-way ticket to North Korea because I dared to criticize the bombing of Syria ordered by President Trump. The man said I “hated” my country.
It’s a riddle of American patriotism – how some Americans condemn others for partaking in the greatest gift of our democracy: free speech.
But now there are armies of fake news sites that have weaponized a narrow version of patriotism. Nuance doesn’t matter in the current climate. Neither do facts. Neither does history.
Patriotism and slavery ran hand in hand, as poor whites were motivated to fight for a Southern aristocracy they would never attain. Patriotism was used as a justification to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. Patriotism justified wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
When we start to prioritize “patriotism” over constitutionally guaranteed freedoms – including the freedom of expression – we move a little closer to tyranny and a little further from the principles that separate America from every other nation.