What I’ve Learned Over the Years About Flags and Anthems

Here is a recent inquiry to a law firm about an incident in Indiana:

I work for a prominent company in a small city here in the Hoosier State, and we are very involved in our local community. We sponsor a corporate softball team, and last night one of our team members “took a knee” during the national anthem before a game. His supervisor asked if the player can be disciplined for this conduct or at least transferred out of the supervisor’s department.

This comes on the heels of President Trump making political hay over the demonstrations by some NFL players (taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality).

The current stink over athletes’ nonviolence demonstrations caused me to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned over the years about flags and anthems.

Flags

They’re an object. A piece of cloth or other material. They have no inherent value or meaning. Yet people love to rally around them. I’ve done it myself.

Sometimes, the rally is for good (maybe). Sometimes, it’s innocuous (neutral). Often, it’s for bad purposes.

The mighty Roman Empire employed flags in its pageantry and celebrations of war victories. And to lead their troops into battle. Flags are useful in getting young men to charge into situations from which they might not exit whole or alive. The elite (rich, powerful people who pull the strings of war and government) are very good at using flags to manipulate the emotions of others. Consequently, many flags are stained with blood.

The Romans weren’t lone, of course. Examples are replete throughout history, including the Pope as he extended the military reach of the “Holy” Roman Catholic Church beyond Rome, the king of England as he marched troops to the “Holy Land” to kill heretics, Hitler as he mustered support among the youth and other impressionable people to establish and expand his Third Reich, modern-day neo-Nazis who march in Charlottesville, and now Donald Trump, with his red MAGA cap as he uses bigotry, fear and hate to solidify and expand his political base even at the expense of driving a stake through the heart of America.

The president rails against those who supposedly disrespect the flag, while intentionally distorting and misrepresenting the motives and actions of the demonstrators and while assaulting the very Constitution he professes to respect (e.g., his blatant attacks on the First Amendment). Obviously, he’s doing this for purely selfish political purposes. Yet his tactics are effective.

If some people think anyone is disrespecting the Stars and Stripes, they get angry. And angry people are highly manipulatable. They become unthinking and unreflective people, the kind of people whom demagogues want and need to claim and retain power.

So here’s my take on flags — impressions more than 60 years in the making:

  • Flags are things. That’s all. One cannot respect or disrespect a piece of cloth or plastic. It’s what flags represent that matter. They can represent good things. And really bad things, too. Some flags represent both. But, in the end, it’s just a thing.
  • I don’t pledge allegiance to any flag. Allegiance means you’ll do whatever you’re told to do by your country — i.e., by its political leaders (who typically do the bidding of the wealthy powerful class). I won’t. I’ve seen too much. I know that some of those leaders have led us into immoral wars. Have engaged in torture. Have overthrown democratically elected governments. Have slaughtered — or, more often, have directed others to slaughter — defenseless native Americans and even entire cities of women and children, and, today, by its drones and other instruments of death, to kill countless innocent people, including children and babies. Some have run medical experiments on Americans without their consent. Imprisoned people without due process. I’m not about to blindly promise my allegiance to such people. (As an aside, I never understood how a Christian could pledge allegiance to a flag or nation. It’s so obviously antithetical to the life of discipleship.)
  • Despite what I just wrote, the American flag does represent something I value. Specifically, it represents the ideals and principles on which the country was founded and under which it has grown and thrived. It’s true we have not fully realized those ideals, and we never will. That’s what makes them ideals. We’re a work in progress. Yet I thoroughly embrace and adore the principles of freedom and individual liberty, and the right to choose for oneself and not be bound by the mandates of a king or president. The freedom of press, of expression, of religion, of dissent — these are ideals that the flag represents to me and which would cause me never to deface the flag. Yet I’m not so blind as not to see what the same flag may represent to others — to those who have been oppressed by people who pledged allegiance to the flag and claim to respect it so much.

Anthems

Much of what I wrote about flags apply equally to our national anthem. I have and will sing it. To me, the words “Land of the free” are the most important words in the Star Spangled Banner.

I don’t much care for the genesis of the lyrics or its glorification of war. There are better songs. But it’s what we got. To be honest, I don’t spend anytime thinking about it.

Freedom: The Thread That Supposedly Hold the Stars and Stripes Together

Observing the anthem/flag controversy in the NFL today reminds me of the dangers of being sucked into the hysteria of nationalists — the very kind of people who are prone to wrap themselves in flags. We ignore such people at our peril. Scared, angry people with power — especially those with strong nationalistic and militaristic tendencies — are capable of doing really bad things. We’ve seen it too often throughout history to take it lightly.

What all of this does, for me, is to highlight a truth that has been present for most or all of our country’s existence: many Americans don’t actually like freedom and some of the principles embedded in our constitution. Actually, they feel threatened by it.

Again, this isn’t new. The majority didn’t much care for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent resistance to institutionalized racism, and they don’t much care for resistance today, especially when it’s delivered by people with dark skin.

Moreover, those in society’s dominant position (principally, white men) try to impose discipline — that is, penalties — to ensure dissent doesn’t spread or become accepted. Fire the employee! Transfer him (see opening request of the Indiana supervisor)! Kill the troublemaker’s prospects for promotion. Refuse to sign the athlete. Boycott them and hit them where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Erect statutes of white supremacists (known affectionately as Southern heroes) and fly the Confederate flag to remind them who’s really in charge! Scare them by shooting some defiant college students (Kent State). Try to intimidate them by carrying guns in the public square.

The underlying tactic is always the same: impose discipline through fear and preserve the existing power structure at any cost.

That’s what the NFL controversy is really about. It has nothing to do with a piece of cloth or song. It has everything to do with quelling dissent and keeping black folk in their rightful place — with reclaiming the white European culture and power structure that predated Brown vs. Education, the integration of our Armed Forces by President Truman and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. It has everything to do with reclaiming the world that President Trump has promised will return. It has everything to do with fear. And insecurity.

Does that mean I think everyone who objects to the football players’ demonstration is a racist? Of course not. And it doesn’t mean I think the players’ tactics are effective or the best means of advancing the cause of justice and equality.

Personally, I have no opinion on the matter. I’m not black. I haven’t been the subject of racial discrimination and police brutality. I haven’t lived in a society that thinks I’m inferior because of the color of my skin.

It would be presumptuous of me to question the methods discriminated people choose to improve their lot, especially when their methods are nonviolent.

It’s their call, not mine. But I will respect them and support all people who strive for freedom, justice and equality. I will support anyone who yearns for the best of what the flag represents to me. And I will not defer to hatred and bigotry and the forces that seek to divide us even if such forces are wrapped in the flag. I can see through their disguise.

History shows in stark terms that such hatred and bigotry often hides behind flags and anthems. And it’s hiding behind our flag and anthem today. And under a red cap as well.

Well, perhaps it’s not hiding so much. Perhaps it’s come out and revealed itself in all its despicable forms.

The people who are taking a knee are merely trying to promote awareness and foster justice and equality. They’re not rejecting America or its flags and anthems. They are simply calling on America to live up to its ideals. They are pleading with the country to become more American.

On the other hand, those who are distorting the demonstrators’ motives and choosing to ignore the injustice that is rooted in our society are using the flag and anthem as a club. And as an instrument to reclaim and perpetuate a cruel and unjust social structure.

I do not and will not pledge allegiance to a flag if it stands for oppression. I will stand for a flag that represents the ideals of a just, fair and compassionate people.

But even then, one must ask why? Why the need for flags? Why not instead focus on the people — our actions, our values, our choices, our humanity?

In the final analysis, flags and anthems don’t matter much. But values and principles matter a lot.

I pledge allegiance to compassion, justice, equality and the inalienable rights of people for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And I oppose any person or method that seeks to deny those rights to others.

And I couldn’t care less whether anyone attends or watches an NFL game this weekend.

At the Mercy of Other People’s Judgment

Sunday, Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed President Trump (a member of his own political party) was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

The Senator said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.” “He concerns me,” the senator added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

None of this is surprising. I knew it was a risk, which is why I thought the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was the most reckless act undertaken by the U.S. electorate in our history — by far.

That doesn’t mean the worst case scenario will unfold. Rather, it means the risks are higher than they need be and we’ve put other people’s lives and welfare at risk unnecessarily (as well as our own).

That’s on a grand scale (casualties could exceed those of WW II). Everyday, of course, others make decisions that harm or threaten others (physically or financially) without most of us giving much thought about the matter.

Policy makers make decisions about trade, spending and other matters that could (and often do) have a material effect on our futures.

CEOs and boards make decisions about investments that could affect our livelihood.

Plant managers and railroad personnel make decisions that could make the difference between life and death for many people within range of their plants or tracks.

Drivers make decisions (or fail to make decisions) that can forever alter the lives of fellow drivers and their families.

I could go on. The list is endless. The point is simple: we are at the mercy of other people’s judgment in countless ways. And some of them may be at the mercy of ours.

So what is one to do about it?

I don’t claim to know what anyone else should do about it — that’s their decision. But here are some guiding principles I have acquired for myself over the years.

First, I try no to fret about it; rather, I try to focus on that over which I have some control.

So if my fellow citizens decide electing someone like Mr. Trump is in our best interest, so be it. My lot is part of theirs. I shall benefit or be hurt with the broader community we call country. Some call it fate. Call it what you want. I simply say, “It is what it is.” I’m not going to allow it to destroy my happiness.

Part of this is trying to avoid any sense of entitlement. And nurturing a sense of gratitude. I may not have complete control over such feelings and emotions. But I can influence them for the better. It’s most certainly preferable to fretting and worrying about things over which I have no control.

Second, I try to limit my reliance and dependence upon other people’s judgment as best I can. Stated differently, I try to avoid servitude.

One way of doing this is to acquire financial independence as soon as possible. If I got to live life over, this would be a major early goal of mine. The sooner, the better. Retirement age is much too late.

Third, I endeavor to associate with people of sound judgment and good character. This isn’t always easy because often there is misalignment between economic opportunity and virtue. Again, if I got to live life over, I’d try to spend more time and deal more with virtuous people and try harder to keep distance between myself and the other kind of people.

Last but not least, I endeavor to improve my own decision-making processes and, by extension, the quality of my own decisions.

I’ve made some really poor decisions in my life. I wish I’d spent more time reflecting on my mistakes and endeavoring to instill the rigorous discipline to reduce the number of mistakes going forward. And I really wish I had involved more people in the process and been less dependent upon my own perspectives and biases. 

I also wish I’d been more rational and less emotional. More practical and less idealistic.

I’ve made some good decisions of course. But decision making is a lot like investing: the key is to eliminate or reduce the size of your losses. Avoiding big mistakes is a key to a good life.

Charlie Munger is right: he and Warren Buffett got tremendous advantage from simply trying not to be consistently stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.

I used to tell students that my primary objective in teaching was to help them become better decision makers, that is, to hone their judgment. Schools don’t talk about judgment. They should. It’s far more important than most of the other stuff that commands their attention.

I don’t know if the country will escape the Trump years without a major disaster. I do know we’re playing with fire and, when that happens, someone often gets burned.

In any case, don’t ever allow yourself to be overwhelmed by that which you can’t control, Vera. There is much you can control, including, to an extent, your thoughts and outlook.

Choose wisely. Become the very best decision-maker you can possibly become. Nothing will serve you as well as sound judgment.

The Confederacy Is Dying

Lately, we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about the Confederacy, white supremacists and Civil War heroes. Growing up, the Civil War didn’t have a prominent place in our lives. Sure, we visited the Gettysburg Battlefield and learned about the war in school. But it was an historical artifact of sorts — something that occurred but had long past.

And then I moved to Virginia. It was there I experienced first hand that the war wasn’t over — at least not in certain people’s minds. It also was there I frequently heard it referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.” And saw the flag of the Confederacy fly from porches and pickup trucks. It was there that some people called me a Yankee, with the disdain the term implies in the Deep South.

More recently, just over the mountain from where we lived in Virginia, white supremacists marched and engaged in violence to promote their cause. Some people interpret this as a sign the principles underlying the Confederacy are alive and well.

I disagree. I think it’s a sign of the Confederacy’s dying gasp.

Racism will live on, of course. But the Confederacy was about so much more. It was about preserving an economic and social system rooted in slavery. That clock isn’t about to be turned back.

That’s not to say there isn’t involuntary servitude today. There is. And even among the free, true freedom isn’t as pervasive as commonly thought.

It also isn’t to say there is equal opportunity for all. There isn’t. But it’s getting better.

It is to say that what we’re witnessing now — with the white marches and election of Donald Trump — is the last gasp of a dying power structure. The days of racists, white men are coming to an end.

The country is changing. It’s getting less white. And it’s getting less male — not in general; rather, in the halls of power.

Moreover, the distance between the War (whatever name you want to ascribe to it) and the present is increasing with each and every passing day. There is no one alive who lived then, and no one alive whose parent fought in the War. Our national memory is fading.

Economic mobility has hastened the fade. Yankees now live throughout the South, and Rebs are dispersed throughout the North. The terms themselves now seem absurd to the vast majority of Americans (I always thought they were).

Some people hate to see our country change. They fight to keep women at home and out of our board rooms, legislatures and executive officers. They go out of their way to avoid people of color. They bestow privilege on the old white families that shower their institutions with money (i.e., their character is for sale).

But most people don’t. Most people have come to believe it’s wrong to judge and treat people based on their sex or the color of their skin.

We don’t always live up to our beliefs, but with time our beliefs strengthen and help narrow the gap between rhetoric and action. With time, we’re learning how to be better people.

The War has been over for more than a century and a half. Now, we’re witnessing the end of the Confederacy and the blossoming of the principle of freedom and justice for all.

The War is over indeed. But the fight continues.

Marrying the Right Person

I don’t know if you’ll marry anyone, Vera. But if you do, think about it.

One of the keys to a happy life is avoiding big mistakes. Marrying the wrong person can be one of the biggest mistakes you could possibly make. So, naturally, try not to get it wrong.

I was lucky. I stumbled into a great marriage. Well, perhaps it wasn’t entirely a stumble. I wasn’t nearly as smart when I was 16 (when I started dating your grandmother) as I thought I was — or at 21 when I married your grandmother — but I was smart enough to marry up. That’s my first suggestion: marry up.

Your grandmother was and is smarter than me. And a better person in almost — no, in every — respect. That’s what I mean by marrying up.

Your great grandmother probably also would tell you to marry into a good family. I used to scoff as such advice, but, frankly, experience has proved my mother right more often than not. You’ll be marrying not only a spouse but marrying into a family. Never underestimate the power of genetics. Or engrained familial dysfunctionality. In short, be sure the family passes muster.

That’s about all I could come up with, so now I’m turning to two guys from the investment world who are two of the wisest people I’ve encountered (by reading and listening, not personally): Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Here is some of what they’ve said about the keys to a good marriage:

“If you really want a marriage that will last, look for someone with low expectations.”

“Make sure your spouse has the same thoughts on the same big things.” I’m not totally sold on this one, mainly because James Carville (ardent Democrat) and Mary Matalin (Republican operative turned Libertarian) seem so happy together. But it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. I have to admit, I don’t think I could live with anyone who thought Donald Trump was a decent human being or remotely fit to be president. Or who thought Roberto Clemente wasn’t God’s gift to Pittsburgh (hell, to all of humanity) and one of the greatest ballplayers to ever play the game.

“Don’t marry someone to change them.” I’ve seen people try to change their spouses over the years. I can’t recall it ever working out well.

“Don’t keep score.” (Thank goodness your grandmother heeded this advice.)

“Look for someone who will love you unconditionally.” Come to think of it, I’m not sure that anything else is truly love.

“Marry someone who is a better person than you are.” (I did!) Warren takes it even further: “Always associate with people who are better than you.”

“Choose a spouse who believes in you.” And why would you be tempted to marry anyone who doesn’t? I don’t know, but it happens.

I could go one, but you get the point: it’s an important decision. Perhaps the most important of your life. Treat it as such.

Oh, I left out one important criterion: choose someone your pap-pap likes.

 

There Is Something Wrong with This Country. Gravely Wrong.

From my perch, all seems right with the world. We live in a nice house in a nice community — indeed, a community replete with new things and amenities. I want for nothing. We’re near you Vera. You stayed with us twice this past weekend. Being near you and your parents is a blessing unmatched by material things. It makes this place special. Very special.

Yet there is something very wrong, too. Yesterday, the president of the United States tweeted a video in which we takes down CNN. It was a doctored version of an old pro-wresting video when he supposedly body slammed someone to the floor. “The president of the United States of America tweeted this,” I thought. “How did we get to this place?”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Trump has encouraged violence or done something cringeworthy that made himself (and us) look foolish. And utterly out to lunch. And it probably won’t be the last. Nonetheless, it was another stark reminder that something is wrong with this country of ours. Very wrong.

How could anyone think this man is fit for the presidency?

The Republicans had countless options. The number of candidates numbered in the teens. Perhaps none was great, but none was as bad as the one they chose (with the possible exception of one).

I’ve read all the explanations. I get it why people are angry. And cynical. Feeling disenfranchised. And fed up with the status quo. What I don’t get, however, and probably never will, is why anyone thought that putting this man in this office was a prudent and responsible thing to do. Or in our country’s best interest.

My hope is that we’ll get through this presidency without an unmitigated disaster, which basically means a war and people dying (that is, more people than Mr. Trump has already killed in Syria and the Middle East). I have no hope that we’ll get out of it without severe damage to our country.

We’ve already been damaged, and the fallout from that damage will last a generation or more. We deserve it, of course. Decisions have consequences.

I realize it could get worse before it gets better (in the long run, it will get better!). Indeed, I realize that, if we don’t address some of the problems that gave rise to such a man taking power, the next guy (or woman) could be even worse. Much worse: he or she could actually be competent.

Yet I have no reason to believe we’re prepared to address those problems. To the contrary, if Mr. Trump’s policies are enacted fully, those problems will get worse.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my own little utopia. And wondering what, if anything, I can do to make a positive difference in our country. And trying to discern how best to protect myself and my family from the fallout of the next financial crisis.

The chair of the Federal Reserve assured everyone that there wouldn’t be another such crisis in our lifetimes. For some reason, I take no solace in such assurances.

A relative of mine thinks I’m angry about all of this. I don’t feel angry; however, if that’s how it appears, then perhaps I am.

What I feel is sadness, shame, deep disappointment and hope. I see how politicians (Mr. Trump wasn’t the first) successfully employ fear-mongering to advance their personal fortunes and political agendas, and it makes me sad to witness the effectiveness of their ploys. I wonder why people can’t see through it all.

I’m ashamed we as a country have unleashed a man such as Mr. Trump on the world community. They didn’t deserve it.

I’m disappointed that we don’t address some of the issues that have brought us to this place — things like antidemocractic gerrymandering, a political system that is for sale and, indeed, is sold to the highest bidder (campaign finance reform), the out-of-whack distribution of income and wealth brought about by the age of digital technology and global over-supply of labor, and the massive build-up of debt (sovereign and private) throughout the world.

Can this country survive much less thrive without fixing the things that brought us to this precarious ledge? I’m not so sure.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my own little utopia, realizing that our country will never be the same again. The despicable has become the acceptable. The abnormal, normal.

Apparently, anything goes if it’s in furtherance of our quest for “success” and “greatness.” I despair at how those principles have changed since our country was born. I am saddened by our country’s rejection of the teachings of the Nazarene.

I hope things will get better. I hope the world my generation leaves behind for yours, Vera, will be even better than the world we inherited from our parents. I hope you will be free and safe and will be supported by a community and nation that fosters the best within you. I hope you will read a history book and look back to this strange period when American elected a self-absorbed, immature fool to the presidency and yet somehow, in spite of it all, managed not only to survive but also to thrive in the long run.

And, if not — if America’s best days are behind it — then I hope, at the very least, I can help carve out a bit of utopia for you.

Generational Theft

In my lifetime, we have witnessed the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth ever seen. Seniors have benefited. Our youth have taken it on the chin.

Oddly, even so-called conservatives don’t seem to mind this massive redistribution of wealth. It enjoys broad support. The reasons are obvious; 1) older people vote at a higher rate than young people and 2) people (both voters and their elected representatives) tend to vote their self interest.

Hence, at least thus far, the Boomers and their parents’ generation are doing just fine, the recipients of massive transfers; the youth are massively in debt and on the hook for trillions of obligations owed to what I call the dying generations.

I’m not going to get into the numbers here. If you want to catch a glimpse of them, you can watch this video of renowned investor Stanley Druckenmiller (a former Pittsburgher so he must know what he’s talking about!).

But you shouldn’t have to be convinced. Just think for a moment of the massive transfers that take place in the form of Social Security (people take out far more than they pay in), Medicare, special benefits extended to seniors by state and local governments (e.g., real estate tax breaks) and the less visible countless tax breaks and subsidies that inured mainly to the benefit of the Boomer and their parents’ generations, both in earlier times (education in particular) and now as they age and die.

The result? Continue reading

Calling Out The Charlatan (Installment 1 in the Saga of the Trump Administration)

img_3210I took this photo recently when visiting family in Las Vegas. The building carries the name of the man some (albeit a minority) of my fellow citizens chose to be our new president.

Saturday, in a style reminiscent of communist regimes and the propaganda tactics they so effectively employed, he and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, blatantly lied to America.

Misinformation is a game they play well. Continue reading

Things I Learned in 2016

It’s easier to learn things at your age, Vera, than it is at mine. Everything is new to you. Much less is new to me.

Nonetheless, there are always opportunities to learn new things, regardless of age. In fact, I can’t imagine living without learning. It’s what makes life interesting.

So, as I’m sitting in Starbucks in southern California early this morning, I’m reflecting on what I learned this year. Here are just a few highlights: Continue reading

Christmas Is a Great Time for Choosing How to Live

Whining gets old fast. No one like to be around a whiner.

If I find myself complaining about something, I have to ask myself, then why am I not doing something about it?

No one likes to be around a complainer. Incessant complaining makes for a very sour person. It’s hard to be happy if you’re always complaining.

So one thing I’ve learned over the years, Vera, is either do something about it or shut up. Continue reading

Trump Is So Much Smarter Than So Many Politicians and Academics

Yesterday’s event at Carrier in Indianapolis put me over the top. Well, actually, it wasn’t the event itself, where the president-elect announced he had saved some (but not all) of the jobs that were slated to move to Mexico. Rather, it was the reaction to the announcement by The Wall Street Journal (a Republican media mouthpiece, which hated the deal) and many liberal politicians, economists and talking heads (the people who populate Twitter and TV cable shows). You know something is amiss when the WSJ and liberal academics agree. Continue reading