September 3, 2019

JOHNS | The Republic for Which It Stands

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Examine the view from Libe Slope at any time of day and you will see the Stars and Stripes waving from Baker Flagpole, flying rain or shine in any season. It is lit brightly at night thanks to a unanimous March 2017 resolution of the Residential Student Congress, which states that the flag must be illuminated 24 hours a day in accordance with the United States Flag Code. It was a good determination, and not the University’s first decision on the issue — in 1991, Cornell chose to suspend its ban against displaying flags of any kind in dorm windows to allow students to show support more vocally for U.S. troops serving in the First Gulf War.

Cornell should be proud of its record in honoring our flag, especially given that it stands in stark contrast to anti-flag rhetoric and acts at other universities. In April 2018, for instance, student government leaders at Michigan State University chose to cancel the installation of new American flags on campus over vague and ill-conceived concerns from student leadership, despite a poll indicating over 70 percent of students felt that the flag was “important” or “very important” to them. Two years prior, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts chose to stop flying its flag shortly after the 2016 election because “the flag is a powerful symbol of fear,” as Hampshire College president Jonathan Lash preposterously alleged at the time.

While these events are largely outliers on campuses, they also are indicative of anti-American animus in the broader culture. The debate over the flag has been brought to the forefront repeatedly since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s infamous refusal to stand for the national anthem. To a small but increasing number of leftist radicals, the American flag outrageously is a symbol of oppression, not an icon of liberty, and they have even been inspired to burn the flag at “anti-fascist action” or “antifa” rallies across the country in an act of explicit anti-Americanism.

These radicals, as this column has noted before, are dangerously aloof and misguided in their worldview. Not only do they promote a dogmatically negative and wildly inaccurate view of Western democracy, but they are completely silent — sometimes even defensive, especially in the case of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela — concerning real authoritarianism abroad, and ignorant of the inspiration that this country gives to freedom-loving people living under genuine oppression. Perhaps they should turn their eyes to the biggest anti-fascist struggle of today: that of the people of Hong Kong against an increasingly repressive and militaristic Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing. In Hong Kong, the American flag has been waved repeatedly by demonstrators, largely students, protesting against the authoritarian Chinese government. Protests peaked at almost 2 million demonstrators, so these are hardly isolated incidents, and they are not executed flippantly. These demonstrators also have been repeatedly witnessed singing the U.S. national anthem.

Why is the American flag such a common symbol in this struggle for liberty? A pro-democracy Hong Konger put it best: “It’s because we respect the spirit of the United States … In the United States Constitution, they have the right to defend their own democracy.” No such right exists in the city of Hong Kong, where Beijing repeatedly disqualifies democratically elected candidates and has set up the Legislative Council with essentially permanent pro-Beijing majorities in a country where those challenging Beijing’s ethos often disappear or are arrested. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has dutifully done the Communist Party’s bidding as she oversees the escalating crackdown on those demanding democratic reform. These people are Hong Kongers, but they are still flying Old Glory as they are shot with rubber bullets and as Chinese paramilitary forces begin to amass across the border in nearby Shenzhen.

Where are the so-called anti-fascists as Hong Kongers appeal to the West for help and moral support? While students their age are facing down the Chinese Communist Party, one of the most powerful regimes in the world, the American left — many of them students themselves — are silent. The Colin Kaepernick wing of its activist corps has now spent years directly rebutting their faith in the United States and Americanism more generally. These people instead insist irresponsibly that the Stars and Stripes signify oppression and denigrate those who believe in its symbolism as backward or even bigoted. But it has the exact opposite meaning in Hong Kong, and it is only a “symbol of fear” for apparatchiks in Beijing who seek to impose the same degree of control over Hong Kong as they have already done on the Chinese mainland.

Whatever their perspective on the wrinkles in the American system, these leftists’ silence on China — and simultaneous fixation on flag-burning, flag removal and ritually destroying other symbols of the U.S. that are inspiring pro-democracy and pro-freedom movements and peoples around the world — is telling about their real priorities. While exasperated Americans try to explain to these radicals the unique greatness that the red white and blue symbolizes, the reality is all too clear to freedom-loving people abroad: The American flag was and is the ultimate anti-fascist symbol in world history. Long may it wave on East Avenue, and in streets everywhere from Havana to Hong Kong, signifying the same message today as it has since 1777: Liberty and justice for all.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.