I’m going to be blunt with my definition of what tradition is: Tradition is a series of things you keep doing even though they’re useless and unnecessary and useless at best and dangerous to the welfare of other people at worst. No one ever bothers to give it any thought because that’s the way they were raised, dammit, and the way they’ve always done things, so therefore it must be right. Tradition is a series of hollow, meaningless gestures which maybe – MAYBE – had some great purpose back in the Victorian era, but since then has been worn down by the demands and conditions of a surrounding society and become stupid and self-destructive.
There are good traditions, but even those hold no more meaning than the bad ones. If you’re using tradition in an argument as your sole excuse for trying to preserve a practice or an idea, you’ve already lost.
You’ll have to excuse me for wondering what all the hoopla is about when people talk about traditions. If tradition was still king, women and black people would still be considered property.
Let me be clear about this: Tradition has never had anything sacred about it. It was something someone sat down and drew up on a lunch napkin during break that blew out of proportion. It’s also used as a way to get people to ignore certain issues about the surrounding world which need to be addressed.
Take the American flag, for example. We get so busy huffing and puffing over it that we forget the root of what it really is: A piece of cloth with a specific dye pattern. Broken down, it’s not even close to sacred, and even the pattern on it which is so recognizable everywhere in the world hasn’t been solid in basically forever. Everyone knows the stars on the flag represent the 50 states in the United States. What gets lost among all the nice unity chatter is the fact that the 50th state, Hawaii, was granted statehood in 1959, right on the heels of Alaska. That’s means there’s a sizable chunk of the population both alive and old enough to remember a time when this great sacred object only had 48 stars. You can imagine what it must have been like before then, especially during the 19th and 20th century turnover, when the country was adding a new star to the flag every three years. How tiring that must have gotten.
The precious, Precious, PRECIOUS flag is steeped in a tradition which has been surprisingly fluid is what I’m getting it. They never kept the damn thing the same. Wikipedia even has a section about the United States showing the planned flag designs of the future just in case more states are added to the country. The thing changed, and it’s going to keep on changing.
That brings me to the American Flag Code. Yes, there’s an American Flag Code, a good long list of behaviors and regulations of what to do when the flag is barging around the room. It was apparently written by over 60 organizations – including the Daughters of the American Revolution, Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, and American Library Association – and adopted in 1923 by something called the National Flag Convention. “Written by over…” is usually a code term for “the interns punched it out in a couple of hours.” But what really gets me about the American Flag Code is that the fucking thing is COPYRIGHTED. That means if you’re dying to get access to a hard copy of it, you’re going to have to engage in the one thing about America that has always been it’s great inarguable tradition: Paying money for something which, given the unique circumstances surrounding it, should be free! It’s the American way, really: We make you think it’s cool before selling it to you.
Having familiarized myself with a little bit of the American Flag Code, it’s a shock how extensive it is and how little the general public gives a shit when it gets violated. Section 176 specifically forbids the flag’s use as clothing or drapery. But how many people would be out of their jobs if that section was honored? The number of workers in factories making American flag clothes has to be in the thousands. And not everyone stands up and salutes the flag while the National Anthem is blared over the loudspeakers, either. They’re all still milling about and socializing amongst themselves, and the Respect the Troops rhetoric that these flag ceremonies hypothetically represent is left on the shelf while I-don’t-feel-like-it takes over.
It’s funny how a kneeling quarterback suddenly reminded us how much we love the flag. Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, recently did something pretty simple: He kneeled during the National Anthem because he was tired of being forced to salute a country where no one can seem to get over the habit of treating black people as something between second-class citizens and threats. Kaepernick was protesting Police violence against unarmed blacks on the outside, but his protest gained traction because this is coming at a critical juncture. Texas has banned the use of the term “slave trade” from school textbooks, Fox News has used on-air arguments justifying and excusing slavery, and the Republican Presidential candidate might as well be BFFs with David Duke. We like to think racism ended with Jackie Robinson; in fact, the school textbooks I grew up being force-fed adopted that attitude. “Hey, there was a ballplayer named Jackie Robinson who was black! Then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream! After that, racism went POOF! in a cloud of hippie love!” It doesn’t mention that the hippie love puff was probably a cloud of weed – it made us look for and sometimes even see something that wasn’t there.
Yes, laws changed, but that doesn’t mean the people changed. Hell, even poor Martin Luther King only hit the public school mainstream because his famous dream is the only thing people want to remember about his beliefs. The dream sticks with people because it’s warm and fuzzy and deals with the individual viewpoint. Delving further into his work reveals the pissed off writing of a very angry man who believed the white moderates who emphasized his dream were more of a threat to his people than the KKK for that reason: Their belief in order and civility above real justice. Kaepernick’s protest is starting to reveal the people King was writing about. No one seems to care about all the crimes committed by countless other NFL players and the league not giving a damn. But Kaepernick broke our sacred tradition and now we’re talking boycotts. People use a lot of different methods of hiding from a lot of real issues in the country, and by kneeling during the National Anthem, Kaepernick cut them off from one of their escapes: Football. Now he’s being accused of creating controversy, but as another famous loudmouthed athlete I like, Charles Barkley, once said, he’s not creating the controversy. The controversy was always there. Kaepernick is merely bringing it to our attention.
It’s funny to me that our obsession with tradition is the only thing that’s making Kaepernick’s action controversial. I don’t believe most other countries would raise an uproar like this. They have something that we have and claim to love but appear to secretly hate: Freedom of speech. That’s the first law written in the United States Constitution, a document which does – or at least should – mean something to the country because it’s the supreme law of the land. What’s written in the Constitution is what goes, which is why there’s been so little change in it. Kaepernick probably knew about the uproar he was going to cause, because we’ve come to accept that our flag and song mean something – god only knows what – over his own right to express his displeasure over the fact that his people are routinely shot to death on traffic stops while white rapist Brock Turner was put in jail for all of six months because the judge worried about his prison time having the kind of impact on him that prison time should have on rapists.
If you want to drag one of our stupidest traditions into it – I’m talking, of course, about religion – you should know the god of your Bible specifically forbids the creation of graven images, and that’s what has now become of the flag. It’s apparently something to be worshipped no matter what. And if you want to bring the third Abrahamic religion (Islam) into it, the Quran’s version of the story of Abraham takes a special pain to point out how stupid it really is. In the Quran, Abraham’s father was a man who made idols, and Abraham wondered if there was a contradiction apparent in creating something which you then bow down and worship. That’s why God started sending him messages. Back in the land of reality, if we weren’t so busy being outraged at someone for having the gall to not stand up because our favorite idol was now blasphemed by someone expressing a constitutional right, then we could be enjoying the new season and this whole thing never would have been an issue.
But that’s the kind of bullshit that blind obedience to tradition makes you do. Ultimately, we’re going to go home and not give another thought about it until someone breaks from the sacred flag traditions again. In the meantime, we’re going to wear our American flag Calvin Klein underwear and send kids to school to recite words they won’t even think about. I’m of course referring to the Pledge of Allegiance, which wasn’t formally adopted until 1942, and which wasn’t written in its current form until 1954. And which was originally written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. You may want to look him up. He was an outspoken socialist.