The threat came to my dad by mail. Regular, side-of-the-road, mailbox mail. While not technically a death threat, the typed, unsigned letter suggested that our family’s property might be destroyed or set on fire.

These days, a physical letter seems so quaint and intimate that it’s almost comical to me, twenty-five years later, to imagine the incensed and possibly insane author laboring over the keyboard, hitting the print key, then waiting for the printer to complete its lengthy back and forth. Folding up the pages and placing them carefully into an envelope. Addressing the envelope, affixing the stamp. Never, during all of this, pausing to reconsider the propriety of his or her rage.

We were a Midwestern family, on both sides, of mostly farmers and teachers, going back many generations. My dad, as it happened, had been both. He also had a strong interest in politics, which had led him to a position on our town’s school board. And this was where the trouble started.

During the board’s routine review of the school district’s instructional policies, Dad heard some language that troubled him. According to its statement of purpose, the district sought, among more academic goals, to instill in students a “love of country.”

My dad protested this language. He suggested that students should instead learn the nation’s founding principles, compare them to what they observed, and then decide for themselves. If that led them to love their country, then so much the better. He quoted Senator J. William Fulbright—“The citizen who criticizes his country is paying it an implied tribute”—and moved to have the “love of country” language removed.

It’s much quicker and easier today to express self-righteous anger. But the tenor of the anger remains the same. The recent condemnation directed at Colin Kaepernick, his National Anthem protest, and those who have supported him through similar gestures of protest feels all too familiar. The death threats, for sure, but also the rhetoric that dismisses his protest as whiny, or disrespectful, or inappropriate.

With all the buzz about the symbols supposedly violated by Kaepernick’s protest, it’s worth pausing to remember the other violations of the past year. The shootings of unarmed citizens Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Charles Kinsey, Paul O’Neal, and now Terence Crutcher are just the most visible stories in a nation where—according to recent analysis—unarmed black Americans are two and a half times as likely to be killed by police as unarmed white Americans. The statistics on searches done during traffic stops show an even greater disparity. Beyond the statistics, the experiences of black Americans during non-fatal encounters with police are often jaw-droppingly disproportionate. Consider the story of Fay Wells, a vice president of strategy at a California company, and a black woman, who had nineteen police officers dispatched to her apartment building with guns drawn after a neighbor spotted her being let into her own apartment with the help of a locksmith.

When the promises of liberty, opportunity, and justice are being broken week after week—whether for all people or a certain group of people—what do we owe to the symbols that claim to stand for them?

That’s part of what was bothering my dad in the early nineties. To him, the Vietnam War was not distant history. Both he and my mom had been raised pacifist Anabaptists and so were morally opposed even to so-called “good” wars. Vietnam, with its massive casualties and vague, seemingly unachievable goals, was a case study in how wars can go “bad.” The Gulf War of 1990 and 1991 didn’t turn out to be America’s next Vietnam, but—good war or no—the opposition slogan, “No Blood for Oil,” was a principle that my parents and I agreed with. We still do.

Democracy was great, my dad taught us, not because it always worked, but because it implied that you were at least entitled to your own opinion—even if it failed to carry the day. Our provincial county had little patience with such nuanced views. Signed letters to the town paper followed the anonymous, threatening one. They were less fiery but hardly more friendly. The county paper ran an editorial suggesting that my dad should take himself and his family somewhere else.

How much did it really matter—that brief phrase in a small school district document? My dad doesn’t think it was ever actually removed, although so many years later it was hard to for him to say for sure. “No one else agreed with me, so I don’t think it could have been removed,” Dad said when I asked him to remind me how the issue had been resolved. “One other board member did tell me that, while he didn’t agree, he privately respected my courage in expressing my opinion.”

That’s why it mattered, and why it still matters. It still takes courage to say what you know to be unpopular or potentially divisive. But ideally, it shouldn’t. Our freedom to protest (or even to support someone else’s protest) should feel easier. And we should able to do it without fear of reprisal.

I work as a writer for an advertising agency. Our business is to translate ideas and feelings into symbols and back again. Companies, nonprofits—organizations of all different sorts—come to us and say, basically: “We’re not really happy with our image. Talk to some people—our people, our clients, our stakeholders—and tell us who we are and what we should say about ourselves. Then make us a logo—a flag, if you will—that says that, too.” And we do. And they’re happy to have something meaningful that stands for who they are. But they know the difference between the work they do and the materials that tell their story.

So while I get all the emotion over the anthem, and the flag, and the wording in a school policy document, I see them a bit differently. These are symbols, yes, and they’re powerful, clearly. But they begin with people.

When it comes to America and its image, what’s most immediately tragic is not the lack of trust—that’s been eroding for a while. The immediate tragedy is that we can’t seem to agree that our people—all of our people—are more important than the symbols that stand for them.

All the people. People who fight for our country by fighting? Yes. The people who protect us from harm? Yes. Absolutely. But also—emphatically—the people who fight for this country by refusing—on pain of violence, imprisonment, even death—to be treated as less than fully human. All of those good people, and the more flawed, even the downright mean, can say that our flag stands for them. Does that seem weird? That’s America. Or it’s supposed to be.

Loyalty—like trust—is something that must be tested to be meaningful. It grows stronger each time it passes the test. Instead, some of the loudest voices in this debate are urging us not to test anything at all. To shut up and go along rather than engage in the civilized, and ultimately healthy, dissent described by Senator Fulbright’s elegant paradox.

We should all feel free enough to take a knee—no matter the cause, no matter the setting. When it comes to ideas that our flag is supposed to stand for, that’s near the top of the list.

In both its events and its rhetoric, our nation seems  much more fragile and confused this year than even the most cynical observer could have believed. We should respect, make room for, and even honor those who peacefully express their objections. We should go back to the questions: What do we believe? What do we want? How do we get there? We should listen to all of the answers, and ask ourselves what we are willing to promise each other.

It would be the first step toward a more honest, more united American song.


Photo from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.