Editorial

Who cares if Gabby Douglas placed her hand over her heart?

Yes, it’s true. Gymnast Gabby Douglas failed to place her hand over her heart while the national anthem played at the Olympic Games in Rio this week.

After the medal ceremony Tuesday in which Douglas stood with her arms down, apparently clasping something in both hands while her colleagues on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team followed the accepted hand-to-heart protocol, social and traditional media blew up. What was she trying to convey? Was this a willful act of protest? Was it a Black Lives Matter thing (coming as it did on the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo.)? Did it reflect a disrespect for the country that gave her the opportunity to be an Olympian?

No, Douglas said later, when she apologized. It was inadvertent. She was overwhelmed, she said, and meant no offense. 

But the real question is this: Why should she have to apologize? Why are we making judgments about a gold medalist who has spent countless hours of her life training and preparing for these Games based on whether or not she displays her patriotism in some socially approved manner? 

The silly notion that one must not be sufficiently patriotic if one fails to provide visual proof isn’t new or reserved for athletes. Politicians in particular take flak — especially from their opponents — if they seem to flout the unspoken rules. 

During his first presidential campaign, for instance, Barack Obama initially resisted the empty gesture of a flag lapel pin, explaining that they had become a "substitute for, I think, true patriotism." But eventually Obama gave in to the relentless pressure and thenceforth sported one regularly

More recently, Donald Trump griped via Twitter that the Democrats didn’t have an American flag on stage at their convention until someone complained. “Pathetic,” he tweeted.

Certainly there are times — Memorial Day celebrations at Arlington National Cemetery come to mind — when patriotic ceremony has meaning. But often it is simply rote. Americans are taught from childhood to place their hands over their hearts when the national anthem plays at ball games and as they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And most of us do it mindlessly, never stopping to think about why.

If you want to hang a flag on the porch, tattoo an eagle on your arm and shout “Go U.S.A.” from the rooftop, by all means do it. But one of the things about the United States is that we are not obligated to do any of those things. The Supreme Court has held that students don’t need to pledge allegiance if they choose not to, because to require otherwise would violate the free speech guarantee of the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. In fact, not only don’t we have to display our patriotism, we don’t even have to feel it to be good American citizens. 

Our Constitution allows us to express patriotism, or not, as we see fit. That’s something worth being patriotic about.

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