Close readings: Heintzelman’s brush with potential dissent

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem.

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem.

Indy reporter and Missoula’s actual best journalist Derek Brouwer sent me this tweet from Missoulian publisher Mark Heintzelman, who narrowly avoided witnessing a protest at the annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce. Granted, no one actually protested. But they might have, given the way things are going in this country. Quote:

Our colors were just presented at the annual meeting of the @MissoulaChamber and, thankfully, everybody stood.

What a relief! Again, no one knelt or raised one fist in the air or conveyed anything but deferential respect for the flag—sorry, “our colors,” because apparently we’re all sailors in the War of 1812—but if they had, Heintzelman would have been against it. He sounds a little disappointed no one did. Close reading after the jump.

Heintzelman’s tweet is pretty clearly a reference to ongoing protests by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has knelt during the national anthem to protest systemic racism against African Americans. This behavior enrages people. Beside those who deny such racism exists, most objectors argue that while Kaepernick’s point may be a good one, it’s inappropriate for him to make it before the flag. Silent, motionless protest before a football game is wrong. So is rioting in the streets. You know Kaepernick is doing something meaningful, because his message has been declared inappropriate across pretty much the entire spectrum of expression.

The presentation of the flag is no time for political symbolism. It’s a solemn moment of reflection on a constituent element of our identity. This brings us to an interesting question, though: When is it appropriate to present the flag?

We’ve gotten used to singing the national anthem before sporting events, but that’s totally arbitrary. Why not movies? I bet it’s been done before certain weddings. I’m pretty sure it would be respectful to present the colors before a dog show, but I’m less convinced you could get away with it before a wet t-shirt contest. If you made your family stand and salute the flag at every meal, you’d be a nut. You could probably force your employees to do it before staff meetings, though.

A meeting of the Chamber of Commerce falls into a gray area. Despite popular misconception, the Chamber is not a government entity. It’s a lobbying group. Its proceedings are no more solemn than those of the International Association for Youth Hypnotists. By presenting the colors before its meetings, however, the Chamber asserts that its activities are important, even essential—part of the fundamental project of America itself.

Enter Heintzelman, who is relieved everyone stood up. His tweet bears a whiff of I-wish-a-motherfucker-would. Just as the Chamber asserts its own importance by ceremonially presenting the flag before its meetings, Heintzelman asserts himself by coming out against dissent that never happened. He’s like the guy who brings his gun to the farmer’s market: ready to defend a consensus endangered only in his imagination.

How do we feel about this attitude? I submit that this sentiment, coming from the publisher of a daily newspaper, is more troubling than dissent from a pro football quarterback. As publisher, Heintzelman does not exercise editorial control over the Missoulian—not in theory, anyway. But his work still relates closely to public discourse. The publisher of the local newspaper should be a rabble-rouser. His expressed attitude should not be “everybody shut up and salute the flag,” especially when that’s what they’re doing already.

You will know the meaningful protests, because they piss people off. Kaepernick’s silent, nonviolent objection has angered newspaper publishers and editorial cartoonists across the country. It’s odd, because those people encounter much more extreme ideas and worse events in the news every day. No matter what happens, though, we all stand for the flag. That can be an expression of solidarity and commitment to the American project, but it can also be a pathological insistence that everything this country does is okay—not because it’s right, but because we’re doing it. Football games and business lobbies can participate in that lie, because it’s part of the show. The newspaper should not.

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