Commencement 2011 and the National Anthem

Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the National Anthem. An iconic, wondrous moment of protest during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when the superstars won the gold and bronze medal in the 200-metre race.

At my commencement exercise, it was announced that according to federal law, one may be a veteran and salute the flag. According to federal law, it is against the law to assassinate foreign leaders. While I do not have the precise language, I do not believe it excludes those who are not caucasian or who are Muslim. That was not announced at the commencement exercise by the outgoing faculty senate president. This was precedent to the National Anthem. I sat quietly in protest during that venemous and awkward song with “bombs bursting in air,” as my colleagues in full commencement regalia were standing on both sides, in front and in back. I was enveloped by sashes, gowns and hoods in many-coloured splendor.

For me commencement and nationalism are an odd couple. Here we spend years in trying to engage our students in critical thinking and then we plop this symbolism of national adulation before them. No, commencement is not the time to play anthems, to pay homages to a national flag. to celebrate America. Let that take place at VFW meetings or July 4 parties but not on a campus that at least is nominally non-military, and supposedly private and Catholic.

I usually reluctantly stand during this charade of patriotism but turn my back or look away from the flag. I cannot pledge or sing to a symbol of ongong Jim Crow, militarism, racism, homophobia in the military, and the wasting of trillions of dollars on the evil Pentagon and Department of “War.” During my quiet, non-disruptive protest yesterday, May 15, 2011, I thought of Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century when he described the Brown University 1969 commencement: “Two-thirds of the graduating class turned their backs when Henry Kissinger {then Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs} stood up to address them.” It is in that spirit of non-violent civil disobedience that I sat yesterday as a sign of respect for life and a vision of a future without a militarised, violent, bullying and lawless United States.


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