October 21, 2019
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Patriotism and profits

Nike | via Associated Press
Nike | via Associated Press
This undated product image obtained by the Associated Press shows Nike Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July shoes that have a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle on it, known as the Betsy Ross flag, on them. Nike is pulling the flag-themed tennis shoe after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick complained to the shoemaker, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Yesterday, people across the country came together at parades and barbecues to celebrate 243 years of American democracy. And for good reason.

For all our faults, the American experiment remains an audacious and admirable attempt at self-governance. We are an outlier of freedom in a world history overwhelmingly defined by despotism and oppression.

This week — or yesterday, at least — should have been a reprieve from the division and discord that often defines our political and social discourse. The Fourth of July should be a chance to reflect on our shared values in a free society, to take stock of how lucky we are to enjoy the liberties that we do, and to consider how me move toward a more perfect union.

There are, of course, disagreements about what American should look like and whether we are living up to the principles set forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence ratified July 4, 1776.

But surely our flag can be a unifying symbol during this of all weeks, right?

Wrong. On Tuesday, the flag became the center of an unnecessary culture war skirmish over who truly loves our country and what we stand for.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Nike was pulling the plug on a special edition shoe with an early American flag design attributed to Betsy Ross, due to privately-expressed concerns from Nike brand ambassador Colin Kaeprnick. Apparently the former NFL quarterback-turned-activist found that design sent a problematic message about race in the United States, according to NPR.

A predictable outcry from the political right ensued. Social media lit up like, well, the Fourth of July. Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted that he was looking for a new brand of shoes. Arizona Gov. Steve Ducey said he is moving to withdraw government incentives for a planned Nike manufacturing plant in his state.

When we as a country are squabbling about whether or not a shoe company should include an old version of the American flag on a pair of sneakers, we have officially lost our minds.

Nike probably shouldn’t have been looking to profit off patriotism in the first place, and walking back the “Besty Ross flag” shoes was a mistake that stinks of unnecessary political sensitivity. But spare us the overblown rhetoric about freedom or America being under attack with a bad business decision like this one. Can we all calm down, and have a little perspective?

Nike is welcome to align its business with Kaepernick and his social justice message. And Nike customers and the general public are welcome to adjust their product preferences and purchases accordingly. This is, after all, a free country.

The flag is a symbol of freedom, not freedom itself. The flag can mean different things to different people. Anyone saying differently may be selling something — for profit, or for political gain.

Most of the blame for this week’s blowup can be placed at Nike’s feet. Cowering to concerns that an early American flag is somehow problematic, because slavery existed at the time it was designed, leads us down a long and dangerous road that prioritizes historical revisionism over relativism.

It’s true that America’s imperfect union was built in part on slavery. The freedom we hold dear has not been universally applied throughout our history. That is an ugly legacy that we’ve been wrestling with and, in many ways, ignoring for generations — and we surely must do better. But that action will require convincing skeptics, not catering to the already-woke crowd.

At the end of the day with this most recent flag fight, Nike and their potential customers are free to make their own choices. That’s one of the great things about living in a free America.

Patriotism should be measured in how we honor, defend, enjoy and expand that freedom — not in how we market or monetize it.

 



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