Mari Oliver is my hero. Me and Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Abe Lincoln and so many people of consequence.
Much more consequence than, say, responsible figures at her school who harassed her because she would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance as Texas requires classes to do.
Much more consequence than the lawmakers who made it the law for her to stand and say something she didn’t believe.
Theodore Roosevelt once called the questioning of authority “the first responsibility of every citizen.” The high school senior did that in refusing to stand for the pledge, though slings and arrows flew.
Last week a court awarded her $90,000 for the grief she endured at Klein Oak High in Spring, Texas, when she refused to stand for the pledge.
Oliver said she refused because she doesn’t believe this country guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”
She also objected to “under God,” as this nation isn’t founded “under God.” It is founded under a constitution that gives no special prerogative to believers vs. non-believers.
What the high-schooler did may make your molars ache, like Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. But as Abe Lincoln wrote, “If there is anything that links the human to the divine, it is the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.”
Texas also makes public school students recite the “Texas pledge” – 17 words including “under God.” Never did that recitation make anyone more godly — as if that ever were the state’s function.
The oath says, “honor the Texas flag,” something which also isn’t within the state’s authority. It’s within Vladimir Putin’s authority. It’s within Kim Jung-un’s authority and whichever mullah is running Iran.
The Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that the state – a case involving Texas, nonetheless — had no say in how Americans comport themselves around the U.S. flag. The ruling protected the most unpopular protest one could make: burning the flag.
Not only did the court protect the act, it elevated the status of its protection, as it is speech in protest of the government.
Some like Donald Trump have said we should nuke that constitutional protection. The funny thing is that the “official” ceremonial means of retiring a flag is to burn it in the hands of a veterans organization. Yeah, try writing that into the Constitution.
Those who can’t stand provocative statements like Kaepernick’s, like Mari Oliver’s, like those of Black Lives Matter, bring to mind what Frederick Douglass said about those who “profess to favor freedom yet depreciate agitation.”
The whole effort to use the Constitution to scratch an authoritative itch, like banning flag burning or institutionalizing school prayer, suggests people who don’t value freedom at all. They don’t believe in human rights. They believe in the power of a social majority to inflict its will.
We see this increasingly in the assaults on libraries and public schools that seek to meet the needs of diverse student populations.
Those institutions are brick-and-mortar embodiments of the pluralism the founders intended.
In the recriminations faced by Mari Oliver and protesters of police brutality, we see what Harry Truman had in mind when he said, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures.”
Kaepernick was assailed for hating his country and disrespecting our fighting forces. Yeah, right.
We’ll give the last word to one of the great warriors for civil justice and activism, author James Baldwin:
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.