September 25, 2018

Robin Williams Took a Knee

By Marcy Tanter

I was glad to read Savanna Graves’ commentary Sunday. Although I disagree with her perspective, I appreciate that she stated her views with respect.  Her reference to Robin Williams caught my attention and got me thinking about him and the event in which he performed his flag sketch.

Williams’ breakout came in 1978 with the Mork and Mindy TV show, which ended in 1982—the year this sketch was performed. He was enormously popular and was on his way to becoming a major star. I remember being excited when he was going to be on tv because he was just so funny and unlike anyone else around.

The program in which this sketch was featured was titled I Love Liberty and it was created by Norman Lear, famous for producing shows like All in the Family, Maude and many other programs since. Lear was a co-founder, with Barbara Jordan, of People for the American Way, an organization created “to fight right-wing extremism and defend constitutional values under attack” (  ABC television paid for the show with PFAW producing, but also noted that it was not political and was a salute to patriotism.  Lear was careful to include participants from a spectrum of political perspectives, but he was still accused of using the show to promote liberal ideology.  Indeed, the New York Times, in an article that appeared the morning of the broadcast, said:

Although ”I Love Liberty” has styled itself as a non-political and non-controversial salute to such American values as freedom, patriotism and tolerance, Moral Majority officials (who haven’t yet seen the show) have already attacked it as a thinly veiled effort to promote Mr. Lear’s liberal political views.

The show was taped February 10, 1982 and aired on March 21. It was originally going to be shown live on February 22, to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, but ABC had problems working out the technology for what was needed so it was postponed and taped instead. 

Robin Williams was a critic of President Ronald Reagan. His opening monologue for Saturday Night Live on November 22, 1986 was a scathing condemnation of the administration’s policies, for example.  When Williams taped his flag sketch in 1982, 2 years into Reagan’s first term, unemployment was above 9% and the country was battling a recession.  Lear’s tribute to the nation, to liberty and freedom, could go a long way towards convincing the public to keep their faith in the country and to ride out the storm that was bound to end sometime. Williams’ skit was a reminder that the flag is a symbol of the people and their achievements as a nation. Towards the end of the skit, Williams gets down on one knee, stating that (in character as the flag) it’s “not my favorite position because it’s half-mast”.  This position makes him sad, but not angry.  He has spent much of the skit reminding the audience of what the flag has gone through since its creation in 1777. His point is that despite the wars, the spitting, the burning, the flag is a symbol that doesn’t go away, it gets stronger.

I like the idea of kneeling as being half-mast. It’s not a new thing and it’s not a sign of disrespect. It’s a sign that something is wrong in the country, that there are problems we need to resolve so the flag can fly again at full-mast.  Those athletes who are taking a knee do it because they know it’s the best way for them to get people to pay attention, to ask what’s wrong.  It’s more patriotic to take a knee to try to make the nation better than to make statements in newspapers or in interviews that few people see or hear.  The flag is not about the military, it’s the symbol of all of us, of our nation. We all serve under it in all that we do. Robin Williams used his skit to remind his audience that the flag endures when we all endure. We can use this moment in our history not to condemn those who take a knee, but to ask why we’re not able to face our problems and come together to solve them.  Look to yourself and your role in society and ask yourself what you can do for your country; then do it and help those who kneel to stand up.

Marcy Tanter is a long-time resident of Stephenville who is active in local issues.

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