Sweet land of liberty

By Steve St. Clair, Decorah

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There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t tangle with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. But a recent unfair attack on the patriotism of local public servants by Decorah Newspapers’ Editor Kate Klimesh cannot go unchallenged. (See Klimesh’s “My country ‘tis of thee,” 7/27/23 Public Opinion)

Background: Supervisor Steve Kelsay recently claimed that our county was “one of the few” that didn’t begin meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. (Fact check: In our area alone, meeting minutes indicate no pledge in Howard, Fayette, Clayton, Chickasaw, Dubuque, Floyd, Mitchell, Delaware, Hardin, Iowa, Jones, Benton, Clinton, Cedar, Marshall, Muscatine, Linn, Cerro Gordo, and Black Hawk Counties, among others.) Chair Dan Langreck then announced that “we should all recite the pledge” and called upon “everyone” to do so. (This, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s Barnette ruling that it is unconstitutional for government officials to compel the pledge.)

Klimesh’s subsequent editorial describes our community as a place where friendly people wave to one another and work together. But she notes that her “quiet corner of paradise” was disrupted by “odd” behavior when, at the July 24th meeting, two Supervisors “stood hands down, with lips still for the entire pledge.” And, although Klimesh could have made her point without divisively calling out individuals, she was quick to name names: Shirley Vermace and Mark Faldet.

Klimesh says she “didn’t get a chance” to ask Faldet about it, but did ask Vermace. Vermace responded: “I recite it in my head and in my heart, Everyone does it in their own way. I’m a strong advocate of this democracy.” While this might have satisfied anyone else, not so Klimesh. Setting aside her supposed commitment to cooperative, unified communities, Klimesh posed a series of questions that let her make dark insinuations without stating clear positions. She asked whether “we as a nation [are] past the pledge,” and whether it’s common to “simply change a person’s pledge to the flag to be whatever one wants to believe in.” Mind you, Vermace had stood respectfully for the pledge and had not in any way indicated that she was “past the pledge” or that she required different wording; she had just said she recites it in her head and heart. But that wasn’t good enough for Klimesh.

Klimesh tells us that saying the pledge is “my own personal way to remember all that our Veterans have given,” and she cites the U.S. Flag Code as her pledge authority. But that Code directs people to be “standing at attention facing the flag” during the pledge. How was Klimesh able to focus her attention resolutely on the flag, her mind fixed (as she tells us) on Veterans, and still monitor others’ lip movements during “the entire pledge”? Maybe Klimesh was more interested in shallow political gamesmanship than in using the pledge the way she claims, as a “reminder to do my part in making things better.” The Flag Code also prohibits the use of the stars and stripes as apparel or for promotional purposes. Some prominent political movements routinely violate this prohibition, but I can’t recall Klimesh calling them out.

Klimesh says the “odd” behavior at the Supervisor meeting made her wonder whether “the division of the nation had come” to her corner of paradise. But for many of us, the nation’s division made its ugliness known locally when, shortly before the Supervisor election in August 2021, Klimesh printed a letter attacking a candidate, and then printed the same attack letter a second time just a few days before the close election. Many long-time newspaper readers had never before witnessed such an egregiously unfair and divisive editorial decision.

Klimesh’s eagerness to challenge Vermace’s patriotism is especially unseemly given Vermace’s solid and extensive record of public service, a record which Klimesh may be hard pressed to match. But Klimesh evidently judges the patriotism of those around her by focusing on “odd” superficialities, rather than the contributions they make.

Fair-minded people who care about unifying values are slow to question others’ patriotism. There are many reasons why some who dearly love our country might not say the pledge. Their religions may forbid it (as do Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and Unitarians, among others). Or they may be uncomfortable marginalizing members of religions that do forbid it. Or they may make their pledges in their heads or hearts. Such people’s love of country should not be subjected to public attacks by anyone, and particularly not by a newspaper editor who congratulates herself on her commitment to unity and “making things better.”

P.S. I’m not wild about spending $200+ to get these words in Klimesh’s paper. But when I tried to appeal to her sense of fairness, asking her to accept (gratis) a response to her editorial the same length as the editorial, she said no – an unpaid response to her 630 word editorial would be limited to 300 words.

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