It’s not news that Republicans have a hard time connecting with young people, often seen as the party of old white people who care little for those who view themselves as marginalized. First-generation American and State Senator Janet Nguyen (R-34) has an excellent opportunity to tell a powerful story and connect with young people in a way very few Republicans can. Unfortunately, so far, she is blowing it.
I am referring to the dust up at UC Irvine over the attempt by six college kids to ban the the American flag from being flown in the lobby of some student government offices. An attempt that was roundly, swiftly and officially denied by the university in very strong terms. Not content to applaud the UCI students and officials that denied the request of the handful who condemned the flag as representative of “colonialism and imperialism,” Nguyen and several of her colleagues decided to go nuclear on the whole idea of the flag not being flown on university campuses by proposing a state constitutional amendment to ban, well, flag banning.
Senator Nguyen’s official biography on her website chronicles a lot of firsts: the first woman to represent Orange County’s First Supervisorial District, the first Asian-American and the first Vietnamese-American to serve on that county’s Board of Supervisors, the first woman Councilmember elected in nearly 35 years in Garden Grove. She is also the highest ranking Vietnamese-American woman elected official in the United States. Heady stuff and a list of accomplishments perfect for a crowd of college students who are especially attuned to compelling stories of women and minority firsts.
Her biography also tells of her family’s brave escape from Saigon and her travels through a series of refugee camps before arriving in the United States. So it’s not surprising that she would quickly come to the defense of a flag that, for her and her family, is the ultimate symbol of freedom. It’s the knee-jerk, ironic way she has come to its defense, however, that is at the heart of the missed opportunity. Instead of reaching out to the students and offering to share her and her family’s story as a way to educate, influence and convince (things politicians used to love to do), she has offered dismissal, condemnation and the heavy hand of official sanction.
Here and elsewhere in the world there is often found a deep and abiding reverence for our flag. It’s the flag worn on the uniform of men and women who helped liberate much of Western Europe from the Hitler’s tyranny in World War II. More global humanitarian assistance has been provided under our flag than under any other in the world over the last decade. It is also the flag around which a nation rallied after the 2001 attacks on our homeland.
But let’s not be naive. It’s also the flag that was flying when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps. And as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, it’s the flag that officially sanctioned the oppression of black Americans for a century after the Civil War. While not examples of colonialism or imperialism, they are shameful examples from our recent past.
Our country’s history is complicated and our flag represents each and every one of those complications. But at it’s heart, the flag represents our right and freedom to question, probe, argue and disagree without fear of government retribution.
Senator Nguyen has an opportunity to use her compelling personal narrative to convince others to embrace that complicated history – and its symbol – as one of our greatest strengths as a nation. Her powerful story of triumph can remind students of that unique ability in a way very few Republicans can. So far, she’s chosen the path that reinforces all the negative stereotypes of heavy hands and tin ears that students are used to from Republicans. Here’s hoping she reconsiders.
Chris Bertelli is a public affairs and communications consultant in Sacramento