I was excited to meet the Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives. Our delegation of young political leaders from the United States were invited guests of the New Zealand Parliament. It was a unique honor and privilege to attend a live session of the House and meet personally with the Speaker in his ceremonial office in Wellington.
As part of our group’s appreciation for each official meeting we had set, we traveled with unique gifts from our respective home states. I was proud of the “ldaho” gifts I had prepared to present. Neatly wrapped and attached to a note I had written early that morning, I was sure my gift would be pleasantly received.
We spent the time we had with the Speaker on introductions and covering a few broad topics and then, after taking photographs, we presented our bag of gifts.
We spent the remainder of the day visiting the Ministry of Education, the Government House in Wellington, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa before returning for the reception with the Speaker and invited staff from the American Embassy.
When we arrived, the Speaker welcomed us back and then started telling us how he had started going through the gifts we had presented and was repulsed by the sexist poster of Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack!
How could he possibly hang such a thing in his office at Parliament? Perhaps it was bold for me to deliver this gift to him, considering his membership in the Liberal party and overwhelming offense to anything that could possibly be construed as objectifying women.
To me, the Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack photo is iconic and classy and represents beauty from the person more than the outfit. A life-size image stands in the foyer of the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot.
Visitors from around the world frequently snap photos with her as they enter the museum. I remain unapologetic for presenting a symbol of American culture and beauty. And I’m just talking about the potatoes!
It was entertaining and somewhat redeeming when at the end of the trip another member of Parliament, and another political party, had heard about the potato sack poster and the notable exchange with the Speaker and specifically requested a copy for her office.
I believe symbols matter. So does context and history. When then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse in 2015, she said “This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”
This decision came on the heels of one the greatest tragedies in the state when a white supremacist shooter entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston and massacred nine African Americans in an effort to start a “race war.”
We should be critical and protective of the use and representations of American and religious symbols and attacks on their historical value and the lessons they teach. Recently the U.S. Supreme Court held that a 40-foot Maryland cross can stand as a war memorial after a challenge that it unconstitutionally favored a religion and was a Christian symbol.
Speaking for the court, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said “Retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones.” This is a victory and a precaution for future religious freedom and its representations.
Recently Nike hastily pulled its intended release of its Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July sneaker. Apparently this move came after former NFL star and National Anthem kneeler Colin Kaepernick expressed displeasure with the shoe displaying a version of the “Betsy Ross flag” with 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars to represent the original U.S. colonies.
The flag was used during slavery. Each person gets to decide whether they are offended by the Betsy Ross flag, or Nike’s decision, but they won’t be choosing whether to wear it on their Nike shoes as we celebrate our nation’s independence this year.
I hope this year through all of the parades and fireworks, barbecues with family and friends, and other gatherings, that we find time to celebrate the real symbols of freedom and individual and religious liberty, including our Star-Spangled Banner, that we have used as a symbol of the 50 United States since 1960.
Nike can remove the 13-star version from its shoes, but it cannot erase its part in our American story and the strides we have made forward and backward since that time.
I am thankful for the new controversy surrounding a version of our old flag this week so we can reflect on its meaning and value. For the same reason, I’m thankful to have been questioned by the Speaker of the New Zealand House for my taste in gifts.
Dustin Manwaring is a business and estate planning attorney in Pocatello and served in the Idaho Legislature from 2016-2018.