In 2016, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest during a pre-game playing of the National Anthem, he set off a firestorm of controversy that illuminated the deepest divisions in our society.
On one side are super-patriots (or those pretending to be) who have expressed outrage over the protests staged by Kaepernick and many players who subsequently followed suit. Chief among them has been President Trump who stirred nationalistic fervor at a campaign rally in Alabama last fall by saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, `Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!’”
On the other side are those who ardently support the movement that Kaepernick started. In November GQ Magazine named Kaepernick “Citizen of the Year,” calling him “a powerful symbol of activism and resistance.”
As you might expect, I’m squarely in the latter camp for two reasons. First, I agree with the sentiment behind the protests: More than 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement our nation remains afflicted by profound and insidious racism compounded by willful denial of this problem throughout much of white America.
But let me be clear: I would support these protests even if I disagreed with the protestors’ position. There is a reason, after all, that the protection of our right to freedom of expression is first among guarantees spelled out in the Bill of Rights. Our Founding Fathers knew that without this freedom all others would be meaningless.
There are those who counter-argue, of course, that First Amendment does not guarantee freedom from consequences. But this argument is based on a reductionist and legalistic understanding of the Amendment. As I’ve argued before in many columns here and elsewhere, the vitality of our democracy depends upon our willingness to embrace not only the letter but the spirit of this all-important Constitutional protection.
In calling for punishment for the kneeling players, Trump and his minions are violating that spirit.
In many cases, they are also engaging in blatant hypocrisy. When I was a child, far fewer people hung flags outside their homes. And those who did tended to adhere quite strictly to the regulations of United States Flag Code, which stipulated that flags should only be flown from sunrise to sunset, should never touch the ground and should be retired after they become tattered. Moreover, it was considered both a violation of the code and generally unpatriotic to wear flags or flag-patterns on clothing. Somewhere along the line, these ritualistic observances went out the window. Today many people seem to think that the more ostentatious your flag displays, the more patriotic you are. Thus we have American-flag hats and bikinis and cheap plastic flags placed on lawns by the dozens. Recently on Facebook, I even saw a photograph of a “patriotic” man sitting on an American flag as if it were a picnic blanket. All of this has immeasurably cheapened both the flag and the “patriotism” that it supposedly represents.
Kaepernick and his followers, by contrast, are engaging in real patriotism by exercising their right to dissent—an idea that lies at the very heart of our nation’s founding. Patriotism means absolutely nothing, after all, if it is forced upon the people of a country, whether by law, peer pressure or the brain-washing inherent in the requirement that young children recite the Pledge of Allegiance before they can possibly understand a word of it. If it is to mean anything, it must come from each individual’s heart after deep reflection and study.
True patriotism, moreover, is not blind devotion. True patriotism must be accompanied by a willingness to confront the many ways in which our country has fallen short of its founding ideals—and the many ways in which it continues to do so. Thus, reactionaries who want to rewrite history books to downplay slavery and the genocide of American Indians are missing the point: It is they who are turning their backs on the American ideal of continuously striving to be better.
Above all, the great irony here is that people who’ve expressed outrage over protests during the anthem are essentially saying that our country is too weak to tolerate dissent. They should be reminded that this fear of dissent has been the primary characteristic of totalitarian societies throughout the world.
In saying all of this, I don’t mean to imply that people should be compelled to like what the protestors are doing. But they should not be calling for punishment. As the great Noam Chomsky once put it, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."
For my part, I have always embraced this idea. I don’t like it, for example, when neo-Nazis march; but many years ago, I joined the American Civil Liberties union precisely because I admired the organization’s courage in fighting for the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill. Nazism is blatantly un-American. But as American citizens, we all have the right to express our beliefs so long as we’re not infringing on the rights of others by doing so.
If those who are outraged over the protests understood the power of sincere patriotism they would simply stand with their hands over their hearts and sing more fervently, as a kind of counter protest.
Alas, their faith in the American experiment seems to have faded. Like religious fundamentalists who seem to regard God as too impotent to withstand expressions that are “sacrilegious,” mindless “patriots” are saying that the freedoms we have long cherished—freedoms for which millions of have died—are no longer sustainable. To them, our only hope seems to lie in the imposition of an oppressive nationalism that is directly at odds with the traditional symbolism of the flag and the nation for which it stands.