Last Friday, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem prior to the start of a preseason game. On cue, the madness of the American public rained down on this un-American, unpatriotic feat. Of course, this is nothing new in the 21st century United States; today we are all more than ready to be offended and offer our criticisms of each other’s behaviors whether or not we are involved or affected by any particular action. If you have a particular view that is not widespread — and you are willing to share such a view — you are opening yourself up to a harsh, and likely emotion-driven, response. Following such an exercise of the First Amendment, the name-calling and belittling commenced, and the crowd followed.
Sitting down, turning your back, or perhaps not placing your hand on your heart have become social taboos to the extreme. In so doing, the particular activist or person making a statement sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, a lot of attention is drawn toward the individual. This is where the trouble starts. Based on the national discussion over the last several days, a non-uniform posture during such a patriotic moment is unacceptable, disrespectful, and even despicable. We must ask ourselves why. We are supposedly a tolerant, first-world, forward-looking people that are open to having open and constructive dialogue (supposedly because we are the world’s sole superpower, and thus it seems a reasonable expectation). Yet we have apparently succumbed to propaganda so fierce that Joseph Goebbels would show his deepest admiration. Why is it that making a political statement, which equates to communicating a message of discontent, is met with such derision?
One argument I’ve heard aplenty in a matter of 24 hours has been that making a statement or standing up for what you believe in is justified, but that an NFL football game is neither the time nor the place. The basis for the argument, of course, is that making such a political statement in such a setting equates to spitting on the face of a member of the military, or perhaps worse, on the face of the mother or father of a dead soldier. This is, of course, a ridiculous argument; the American flag is a symbol of our nation’s history, and it should be understood that it is indeed a representation of living in a free society. Technically-speaking, Americans that fought in the American Revolution fought for independence from the British in order to secure freedom from a tyrannical government. Indicating displeasure with the current state of affairs in the United States is quite far-removed from the context of 1776, and such displeasure should in fact be viewed as a true showing of patriotism.
This, of course, is where confusion is profound. A patriot is not the same thing as a lover of freedom. A lover of freedom supports the freedom of speech, the indiscriminate treatment of people under the law, and the ability to pursue whatever kind of life he or she sees fit. A lover of freedom understands that equally important to his or her freedom is the freedom enjoyed by everybody else. A patriot, on the other hand, is one who wholeheartedly supports his or her country, which more appropriately means one that supports the actions and stances of his or her government. At some point in our country’s history, these terms were interchangeable. I would argue that today those words refer to very different concepts.
The national discussion has largely been one of disgust, but also of confusion. “In what kind of society are we living that our fellow citizens don’t share our love of country?” First of all, it is important to distinguish between the government in Washington, D.C. and the “country.” The country consists of pioneers, entrepreneurs, athletes, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, engineers, students, and a continued inexhaustible list of occupations. The country also consists of mountains, valleys, deserts, forests, rivers, oceans, sun, and snow. Most of all, however, we share culture — food, language, values, and hobbies. The phrase “love of country,” on the other hand, implicitly refers to love of the American government. There cannot be too many people that can appreciate such a sentiment. Reflecting on the last decade, a few governmental mishaps come to mind: Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Libya, Syria, as well as drone strikes in Yemen killing civilians and the disastrous pursuit of the war on drugs. Kaepernick, of course, was bringing further attention to the Black Lives Matter movement — the belief that this is an illegitimate movement, incidentally, is another reason for all the backlash. I believe it is quite fair to say that the American government has had its plentiful share of shortcomings. The point remains: there is country, and there is government.
Beyond the national anthem, there has also been discussion — even preceding last Friday’s game — about the choice of whether or not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms. There are two important points here: (1) the context in which the pledge was created, and (2) the actual meaning of the words in the pledge. The first point is that a socialist minister wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 — a socialist! Additionally, the pledge was practiced in such a manner that each person would outstretch his or her hand toward the flag upon the conclusion of the pledge. During WWII, this practice was changed to placing the hand of the heart instead, so as to not look so similar to the Nazi salute. We learn in school that one of the grave dangers that led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany was extreme and blind nationalism; this should be reflected upon before continuing to label people with nasty terms. The second point is that the pledge suggests a binding commitment to fight on behalf of your country’s government, even if that government has drastically changed its values over two centuries. There are now certain schools that are allowing students to “opt out” of taking part in the pledge. This should be viewed as a healthy occurrence, just as we have come to view the actions of The Greatest during the Vietnam War. It is okay to have political disagreements, as long as they are based on reason and not emotion.
Once more, the widespread division among the American people is coming to the fore. It is hard to say whether or not this will lead to further civil unrest. But do keep in mind that the refusal to stand during the national anthem is exactly the kind of action that Mahatma Gandhi espoused: non-violent political action. If you have a differing view, fight back — fight back with reasoned argument that is free of emotion. Whatever the case, do not buy into the double standard maintained by the madness of crowds.
Also published on Medium.