“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
-James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes”
A large swath of the population has begun to define patriotism as unquestioning loyalty. Criticism of our society or our leadership, they claim, is an expression of hatred for our country and therefore must not be tolerated. Acknowledging that this country is not perfect, they assert, is not a simple exercise of free speech. It is tantamount to treason.
America was founded on the notion that all men are created equal and that every citizen should have a voice, but many have apparently decided to renegotiate the terms of that arrangement. These people are typically quick to refer to their constitutional rights (particularly their right to free speech) when their views are challenged, yet for all their professed love of the Constitution, they demonstrate a willingness to disregard it when others attempt to avail themselves of its protection.
A perversion of American values is taking place.
In August 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick raised eyebrows when he refused to stand for the national anthem before a preseason game. Asked to explain his actions after the game, Kaepernick said he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. […] There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and people getting away with murder.”
From the moment it began, the purpose of Kaepernick’s protest was to call attention to the ongoing epidemic of police officers murdering unarmed black men and women. It was not a declaration of hatred for America, nor was it a condemnation of the troops. It was much more simple than that: America has a problem with systemic racism, it’s gone on too long, and something needs to be done. In fact, Kaepernick eventually chose to kneel instead of remaining seated on the bench specifically because he didn’t want his protest to be taken as disrespect for the military.
For his troubles, Kaepernick is currently unemployed, and despite whatever excuses teams have offered for passing him over in favor of far less talented quarterbacks, it’s become clear that Kaepernick has effectively been blackballed from the league for his politics. But the protests did not stop upon Kaepernick’s departure from the NFL; more and more players are kneeling during the anthem in the hopes of continuing to draw attention to the racial inequalities in this country. Until recently, this debate remained largely consigned to the sports world, but that all changed Friday night when President Trump decided to weigh in with his take on things.
At a rally in Alabama, Trump told his assembled devotees that kneeling for the national anthem “disrespect[s] our heritage.” Trump continued: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.”
Leaving aside the obvious questions (why is Trump holding rallies in Alabama when Puerto Rico is in desperate need of humanitarian aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria? For that matter, why is Trump still holding rallies?), Trump’s comments were problematic for two reasons. First and foremost, the president cannot, under any circumstances, attempt to stifle the peaceful protests of private citizens by publicly strong-arming their employers. And to be clear, that’s exactly what he’s doing. (18 U.S. Code, § 227: “Whoever, being a covered government person, with the intent to influence, solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation, an employment decision or employment practice of any private entity…”)
Second, Trump and those who agree with him are categorically wrong on a crucial point of this debate: athletes who kneel during the national anthem are not protesting the anthem, nor are they disrespecting the flag. But don’t take my word for it — take it from 36 U.S. Code, Chapter 10, Section 176 (“Respect for Flag”):
- The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part
of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word,
figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in
(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or
Also in 4 U.S. Code, Chapter 389, Section 1: “The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be [fifty] stars, white in a blue field.” (Pick up your Blue Lives Matter American flag today.)
During the playing of the national anthem, there is nothing in the U.S. Code that requires citizens to stand — they should, but it is not a requirement. But of course, the anger of Trump and his supporters isn’t rooted in respect for the flag, nor is it about honoring our veterans; if Trump cared that deeply about the flag, he wouldn’t plaster its likeness all over the tacky garbage he peddles on his website. And if he were so concerned about our troops, Trump likely wouldn’t have tapped Steven “This is about respect for our military” Mnuchin, who foreclosed on 54 families of active-duty veterans in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003, to serve as Treasury Secretary.
This is nothing more than a conservative attempt to derail a necessary debate by ginning up outrage over something that isn’t even part of the equation, thereby allowing them to reframe the discussion in terms that are more suitable to them. Instead of having to defend systemic racism, they only have to defend the nebulous concept of “patriotism” and “The Troops.” Instead of taking a moment to seriously assess whether these athletes have a point, they complain about how “ungrateful” these athletes are, as though these individuals are required to do nothing but display their athletic abilities for our enjoyment.
They marshal wounded or fallen service members to support their argument. They do so while ignoring the fact that many veterans support Kaepernick’s choice, and many are not comfortable with their service or sacrifice being diminished in service of a cheap political argument. As with immigration, these people are illegitimately claiming the title of True Americans, as though America wasn’t founded entirely on an ideology of questioning the status quo.
Kneeling for the anthem does not symbolize what many conservatives claim it does. And as long as they choose to ignore that fact, the protests will continue. Respect is not freely given, it is earned — if you want everyone to be proud of America, give them a reason. But if you think yourself a patriot because you salute the flag, you misunderstand the ideals upon which the nation was founded.
Craven submission to authority is not a sign of patriotism. Dissent is.