Colin Kaepernick has done what many an African American has done in America’s long and tumultuous and somewhat ignominious history: made us all look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and centuries of legal precedence in a new light. He has an excellent foil in the vacuous President of the United States, I am ashamed to say. Both representatives of polar-opposite points of view tout patriotism – though of a very different stripe. It’s an interesting, critical, and telling public debate that I suggest we all weigh in on. At best, we can progress toward higher levels of legal, societal, and emotional development if we accept America’s liabilities and mistakes and move forward with dignity and grace.
This is a significant issue. America has a racist past, and even today women, people of color, gays, atheists, and other minorities are not treated to full social justice and equal rights. There is plenty of reason to be proud – patriotic – about America’s long, remarkable history. Much that is great and laudable has been accomplished. But, as Jason Kander, an Afghanistan veteran put it, “Patriotism isn’t about making everyone stand and salute the flag. Patriotism is about making this a country where everyone wants to.”
Jaweed Kaleem wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece: “African American athletes have long grappled with complicated feelings about patriotism as they represent a country that many say hasn’t always fully embraced them. And though challenging patriotism has always been controversial, Kaepernick’s protest comes at a time when views on policing and race have, in many circles, become barometers of one’s commitment to the nation.”
Liberals and conservatives are likely to perceive this, like many other issues along partisan lines. That isn’t to say that neither side’s arguments, feelings, and beliefs don’t hold water. Rather, it is to say that this issue is reflective of myriad issues throughout or mottled history and those who view the world in largely liberal ways see it one way, and social conservatives see it pretty much diametrically differently. Libertarians seem to come down on the side of liberals in this values divide.
Barbara Jordan sums up the liberal point of view on patriotism, liberty, and justice well with this: “What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”
An America as good as its promise. When exactly will we make a concerted effort to make the union about justice for all? If protesting murder by police or someone taking a knee during a game is unacceptable, of course some Americans are never going to permit a liberal person to denounce hate speech, lobby to take down confederate monuments, or consider reparations for slavery. Every act to those people is a bridge too far. Jim Crow! they used to cry, now it’s: You’re lazy if you don’t make a success out of yourself – you have no impediments in the land of the free!
Ever the divisive and demagogic leader, Trump has termed athletes such as Kaepernick “S.O.B.s” and suggest that the principled American find another place to live. Liberals, of course, view the situation as simply a true reflection of the state of justice in America, and do not denounce him for being the messenger. I imagine liberals took similar positions regarding black power salutes at the Olympics, the nefarious goings-on in the Jim Crow South, or unwarranted killings of blacks at the hands of police. “Sports figures have also weighed in: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees accused Kaepernick of insulting a flag that is ‘sacred,’ and which has given him the ‘freedom to speak out,’ while NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar hailed him, saying his stance is ‘truly patriotic,’” Jaweed writes.
I for one do not begrudge athletes, actors, or ethnic minorities the right to take the mic and speak their mind. Though I do have a somewhat aristocratic view of leadership – that athletes are not necessarily wiser or more learned just because they are popular and are frequently interviewed – I do think that we must listen to their voices and not prejudge their views. All Americans have a right to believe what they believe about prejudice, fairness, and equality in America, and professional football players faced as much difficulty in their lives as any other person has (if not more). In fact, any American who earns the ire of the president, and is right, deserves credit – much like the veteran who supports dissent does. “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it,” cautioned Thomas Paine.
“Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers.” ~ Paul Robeson, early Civil Rights pioneer.
Brees calls the flag “sacred.” It raises the question: is it disrespectful of the flag to fail to stand for it? Why must we salute it, pledge to it, or believe that God has blessed America? Doesn’t it feel rather Stalinist to think that we are trained as children to declare obeisance and take an oath of allegiance? It reminds me of the respect Hitler demanded of the flag and associated means of propagandizing the populace. The Red Scare and Joseph McCarthy hounding members of Hollywood and other decent people come to mind. As Kander says, shouldn’t America hold enough promise – justice, freedom, and welfare – that 99% of people truly believe that this country is fantastic? Do you remember the issue of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima? It put the lie to government officials’ honor and character.
Conservatives seem to have the point of view that one should love it or leave it – regardless of what kind of outrageous thing the country is doing on any given day, be it war, the killing of unarmed civilians by law enforcement personnel, bailing out big banks who are too big to fail, or poisoning children and fetuses with lead-ridden water. We are the largest supplier of arms to the world, and currently, our president is engaged in a pissing contest with a tyrannical madman – both of whom have and seem to relish using nuclear weapons. At what point do social conservatives accept that something is wrong with America? Perhaps it is the “greatest country on Earth,” but that is just white-washing and propaganda, I say.
I am proud to live in a country – not that has an embarrassing amount of childhood poverty, millions of people with no health insurance, or more spending on the military than all ten of the runners-up combined; not a country that has twenty trillion dollars in debt and ever-increasing amounts of student loans; not a country that became prosperous by importing and, especially, by breeding slaves; not a country that dropped two bombs on the civilians of Japan in 1945; not one in which Citizen United makes money free speech; not a country where white supremacists gather and tout hate and then pepper spray and kill a protestor; not one where we have more people behind bars than Communist China and Russia.
“It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.” ~ Edmund Burke
No, I am proud to live in a country that has produced hundreds of thousands of soldiers who would fight for the right to have a republican form of government; one in which I am permitted not to stand for the pledge of allegiance; one in which many have fought and died for equality and social justice in a Civil Rights struggle; one in which children can go on to become world-class scientists or writers or astronauts. I’m sorry that America has things about its past we are and should be ashamed of, but as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Even if Kaepernick or anyone else is a total jerk, if they are not preaching violence, they should have an equal right to the respect that soldiers, politicians, teachers, and poets deserve (the foolishness of NFL players’ salary and off-field conduct, aside). I am not saying that every message is equal, but like it or not, America protects free speech, and citizens should not be asked to leave America if they say things peacefully (at times, stridently) that I do not approve of. America is not a country in which one politician or even large numbers of fellow citizens have a right to censor the feelings and beliefs of another. Protection of minority rights. After all, some of the best impulses of citizens began as (numerical) minority perspectives (e.g., Civil Rights for African Americans).
James Madison felt that “The purpose of the Constitution is to restrict the majority’s ability to harm a minority.” Jefferson also noted that: “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasion of it in the case of others.” Just as the founding fathers chose not to make a national religion – essentially, religious freedom – certain religions and even creeds do not sanction sanctifying a symbol of a nation above that of God. Thus, it is misguided that Florida schools are requiring children stand for the national anthem. Sydney Sugarman wisely counseled: “Teach the young how to think, not what to think.” Indoctrination is beneath a democratic-republic such as ours. Freethinking, critical thinking, and originality will get us a lot further if America lives up to its promise than obedience and conformity ever will.
Freethinking, critical thinking, and originality will get us a lot further if America lives up to its promise than obedience and conformity ever will. I believe the highest values we sent young men and women to die for will always be righteousness, liberty, the right to protest, free speech, the Bill of Rights, and emancipation of slaves. Obedience, not so much. Sometimes, struggle is required. Many die trying to get that flag to the top of the hill. “I always believe that struggle and the unleashing of moral energy in the form of moral outrage can make a difference,” noted freedom-fighter,
I want this to be a country in which the president – a bellicose and unscrupulous billionaire born with a silver foot in his mouth – can be a boorish demagogue but cannot jail a conscientious objector like Colin Kaepernick for freely saying: “At this point, I’ve been blessed to be able to get this far and have the privilege of being in the NFL and making the kind of money I make and enjoy luxuries like that. … But I can’t look in the mirror and see other people dying in the street that should have the same opportunities that I’ve had and say, you know what, I can live with myself. Because I can’t if I just watch.”
America is greatest when people are willing to put themselves on the line to go on Freedom Rides in the Jim Crow South, protest the killing of black citizens by cops run amok, plead the Fifth Amendment instead of implicating one’s fellow writers and actors as “Communists,” steal the Planter and deliver it into the hands of the Union Army, point out America’s problem with race while accepting an Academy Award, or the simplest of acts, to kneel when allegiance is required by the state.
I hope desperately that we can find more unity in the future. America has never been a country of shrinking violets, afraid to speak or to protest or to fight. The questions have always been, For what? When? To what extent? For whom? We will fight in the Bastogne in the dead of winter to combat the scourge of Nazism, but will also fight to keep Africans enslaved eternally. “A divided nation invites external and hostile interests ready to exploit the divisions,” the founding father John Jay wrote.
Here are some quotations about patriotism you might enjoy. I welcome you to look up other quotations about patriotism in the Wisdom Archive, a collection of quotations about values, virtues, and ethics. I make all 26,000 quotes available free of charge, and without annoying ads. Enjoy!
“As soon as you speak outside the boundaries, as soon as you say things that are different from what the establishment, the media, and leading intellectuals are telling you to say, the question of your patriotism arises.”
~ Howard Zinn
“Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
~ Adlai Stevenson
“Unless our conception of patriotism is progressive, it cannot hope to embody the real affection and the real interest of the nation.”
~ Jane Addams
“They [the corporations] are counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to stand at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag while they pick your pocket.”
~ Bill Moyers
“Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.”
~ Thomas Paine
Virtue and merit can become their opposites if they are exacted or compelled.”
“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”
“The gospel of the monarchical patriotism is: ‘The King can do no wrong.’ We have adopted it with all its servility, with an important change in the wording: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had – the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he believed them to be in the wrong.”
“The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do.”
“Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.”
~ Emma Goldman
“Patriotism seems too often tied up with war, as though supporting a war proves love of country. During Vietnam we saw how those who supported the war were defined as patriots and those who didn’t were called anti-American.”
~ Alan Colmes
“God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and defend it.”
“Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.”
~ Mark Twain
“We must repair our old ship Liberty with some new sails and masts, starting with the public funding of our elections and thereby the removal of special-interest campaign donations. We must stop our laws from being sold to the highest bidder, and our Congress from turning into a bawdy house where anything and everythingis done for a price.”
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….”
~ George Bernard Shaw
“We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.”
~ Edmund Burke
“You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or who says it.”
“Leakers are often accused of being partisan, and undoubtedly many of them are. But the measure of their patriotism should be the accuracy and the importance of the information they reveal.”
~ Daniel Ellsberg
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
~ Alexis de Tocqueville