Lately I’ve been increasingly alarmed by “patriotism” or at least what is passing as patriotism. Instead of a unifying love of and commitment to country, today’s patriotism seems terrifyingly zealous, unquestioning, and shallow.
In mainstream media, on social media, and as part of everyday interactions, people are exhibiting appallingly aggressive and divisive behavior in the name of patriotism. Over-the-top name calling, ridiculous personal insults, and even death threats are the responses to acts as simple as not standing for the National Anthem or supporting someone who makes that choice.
As pretty much the entire world knows at this point, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to remain seated during the National Anthem at a pre-season game. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said, via NFL.com.
Here’s the deal: I don’t care about football. In fact, there isn’t much I care less about than football. Admitting indifference toward football in Seattle these days is akin to blasphemy. With Seahawks fever raging, I’ve gotten used to the sideways glances I get on “Blue Friday” when I’m conspicuously not wearing any Seahawks gear – no blue and green hair ribbons, no face decals, no tiny little “12s” painted on my fingernails. I do own one Seahawks t-shirt that I break out of deep storage for special occasions (i.e. when my ten year old son insists.) Despite my long-standing disinterest in the sport, I will confess that having my hometown team win the Super Bowl was pretty fun. It was enjoyable to watch the games with my son and to see the community participate in all the hoopla.
Thanks to the Seahawks, I have a very cursory understanding of what the football fuss is all about. But now there is a whole new category of fuss over football; my Facebook feed has switched from general excitement about the season beginning and trash-talking between fans of rival teams to a political uproar over players refusing to stand for the National Anthem.
Kaepernick chose to remain seated to bring attention to a cause he cares about, and, since then, a number of other NFL players have either joined him in sitting/kneeling, or engaged in other shows of solidarity like linking arms or raising fists. (Kaepernick apparently switched from sitting to kneeling in an effort to communicate his message while still showing respect for the military, police, and country.) Still, many people perceive Kaepernick’s actions as unpatriotic (“perceive” being the key word.) These people have gotten very angry. My own social media-sphere has examples of threatening and hateful comments directed toward these NFL players and anyone who dares to agree with them.
This conversation (and conversation is a stretch given that it’s more like a screaming match) is missing an important distinction between ‘method’ and ‘meaning.’ I don’t necessarily agree (or for that matter, disagree) with Colin Kaepernick’s method of making the statement he’s making. I do believe that the issue he’s highlighting is meaningful to our society and requires civil attention and dialogue. What’s more, I definitely agree that he has the right to express himself and to try to affect change. And I don’t think doing so makes him unpatriotic.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patriotism as “love for or devotion to one's country.” It doesn’t say anything about standing for the National Anthem – that’s a symbol of devotion to country. Symbols are important ways for us to understand and express abstract ideas and concepts, but it becomes problematic when the symbol takes precedence over what it represents. Couldn’t choosing to kneel during the National Anthem as a method of calling attention to an important national issue be interpreted as love for and devotion to one’s country? I don’t know whether it’s the “right” method and it certainly can’t be the only method, but ultimately these football players are trying to create positive change for our country.
It’s a complicated issue to be sure, one that deserves respectful acknowledgement and conversation, not racial slurs and threats. Now, I’m sure some would argue that the NFL players don’t really care about anything more than calling attention to themselves for personal gain and satisfaction. Believe me, I’m the first to roll my eyes at the over-inflated egos and paychecks of professional athletes. I’m just using this example to talk about the bigger issue of American patriotism being alarmingly warped and out of control.
Sometime during junior high, I won an essay contest that was sponsored by a local service organization. My memory of the ‘when’ and ‘who’ details is a bit fuzzy, but I remember the ‘what’ clearly. We were to explore and take a stand on whether or not burning the American flag should be a crime. My pre-teen brain, confused though it undoubtedly was, immediately recognized this question as a complicated and sticky one.
It is important to note that my K-12 schools, while beloved in my memories, were not bastions of educational rigor. There were some stand-out moments, as well as teachers I appreciate to this day, but I had more than one high school class that consisted almost entirely of completing word-finds and crossword puzzles. The teacher of another class literally read the answers the day before the test; all you had to do was memorize “1. A, 2. C, 3. E…” etc. It was essentially possible to ace the class without having any knowledge of the subject matter. My best friend and I resorted to creating a race on test day – our aim was to see who could fill in the pre-memorized multiple choice answers fastest and leap to the front of the room to be the first to turn in the test.
My point is that maybe I have such a vivid memory of the essay contest because it was one of the few serious papers I was ever required to write in my pre-college education. But even more than that, I remember being struck by the instructions… They not only offered an invitation, but a directive, to think for myself – to think carefully about a weighty topic. So I did. I thought and wrote, and thought and wrote, and thought and wrote. I struggled through quite a few days and drafts figuring out what I really believed and wanted to say.
I still have the essay in a box that has been packed away; I wish I had access to it now so I could include some actual quotes, but I remember the gist. I basically said the same thing I’m saying here, 30 years later… That despite not liking the idea or sight of people burning the American flag, I don’t think it should be a crime or grounds for threatening retaliatory behavior.
At first I considered the flag “just a piece of fabric,” but as I kept thinking and writing, I realized that wasn’t quite true. The American flag is more than a piece of fabric; it’s a symbol, just like the National Anthem is more than just a song. These symbols are important pieces of our collective culture. Over generations we’ve imbued them with layers of meaning that help us understand and represent ourselves.
My essay suggested that the flag burning issue was a classic case of symbol vs. what the symbol stands for. The symbol stands for liberty and freedom. It stands for a country that is great because it allows us to both revere and burn our flag. I argued, in my young way, that true patriotism wasn’t simply waving a flag, but standing up for the principals the flag represents. I thought that if someone was angry enough or dissatisfied enough to burn a symbol of our country and freedom, they must have something meaningful to say and that we should listen.
I submitted my essay somewhat cautiously, knowing that my thoughts might not be popular with everyone. I figured what the judges probably wanted to hear was how terrible it is to burn the flag and that it should definitely be considered a crime. I didn’t think there was even a remote possibility that I would win, but I did.
I attended an awards ceremony where I received a certificate and a little sparkly American flag lapel pin. I kept the pin in my jewelry box over the years. I never wore it, but it made me smile. Every time I saw it, I remembered how hard I worked on the essay and that the best award was what I learned through my own thought process.
Unfortunately, many years later, I finally had an occasion to wear my flag pin. It was with deep sadness, fear, and yes, patriotism, that I removed it from its place in my jewelry box and affixed it to my jacket after September 11, 2001. I wore it for weeks, maybe even months, before tucking it safely back into my jewelry box. I love the pin. Not because it’s particularly pretty or valuable, but because it’s an important symbol to me on both patriotic and personal levels.
Patriotism isn’t about shouting “God bless America” the loudest or waving a flag the hardest – those things are easy to do. True patriotism is hard; it not only invites us, but requires us to think critically, and to truly honor our symbols by seeing beyond them to the values and principles they represent and to behave accordingly, even if that means the symbols themselves get a little banged up in the process. They’ll always be there, waiting to do their symbolic work, just like the little flag pin in my jewelry box. But if we forget or ignore our responsibility to the underlying values and principles, there won’t be any reason left for their existence.