In the last few days, professional football player Colin Kaepernick has made national headlines for refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem before two exhibition games. Kaepernick says he is protesting racial inequality. News outlets and social media have noted the basis for his protest — however meritorious it may be — but far greater attention has been paid to his supposed disrespect of the country, of our military, of our freedom, and basically everything short of mom and apple pie.
My Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts lit up after the protests with soaring accounts of what the flag and the national anthem mean; of the centuries of sacrifice and bloodshed that are represented by those national rituals; of veterans, living and dead, that deserve the respect that comes with honoring the flag and the national anthem. Friends and colleagues waxed poetically about honor and respect.
I agree with much of the sentiment, but the chorus of detractors has the wrong enemy. The threat to the values and freedoms we proclaim to so deeply cherish isn’t an athlete refusing to stand for the national anthem, but, rather, it’s the mindset of those that attack him.
To say that political speech and the freedom to protest are fundamental American values is an understatement. After all, they are enshrined in the First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly. Now, the public debates after these sort of protests have little to do with the Constitution. The freedom of speech contemplated in the First Amendment applies only to federal government action against a speaker. No one (or at least almost no one) is arguing that the player’s protest should be illegal or punished by the government. Kaepernick’s political speech is wholly consistent, however, with a contemporary understanding of freedom and liberty. He can speak his mind, as can his detractors.
We need to make a critical distinction, though, between the content of the player’s protest and the content of those that would brand his protest as unacceptable, un-American, or unpatriotic. In this case, Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem to highlight perceived racial inequality in our country’s justice system. Those that attack his protest aren’t addressing the protest , but, rather, asserting their disdain for the mode of protest. His opponents are asserting a normative argument, advancing the idea that his speech is illegitimate from the get-go because of his violation of a patriotic ritual.
“Patriotism” has a checkered history, all the way back to 1775 when Samuel Johnson is credited with pointing out that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. For every cotton candy and fireworks moment we enjoy on the Fourth of July, there’s a Joe McCarthy, ready to use it as a Sword of Damocles over those that don’t toe the party line. Too often, the accusation of “unpatriotic” is simply a shorthand dismissal of those with which we disagree, a quick-and-easy way to isolate others, ignore them, or privilege our favored position. It’s groupthink, us versus them stuff, and its cavalier employment stands in sharp contrast to our values of freedom of expression and equality.
But all those problems aren’t the most important reason we should stand against those that oppose Kaepernick. Labeling Kaepernick’s protest as un-American or unpatriotic actually devalues the very objects or rituals, such as the flag or the national anthem, his detractors seek to defend. The fundamental values we proclaim to be the bedrock of this country are not threatened because a professional football player did not rise to his feet when a song was played over the loudspeaker. The flag doesn’t mean less, the national anthem doesn’t mean less because someone didn’t stand up, and we should stop acting as if they do. The strength of our country, the strength and enduring nature of the values that bind us are not and cannot be threatened by any individual or group’s use or perceived misuse of sacred totems or rituals. The flag and the national anthem mean so much to so many precisely because we are not forced, shamed, threatened, or ridiculed into honoring them.
I stand with Colin Kaepernick, even if he is not standing. I don’t care about the reason for his protest, but I care deeply that he is free to make it. I will be standing when the national anthem is played, beaming with pride that I live in a country where he doesn’t have to stand if he doesn’t want to. I’ll thrill at the thought that he can argue that our country is not living up to its proclaimed promise, for so much of the world lives in societies where they cannot. Not only should he be free to make his protest, but, if we truly embrace the values we claim, he should be free to make it without patriotic bullies marginalizing him or his ideas. Sure, his detractors are perfectly free themselves to articulate their grievances with his protest, but, if we are throwing around the labels of patriotic and unpatriotic, I know which side I think he’s on.