Let’s Formulate A Working Definition of “Patriotism?”

Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit down during the national anthem before his team’s football game. Observing the quarterback’s refusal to stand for the pre-game ritual, members of the media asked why. His response was pretty straightforward:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Predictably, Kaepernick’s actions generated a firestorm. Reactions ranged from general support to criticism of style to criticism of Kaepernick, with charges of “ungrateful” “spoiled,” and “brat” mixed in. Some felt so strong about it, they used all three adjectives! What has united much of the disapproval has been indignation at the quarterback’s decision to sit during the national anthem.

“Kaepernick might have a point” some say, “but protesting the anthem is a slap in the face to all the men and women that died defending his right to make millions of dollars throwing a football.” If we are being honest, however, many of these critics haven’t shown any concern for the issue of police brutality at all, rendering their judgements hollow. It is difficult to take a criticism seriously when the critic has not demonstrated any passing interest in the matter at hand.

For instance, I have no interest in needlework. You won’t catch me talking about the subject, reflecting on it, or likely speaking to people that do. I don’t get to show up to Celebration of Needlework (a convention of needlework devotees — yes that is a thing) and expect conference attendees to seriously engage with my opinions on cross stitch patterns. That’s not how this works.

There is something larger at stake here, however, and its centered on patriotism, how we define it, and who we designate as patriots. While many keep drawing attention away from Kaepernick’s objective, it is important to remember that he made his decision out of political commitment. Implied in the scolding of Kaepernick’s position is the idea that holding America to account is a form of anti-Americanism. Pointing out that the United States has a vicious legacy of anti-black violence, according to some, is forsaking the many that have “died for the freedoms we all have.”

However, if such a position is anti-American, then what exactly is the ‘pro-American” stance? And what do we make of the bizarre leap that many have made in connecting troop support with the Star Spangled Banner, a song with its own racist history? What is America? Who are these people that have “died for our freedoms?” Does this tally include Nat Turner, Harriette Moore, John Brown, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the four little girls?

If we grant that the legacy of freedom fighting in the United States consists of challenging the nation to live up to its own ideals, then Kaepernick is part of a grand tradition. Violence directed towards people of color is a core American issue, and using an American symbol like the national anthem as a platform to voice dissent is perfectly rational.

To connect Kaepernicks’s refusal in standing for the anthem to what he thinks about the troops is akin to claiming that people who choose not to eat fast food do not support fast food workers. It’s cheap, disingenuous, and beside the point. The core issue one might have with fast food does not concern employees, and is likely connected to the quality and health implications of fast food.

The fundamental problem with this discussion, however, is that ‘America’ as it is defined, is being used as a proxy for the status quo. The same status quo that is marked by militarism, wealth inequality, white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, and hatred of LGBTQ. It then follows that if one tries to challenge any of these systems, one is labeled “anti-American.” The genius of such posturing is that by cloaking right-wing politics with the veneer of the American flag, status quo ideologues are able to insulate themselves from critique and assume the ‘moral position.’

It’s what allowed opponents of the Iraq war to be labeled anti-American, with the obvious corollary that supporting the war was pro-American. It’s why Donald Trump’s campaign, with its endless criticisms of the nation, does not get labeled anti-American. Because in our upside down world, endorsing misogyny and xenophobia exempt you from charges of treachery, but calling for peace merits questions about one’s patriotism.

It’s clear then that we need a reworking of our notion of patriotism. One that does not center itself in hollow nationalism, but concerns itself with justice for all people, particularly the most vulnerable and oppressed. Patriotism rooted in courage that is willing to hold the nation to account, no matter the cost. After all, we owe it to all the people that that died for the freedoms that we enjoy.