You mad, bro? Kneeling and our country.

Photo by Robert Fogarty of Dear World, www.dearworld.me.

I’ve been asked a number of times about my reaction to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. As a veteran who speaks for myself only, here are my thoughts.

I have this tattoo on my back that says Freedom Is Not Free. I got it the summer I left the Army after five years’ service, 27 months of which were spent deployed to Iraq. My service was a transformative experience that taught me a great deal about myself and others, and one that I chose to memorialize in this way.

I chose this phrase because it simply communicates that there is a cost to freedom. In the context of Iraq, that cost was often the life of young Americans who had so much more to live. I knew a handful of them well. In today’s context freedom still has a cost but to understand it, first we’ve got to ask, what is freedom?

Freedom is the ability to post disparaging comments online about our nation’s leader and suffer no legal repercussions. Freedom is the ability to simultaneously believe the world is a violent and unjust place but still get up daily, eat three full meals, earn a living, and waste time on a hobby. Freedom is never knowing the fear that comes from life in perpetual conflict, and freedom is being able to fail a few times and still being offered another chance to get it right.

Strength is a willingness to accept critique in a world where none of us, collectively or individually, is perfect.

This freedom comes with requirements. Freedom requires engagement with the systems that maintain it, while recognizing that the freedom you enjoy is not enjoyed by all of your peers. Sometimes that freedom requires voting, sometimes it requires advocating, sometimes it requires disagreeing, and sometimes it requires protesting.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in a show of protest against the mistreatment of blacks in America, at the hands of police officers sworn to protect them or even more at the hands of a system that subtly disadvantages them in numerous ways.

In response last year and even louder now, many Americans felt this as an attack on our tribe. We are, after all, tribal by our DNA. Our tribal nature helped us defeat wooly mammoths and Nazis, and a member of our tribe who turns his back on us is making a loud critique that is deep, personal, and threatens our identity. And so we see people who’ve been silent on all of the social injustices to date start to speak up in defense of the tribe, attempting to diminish the voice of Kaepernick and all else who might not recognize our tribe as the most exceptional, often by labeling him as ‘unpatriotic,’ a synonym for being kicked out of the tribe.

But this view is borne wholly from insecurity. Strength is a willingness to accept critique in a world where none of us, collectively or individually, is perfect. Lacking that strength, our primitive selves lash out reflexively in an offensive defense against a critique that threatens the tribe’s identity. And that critique is mistakenly understood as an attempt to tear down when in reality, this critique is sustained by a deep belief in the goodness of our tribe, a belief that if we could just call out those injustices with eyes wide open, we could all collectively work to remedy them for the betterment of all tribe members.

How do I feel about professional athletes protesting the anthem? I welcome it, not because it makes me feel good, but because it makes me uncomfortable.

How do I feel about professional athletes protesting the anthem? I welcome it, not because it makes me feel good, but because it makes me uncomfortable. Change doesn’t happen without discomfort, and protests are most effective when they are controversial and they generate conversation. There is a real problem here that is being called out, one centered around systemic racism, and I’m happy to live in a country where people who run around on grass carrying an inflated piece of leather can bring attention to this issue in some way. Systemic racism should make you more uncomfortable than kneeling during the anthem.

So keep kneeling, and thank you for doing so. It makes me uncomfortable, but it does not threaten my sense of identity or my faith in our country. In fact, it reaffirms it. I have friends who’ve worn the uniform who can say “but [fill in the name] fought and bled and died for that flag. Those football players didn’t do shit.” No, dude. No one died for that flag. The flag is a piece of cloth, a symbol of something so much bigger, of our ability to receive honest criticism and our commitment to make ourselves better. We will never grow if we can’t look ourselves in the mirror and honestly acknowledge our faults. Don’t be so scared of imperfection.

In the words of Army veteran Jason Kander, patriotism isn’t about making everyone stand and salute the flag. Patriotism is about making this a country where everyone wants to. Or from West Virginia v. Barnette, 1943, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”