I’m an American. I tear up over Pearl Harbor footage, I swell with pride reading the Declaration of Independence, I am fiercely independent, and I believe freedom is the highest good. But I still don’t get it.
I’m referring to the disturbing Nationalism sweeping our country, the dangerous Nationalism encouraged and flouted by our own president. I’m talking about the sacralization of our National Anthem and our flag.
Certainly, everyone does seem to be in an uproar over, first, the fact that some NFL players, beginning with Colin Kaepernick one year ago, were “taking a knee” during the National Anthem in protest over police brutality, specifically aimed at African American men. Next, people were incensed over Donald Trump stirring up his base in true Trump fashion, suggesting that we would just love it if one of these NFL owners said, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired! Fired!” (Criss). Of course, Trump could not help tweeting on Saturday, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect….” and “…our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” (Criss).
And now, some Americans are furious that several NFL players locked arms in solidarity during the anthem at yesterday’s games. In true American rebel fashion, #TakeaKnee became an instant trending hashtag across social media because, as all Americans know, when someone tries to interfere with your freedom, particularly your freedom of speech, you respond by doing exactly the opposite of what the presumptuous offending party told you to do, especially when he’s an authority figure. Nothing could be more American.
So, why do so many other Americans have a problem with this response? Apparently, this is a common symptom of Nationalism, and a result of sacralizing our symbol of freedom. By sacralizing our symbol for freedom, we condemn the very freedom we say we love.
Let’s back up for a second. Our flag is a symbol for our country, which embodies many ideals, most commonly freedom, independence, and determination. We feel pride when flying our flag, not because the flag has actual value, but because it represents something we believe is real—something about American character and values. When we say that soldiers died defending our flag, this is a metonym for our country’s ideals and way of life. It is a piece of cloth. It is not actually our country.
Yet, when we transpose all of our feelings of what we love about our country on to this piece of cloth and elevate it to the sacred, we do ourselves and our country a disservice. Once sacralized, we can no longer look at it reflectively, with an unbiased eye, with a view to grow and improve. It becomes a dangerous form of Nationalism through which, as opposed to ordinary patriotism, we are unable to see ourselves clearly and with an objective eye. It (the National Anthem, our flag, our country, our ideals) is perfect and can never be questioned. To question it, would be to defile it and be, in essence, blasphemy.
But, not everyone sacralizes the National Anthem or the flag, or even the actual America. To many, it is the ideals behind them that are held in high esteem, and when the realization of those ideals is in question, the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, or the National Anthem is an obvious symbol to which we turn in order to draw attention to these contradictions between what we say we stand for and what we actually do. It’s a logical connection, and it in no way indicates that we are not patriotic or that we do not love and appreciate our country, and it certainly has nothing to do with disrespecting soldiers. We fly a flag at half-mast when we are grieving; we fly it upside down to signal distress. We do not stand for the anthem or pledge our allegiance when we see a discrepancy in the ideals we say we represent and in the reality of what our country, or our leaders, in most cases, shows that we actually represent. This is clearly Colin Kaepernick’s thinking when he explains, “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” (Gillespie).
According to Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided Over Politics and Religion, conservatives tend to sacralize symbols and traditions like the flag and the anthem, while liberals tend to sacralize other things, such as compassion and human rights (Haidt). They aren’t disrespecting soldiers who gave up their lives fighting in a war; they are making a logical connection between what we say we stand for and what we will stand for.
And while we’re at it, let’s stop referencing the rules for flags and NFL players. It is completely irrelevant what the rules are, or even the laws, for that matter. The most effective protests throughout history have been illegal. It’s called civil disobedience. If protestors concerned themselves with whether or not they were allowed to do something, women would still be unable to vote, and Rosa Parks would never have sat in the front of the bus. It’s effective precisely because it is not allowed. The risk of consequences demonstrates the level of commitment and the intensity of the desire for change.
I submit to you that those who refuse to stand for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, whether it be to protest the president encouraging the squelching of free speech, or the systemic racism endangering the lives of black Americans, are the most patriotic of citizens. These protestors recognize what the flag and the anthem, and indeed, our country, are supposed to stand for, and refuse to settle for anything less than the ideals that form this great experiment. Truly, standing to honor that which fails to live up to all we mean it to be is dishonoring to America itself at its very core. As historian Howard Zinn once said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” So, show us how much you love America, and take a knee.—Christina Knowles
Originally published in 2017
Criss, Doug. “A president shouldn’t tell an NFL team what to do, Trump tweeted … in 2013.” cnn.com. Updated 25 Sept. 2017. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
Gillespie, Nick. “Donald Trump Should Stop Telling NFL To Fire Players for Anthem Protests” 23 Sept. 2017. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided Over Politics and Religion. Vintage Books, 2013.