Let’s be very clear. What President Trump is calling for, particularly with respect to our flag and standing during the National Anthem, is not “patriotism” but “nationalism.” Both are concerned with individual relationships towards nations, but nationalism is defined as our interest in the unification of a nation based on cultural and linguistic equanimity. Patriotism is experienced as our love for our nation’s values and beliefs.
For several months there has been controversy around some NFL players taking a knee, as a form of protest, during the playing of our National Anthem. A paradoxical situation immediately developed. Standing for the national anthem should be an expression of upholding our national values since it is, essentially, a pledge to recognize America as the “land of the free.” As is our Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag) which commits us to “liberty and justice for all.” Those are America’s values and to support them is patriotic.
However, to protest the National Anthem or America’s symbol (the flag), does not necessarily debase those values. As an expression of our First Amendment, protest can be a patriotic premise to scrutinize (or criticize) our commitment to those values. While nationalism can hold us together, it cannot supplant our value of freedom and justice. Forced nationalism is, in fact, contrary to true patriotism.
At the same time the ceremony in which we express national pride is cultural….and therein lies a paradox that demands we drill down into the issues at the center of the protest.
If a minority race in America is being profiled, and if there is evidence that such profiling is leading to being killed for an offense (or alleged offense) for which a white person would likely be incarcerated (and not killed), then the pledge to American values becomes false to those subjected to such systemic racism. And it cannot be unfathomable that at some point a black person (as in the case of Colin Kaepernick) will not be willing to participate in a cultural tradition that celebrates a different reality.
The other part of this controversial equation is respect for military sacrifice. Our military is essential to securing our founding premise of liberty and justice and to secure our way of life by protecting our national interests. They will always deserve our honor and respect. The ceremonial pageantry of honoring the military at sporting events was heightened after 9/11 when we, as a nation, needed to be in touch with our strength and the spirit of nationalism was an essential bond (in my opinion). But that fusion of the equanimity of nationalism and patriotic values came at a cost; that being a necessary understanding between the character of America today and our commitment to the freedom and justice that conspired to create America in the first place.
The latter cannot be ignored, swept under the carpet, or absorbed by a ceremony; it must remain a relevant and vigilant pursuit. The freedom to protest, along with Constitutional respect and transparent democracy, is what holds our preeminent values to the light and in the highest regard. That is what men and women have died to protect. What they didn’t put themselves in harm’s way for was to defend pageantry; they sacrificed their lives, or were willing to, for the principles that forward our most sacred values.
Personally, I stand for our National Anthem because I am stating my commitment to those values and to honor the brave men and women who have fought for them. But….if you don’t stand, that doesn’t mean you are dishonoring those soldiers. You may be challenging the systemic injustice that betrays their honor and sacrifice. You may be calling into the light our citizenry who do not hold freedom, liberty and justice in the highest regard, and the cultural malfunction of a status quo blinding itself with nationalism that can compromise our patriotic values.
We may have different ways of expressing these points of view – but that is a true American value.