Americans often have to deal with the fact that wearing their patriotic feelings on their sleeve seems to cause some discomfort amongst their European cousins. It can be confusing that foreigners like myself seem to view patriotic Americans with some reserve or even suspicion as if it is a bad thing to wave your flag and proclaim your undying love for your homeland. Like all things, there’s no one answer to why this is, but if I had to point to any one thing, it would probably be the fact that, in the eyes of Europeans, Americans seem to take patriotism far too serious, almost too extreme.
This is understandable in a sense. Americans are rightly proud of their history and their heritage. They have a stable government, a powerful military and a society based on the value of citizenship and democracy. The United States is a relatively young nation on the world stage which has missed out on the institutional anarchy that Europe had after the fall of the Roman Empire. It has also avoided the burning questions of extreme political ideologies, of being robbed of basic human rights or democratic ideas. In some sense though, the love of nation and flag can paradoxically blind Americans as much as it can sustain them.
Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem and the issue of ‘taking a knee’ is a good example of patriotism being used as a political weapon and blinding people to the real problems the country faces. Its controversy lies in the idea that kneeling during the national anthem is unpatriotic and yet in a way, Kaepernick is merely exercising his democratic rights while raising a major issue; racism in America. Unfortuenly, the action itself has overshadowed the reason for the action.
The thing that truly amazes me is that digging a little deeper reveals some shocking hypocrisy. The list of crimes committed by professional footballers in America ranges from sexual assault, robbery, money laundering, drug trafficking and driving under the influence to murder, rape, sexual intercourse with a minor, kidnapping and dogfighting. In many cases, some footballers were able to get back into the sport and signed on by various teams.
Colin Kaepernick’s ‘crime’ was to exercise his right to protest peacefully on a serious issue that he felt was important yet often ignored. His decision to sit during the national anthem was a statement that he felt unable to support a country that willfully chose to ignore the issue of racism. For that, he has struggled to find a team to sign up with. No one was killed or assaulted, no one, animal or human, was unduly harmed and yet he is treated as a pariah The message is clear. You can lie, cheat, murder and rape as much as you want but point out a flaw in your own country and you’re out.
The idea of disrespecting the flag becomes even more hilarious when you examine the United States Flag Code and find that many in the United States have already disrespected the flag as this Twitter thread shows. Again, this is something that foreigners like myself can’t quite fathom. Burning flags isn’t exactly a flattering image, but a whole code of ethics over how to properly fold and handle a flag seems a bit too much. Funnily enough, sitting or kneeling during the national anthem isn’t regarded as disrespecting the flag.
Now with players from both the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens kneeling before their game, it is clear that Trump’s threats will be met with more protests and that the NFL will not bow to the demands of a man who attacks free speech more than white supremacy. You can boycott NFL if you really want to, but if you’re going to punish Kaepernick and the NFL players who support him for exercising free speech, the right to protest and the decision to take a political stand on an important topic like racism, then make sure you punish other harshly for their actual crimes listed above.
More importantly, if you find the idea of someone voicing opinions against your own beliefs unacceptable, then I have to wonder if you understand what democracy is all about. If you feel that it’s okay to force your beliefs on someone else rather than let them make their own decisions, then what is the point of democracy and free speech? Love your country but don’t let your love blind you to the fault of the nation. Take issue against the cause Kaepernick made his protest for, not against the protest itself.
To quote British writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If you can’t get behind that, then democracy isn’t for you.