When we think of other countries, sports plays a surprisingly large part in forming a national identity and bringing people together for a common cause. Much like politics, rivalries and arguments can develop over which team or player is better than the other. In the UK, football (soccer for Americans) is really the national sport, despite what cricket fans might suggest. In America, football such as college football is more akin to a religion, a sacred pastime that is as much a patriotic duty as it is a pastime. It certainly feels like it with the flags, the singing, the overt signs of patriotism that seems to pervade all forms of American life.
Then Colin Kaepernick supposedly ruined everything by protesting and sitting during the national anthem. Kaepernick was protesting America’s ignorance of racism and its refusal to face its own demons. Now, it has evolved (or devolved) into an argument over patriotism and disrespecting the flag. Much like someone throwing a grenade into a Little League baseball game, the action itself overshadows the reason. Arguments rage over whether ‘taking a knee’ is disrespectful to the flag or whether it is a legitimate form of protest. Ironically, those who often argue that free speech is being restricted are the first to criticize football players peacefully protesting.
Europe And America: One Issue, Two Directions
Patriotism is an awkward topic for someone like me to tackle because I realize Americans take great pride in their country. From the Flag Code to the Pledge of Allegiance to ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ Americans have an incredibly firm pride in their country. The idea of doing anything to damage that, even folding the flag wrong, is almost anathema. The public displays of patriotism are not just commonplace, they are almost expected of their people.
I’ve often wondered why this is. Obviously, the American Revolution and the almost-religious worship of the Consitution and the Founding Fathers come down to the idea of gaining vital freedoms. Such freedoms were unique for the time and set an example for the world to follow. It is something that Europe views with some distaste and wariness which may make Americans confused. In Europe, national pride tends to be more muted and only acceptable on certain occasions rather than an almost daily reminder. The reasons are many, but one stands out in particular.
In Europe, the overt nationalistic pride was the same as America’s today. To Europeans, it brought progress and the glory of Empire. Then, after WWI and the millions of deaths, nationalism took on a different role. For the victors, nationalism tooks a dent but it still brought victory. For the losers, it gave rise to Nazism and Italian Fascism as a means to avenge themselves. Both movements were nationalistic but took the ideas of national pride to its ideological extreme. They perverted national symbols for their own ends while using pride of country and race to treat others with great cruelty. The death, disease, and destruction that followed in Europe brought about the death of the old empires and the ideas that had bound them together. After WWII, economic turmoil and millions of deaths scarred Europe who felt they their suffering should not be repeated.
America experienced the opposite. They were far removed from the battlefield and the war had awakened the sleeping giant of American industry. The defeat of the Japanese and Nazism, coupled with the rise of Communism, meant that national pride became a positive thing. America was, and still is, the dominant economic and military power. Nationalism and patriotic signs were never corrupted by fascist ideology and what was negative for Europe was a positive thing for America. The war heralded America’s golden age and so public displays of national pride remained.
The Modern Perils of National Pride
Of course, such overt displays of patriotism also pose the problem of how American identify themselves. When divisive but important issues like racism and gun control are brought up, they raise disturbing questions. They threaten the view of American patriotism because they paint a less-than-perfect picture. Pride of country can often blind people to their country’s flaws. While British children are taught to consider the terrible actions of the British Empire, America is often seen as having an overly-positive view of itself, glossing over the negative parts of its history such as its role in the slave trade or their treatment of Native Americans.
This may explain why Kaepernick’s protest was received so poorly because people felt offended that their view of America as the perfect nation was challenged. No one likes their worldview challenged, but it has raised much debate over the nature of patriotism and national pride. Trump, of course, framed the debate as such to stir up his base and gloss over the original issue of racism and police brutality.
Over 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman, Pericles warned that ‘pride in your city must not be blind and uncritical. The man who is most truly brave is he who knows what is sweet and what is terrible in life and who lives his life in that knowledge.’
To me, Colin Kaepernick is such a man because he understands that his country is not perfect nor should it be treated as such. He protested against his anthem and flag because he wanted people to see the wider issues. He wanted people to question the state of their nation rather than blindly accept and follow that which was convenient to believe. Instead of praise, he is shamed and put out of work.
Meanwhile, Trump is pushing national pride into an ideological extreme, using emotional appeals to blind people to the real issue. He treats democratic institutions with contempt and decries truth and reason in favor of bias and lies. He promotes the idea of white Americans as being superior to all others, implicitly encouraging violence for neo-Nazis and white supremacists while degrading foreigners as somehow inferior. The spat over NFL and the whole ‘taking a knee’ issue is his way of perverting national symbols for his own ends.
This is why Europe gets jumpy and uncomfortable over Donald Trump and his abuse of American national pride. We know his kind of person. We’ve seen it happen before. Now we’re seeing happen again.