What Kind of Patriotism are You Talking About?
A recent brouhaha has broken out over the NFL players kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem at football games. Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began this protest when he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality against people of color.
Many people, including the President, have criticized this action, suggesting that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to our flag and is unpatriotic. Recently, the President tweeted that NFL players should always stand for the anthem and that they must respect the flag and the country.
When the President and other people argue that it is always wrong to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem, they suggest that love for one’s country means not criticizing it in any way or protesting anything it does. This is a really weird definition of patriotism, and in fact, it points to a dangerous type of patriotism.
It cannot be that true love for one’s country demands unquestioning obedience and the abandonment of all criticism. This not, in any way, how love works.
Love requires courage, honesty, dialogue, and self-reflection.
In any loving, strong relationship with family, partners, friends, and neighbors, the quality and depth of the relationship is directly proportional to the willingness of the people involved to exhibit this courage.
In fact, once we, for whatever reason, stop pursuing an honest, growing relationship and surrender to maintaining the status quo, our relationships increasingly becomes destructive and harmful to all the people involved.
For instance, rather than encouraging honest dialogue about problems, a destructive relationship discourages honesty and encourages hiding our true self, needs, and opinions. A destructive relationship encourages silence, resignation, and a lack of hope or imagination.
Destructive relationships also discourage self-reflection because such self-reflection would bring to attention the destructive and painful nature of the relationship. When we are in such a relationship and are unwilling or unable to change it, we often cannot bear the painful questions self-reflection raises about our circumstances. So, we tend to stay overly busy or to lose ourselves in self-addictive or self-numbing behaviors/rituals to avoid thinking about our lot in life.
This is a dangerous love because it results in the disappearance and destruction of the people involved.
Destructive Love and Dangerous Patriotism
The destructive relationship pattern I have described above has a lot to teach us about dangerous patriotism. Dangerous patriotism requires that we exist for the sake of our country rather than realizing that our country exists to help us become more fully human together.
There are two common extremes that citizens of any country must avoid.
One extreme is self-centered individualism. When we live this extreme, we live only with our own well-being in mind (or perhaps the well-being of our immediate family and close friends and people like us). The life of self-centered individualism is an irrational, self-undermining way to live. If everyone lives with only their own well-being in mind, we inevitably damage or even destroy each other.
It is important to note that we can be good, moral, well-meaning, even Christian or religious, people and still live a life of self-centered individualism. We all have a tendency to believe our views and the views of people like us are the right views. Being willing to listen to people quite different from us requires political courage. It requires us to be willing to change our life, if honest reflection and dialogue requires it. This is difficult. It is much easier to retreat into our lives of self-centered, non-threatening sameness.
The other extreme of the political spectrum is the extreme of losing one’s self in a relationship with one’s country. This occurs with dangerous patriotism. At this extreme, we are willing to do anything and everything to serve our country, and our personality becomes fully identified with our country and maintaining the status quo in it. We are no longer able to look at our country objectively and criticize it.
Military personnel exhibit dangerous patriotism when they unquestioningly obey all military orders, even if they are ordered to do actions that are tantamount to war crimes.
Dangerous patriotism can also occur with normal citizens who believe that their country or particular political party is always right. When they believe this, they lose their ability to hold their party accountable to higher moral or spiritual standards.
It is actually possible for extreme individualism to join hands with dangerous patriotism. This is especially common when people believe that the current system is serving them extremely well and giving them a good quality of life. When life is good for us, it becomes difficult for us to question how our country’s policies affect other people. When we are in this kind of situation, it is quite easy for us to fall into dangerous patriotism.
Dangerous patriotism makes us zombie-like.
True Patriotism: Working for All of Us to Become Fully Human Together
If we are to avoid the extremes of self-centered individualism or dangerous patriotism, we must realize that our country does not exist merely to serve us and people like us unquestioningly; nor do we exist to serve our country unquestioningly.
Rather, we and our country exist to help all of us become more fully human together. To become fully human is to exercise fully the capacities that make us human. Human beings have the ability to reflect on our social surroundings and to consider how we can make them more just, beautiful, and supportive of our ability to develop all of our innate capacities. These are capacities such as our ability to love, to create, to invent, to heal, to deliberate, to communicate, to connect, to solve problems, to build.
When we exercise these capacities, and other capacities like them well, we make the world a better, safer, more beautiful place. Our history is the history of us exercising these capacities (sometimes well and sometimes not) and changing the world because of it. Everyone has the capacity to become more fully human, and the more everyone exercises this capacity well, the stronger we are individually and collectively.
When we crush or destroy people’s ability to become fully human, we inevitably destroy our own ability to become human because we become locked in cycles of aggression, violence, and power plays with our fellow citizens and countries around the world, rather than focusing our energy on loving, creating, inventing, healing, deliberating, communicating, etc.
This is what Colin Kaepernick knows, and this is why he began kneeling to protest police brutality. African-Americans are killed by the police at a much higher rate than white citizens.
African-Americans are not only more likely to be shot by the police. They are also more likely than white people to be imprisoned for the same crime. Their children are more likely to be forced to attend schools in underperforming, understaffed schools. They are more likely to have toxic garbage dumps placed in (or close to) their neighborhoods. They are less likely to receive promotions, even if they are equally qualified.
Our nation, the way it currently operates, does not fully support the ability of African-Americans and other minorities to be human beings. We have deeply embedded patterns of racial injustice. This is what Colin Kaepernick and others are protesting when they kneel during the Anthem.
Some might say that a football game is not the appropriate place for players to express this concern. We might just as well question whether a football game is an appropriate place to play the national anthem.
Putting that question aside for now, we can ask, “Well, if African-Americans and other minority citizens should not protest during a football game, when should they protest?”
It seems that we do not actually think they should protest anywhere at all.
For example, African-Americans have protested by marching in the streets, and we have criticized them for this and called them thugs.
African-Americans have protested by developing groups like Black Lives Matter, and we have responded by saying “All Lives Matter”, when clearly all lives do not matter, or not to the same degree, in our country (see above articles about police brutality, schools, garbage dumps and job promotions).
When African-Americans and their allies protest in any way, generally speaking, we ignore them, attack them verbally (and physically), and we suggest their concerns are illegitimate.
It is no wonder then that Kaepernick and other players like him protest during football games when they have a captive audience. People are not listening to them in other venues.
Kaepernick’s True Patriotism
Kaepernick is actually demonstrating the right kind of patriotism. He is kneeling peacefully to call to our attention the fact that our country is not living up to its own self-stated values. If we are actually one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, as our pledge suggests, then we most certainly need to pay attention to large segments of our society who tell us regularly that we are destroying and damaging them. Kaepernick is inviting us to be the country we claim to be.
True patriotism does not entail unquestioning obedience to our country. True patriotism is love for our neighbor (and everyone in our country is our neighbor).
True patriotism listens to those crying out for help, even if it disrupts our favorite national pastime. True patriotism realizes that how we treat the most vulnerable of our society is the true test of our national character, and true patriotism engages in honest reflection, dialogue, and critique accordingly. That is true love for our country, and the people in it.
Thinking about Love: Love does not require people to shut down critical thinking and dissent. Love is always open to honest dialogue.
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 Certainly many military personnel are patriotic but still maintain the ability to think objectively and critically about their country.