Kaepernick, the Blind Love of Nation, and the New Racism

Most+american+picture+i+ve+ever+made+democracy+liberty+independence+justice+freedom+and+america+by+your+powers_320779_4868118Colin Kaepernick has landed in hot water and not for being a mediocre quarterback. During a pre-season game he chose not to stand during the United States National Anthem. He chose not to stand because, in his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” An almost mundane choice. He’s a pro athlete making a political point, and he’s not the first one.

Yet, his refusal to stand for a song and a piece of cloth has ignited a firestorm, met mostly with criticism. It’s hard to find anyone truly sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause, mostly because people are either enraged by his actions or apathetic towards the man himself. The conservatives hate his lack of patriotism while the liberals are too cynical to believe he’s doing this out of sincerity (but doing it because he was bumped to second string).

Removing Kaepernick from the equation, his act of protest and people’s subsequent responses betrays two bigger issues in our nation: 1) We’re too “patriotic,” in reality we are nationalistic and (2) we hold athletes of color to a higher expectation of patriotism than we hold white athletes.

To the first point, there’s a danger when we let our national identity intersect and mold our personal identity. To a certain extent it’s nearly impossible not to let our national identity influence who we are as individuals. I am, after all, a product of America. My accent, my beliefs, my cultural participation is in many ways tied to my being an American. And I’d argue that I am a patriot. I love the idea of America, I love the idea of freedom for all, I love what this nation (on paper) stands for. But being a patriot does not mean I have to be a nationalist. A nationalist will support his country no matter what, but a patriot is willing to point out its flaws and even admit to being disappointed in his nation.

I’d contend that Kaepernick, if we excuse ourselves from cynicism, is a patriot. He loves his nation, otherwise he wouldn’t protest in the hopes of change. True hatred for America wouldn’t ask for protest, but an overthrow. True hatred of America would require apathy to its flaws. Yet, nationalism prevents us from recognizing flaws in our nation, unless we first label those flaws as “outside.” One can think of how people [erroneously] say Obama is a shame to our nation, that they can’t be proud while he’s in charge. But a nationalist says this only after first claiming Obama isn’t actually from our nation, or at least claiming that his ideas aren’t American in origin. Therefore, the shame he feels for his nation isn’t for his nation, but for what his nation is becoming. And yet, without any sense of irony, he will berate and attack anyone who would question typical patriotic icons such as the flag, the anthem, and so on. Ultimately, the nationalist isn’t so much loyal to his nation as he’s loyal to the ideology behind his vision of what the nation should be, thus anyone who violates this ideology is immediately a heretic and worthy of being purged.

Our nationalism in the United States is often best seen as “white nationalism,” mostly because anyone who is not white is automatically suspected of being anti-American for any form of protest. Often, non-whites are left having to prove that they’re Americans, especially black athletes. We see this with Kaepernick, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were criticizing other black athletes for not being American enough. And by not that long ago I mean about two to three weeks ago with Gabby Douglas. She forgot or just chose not to put her hand over her heart when the American flag was displayed. The rage was so hot that other black female Olympians were often chastised on Facebook with people confusing them with Gabby Douglas. When other white Olympians failed to do the same, there was absolutely no outcry.

Notice the verbiage used for both Douglas and Kaepernick; “how dare you not respect the flag of a country that gave you an opportunity, that gave you freedom, that gave you…” It’s difficult to not imagine a slave owner saying something similar to a slave, “How dare you not be grateful for me when I’ve given you food.” The fact is, this nation didn’t give these black athletes anything. They worked hard, they shaped their bodies and talents and pushed themselves to such a level of competition that they’ve excelled at what they do (well, relatively speaking; Kaepernick is riding the bench after all). Yet, we require that these black athletes show 100% solidarity and respect to a piece of cloth, but do not place the same standard on white athletes. We can say we do, but we don’t. That we have racial inequality in our country, that we’re not living up to our ideals as a nation, is a good reason to protest the nation. Sitting during the national anthem is a good way to protest the current reality of racial inequality in our nation.

A true patriot will always love the ideals of his country, but will recognize her flaws. This allows for a duality of respect. One patriot can see a flag and show respect, because that flag represents certain ideals and the patriot wants to respect those ideals. Another patriot can see the flag and view it as representing the current reality,  and therefore choose not to respect it. In both instances, each person is right and each person is still patriotic. Both respect and protest are signs of patriotism. Neither is right and neither is wrong. The fact is, as a nation we have some deep and troubling systemic flaws that continue the oppression entire ethnic groups. But we recognize these actions as flaws because we realize that our actions contradict our ideals, or at least we ought to recognize such a thing. Sometimes it takes a drastic protest to shine a light on our flaws. Perhaps we ought to examine the message of Kaepernick before we shoot the messenger. After all, how patriotic is it to hate someone for exercising his right to free speech? Only a nationalist could allow such cognitive dissonance.

We do have a problem with racial inequality. Perhaps there are better ways to draw attention to that, but what are they? We’ve had this problem since before we were a nation and we’ve never fixed it. We attempt to sweep it under the rug like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist and it is a problem. Rather than complaining about someone protesting or the manner in which he protests, perhaps we’d be better served to listen to the message and to work to make sure our policies align with our ideals. Such an action is far more patriotic than any national anthem or pledge of allegiance.

“Well that’s just un-American.”

It seems that in the latest battle of empty rhetoric between liberals and conservatives, the term, “That’s un-American” seems to be quite popular. Tom Hanks fired a barrage at supporters of California’s Prop 8, saying anyone who supports any form of discrimination is “Un-American” (I wonder how he feels about laws against Polygamy). The Mormons responded saying that criticizing their vote was equally “Un-American.” 

As usual, there are people using a term without actually defining what the term means and their justification in using the term. We saw this with the Iraq War II, people who supported the war said anyone who didn’t support it was Un-American and vice versa. 

What does it mean to be “Un-American” and is that necessarily a bad thing at times? I’ll be the first to admit that what it is to be an American is quite subjective and changes throughout history. At our founding, to be an American meant that you supported endowed rights by a Creator and opposed any form of tyranny that sought to neglect these rights. Though the original Americans weren’t completely libertine in their view of human rights (because they believed we were accountable to ethics via reason – classical deontology), they still believed that humans were allowed to do as they pleased so long as it was in an ethical manner. A little over one hundred year ago, to be an American meant you supported the expansion of the United States via conquest of the Native Americans. It meant that you believed in the spirit of the “free man” or the “autonomous spirit.” As time has progressed, however, this has ceased to define what it is to be an American. 

What does it mean to be an American in the modern day? If we base it off the ideals of America, set forth by the Founders, then it means to be someone that seeks to exercise one’s God-given rights while doing so in a responsible and ethical way. In this case, those who support unethical actions and say such actions should be legal would be Un-American. Alternatively, if we base our belief of what “American” is based upon the majority view of the culture, then it means to be a libertine in view of ethics, to desire a completely secular view of government that doesn’t even see the law as absolute. In this case, those that attempt to enforce absolute ethical codes as absolute laws would be “Un-American.” 

My question, however, is quite simple: What does it matter if someone is Un-American? I fully admit that I am currently un-American, by both standards provided. Certainly I love this nation and the freedom it provides, but both viewpoints are built off faulty views. Rather, I seek to be a good human being, and I seek to actualize this by being a good Christian. Being a good Christian and supporting the things I do because of my beliefs will often times make me a very Un-American person. To this, I ask, “So what?” 

If I am shown to be unfaithful to the flag of the United States, I must ask what the consequences and ramifications of this verdict should be. I am Un-American, but does this make me wrong? I am Un-American, but does this mean anything I say should be ignored? Or does it mean that I’m simply upholding an ethical standard while the rest of my Americans choose to ignore it? Would anyone care to be called Un-Roman or Un-Soviet Union? Of course not, in fact we would pride ourselves on not buying into their ideals and culture. Thus, when American society becomes corrupt and the ideals do not match with Scripture, we should equally take pride in being labeled “Un-American.”