How to Love Your Country

Though (as you know too well!) brevity is not my forte, I’ll try to deploy it in discussing the case of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who last week pointedly chose not to stand during the pregame playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, commenting afterward that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick -- a biracial adoptee raised by white parents -- has passionately defended his protest, igniting a firestorm of invective. Rarely does our civic discourse get more heated than when it engages disputes over the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, the flag, and other sites of patriotic symbolism and ritual.

I’ll go at this backwards, and begin with the press coverage, specifically the front-page article in the Times this past Wednesday, by Sam Borden. The article – by a sports reporter --  exemplifies the casual excellence of a lot of Times journalism. Not only does Borden get the facts down succinctly, with apt quotations from relevant commentators, but he also delves into the history of patriotic observance at sports events in America and other countries, delineating fundamental cultural and political differences, and quotes various league spokespersons discussing out their leagues’ policies.

Finally, Borden lays out two opposing frameworks for judging Kaepernick’s action.

The first view upholds the importance of patriotic displays by reminding us of what is distinctively American in them, noting that unlike most other countries, the U.S. does not owe its existence to common ethnicity, ancestry or religion. “Instead,” Borden writes, “Americans are bound by notions and concepts — that all men are created equal, as one example — and the ethereal nature of those ideas makes anything that Americans can latch on to concretely seem more important.” He quotes the author of a book on the subject, who comments that “’We are united by a creed, and in a creedal society, the outsize rituals — like the anthem — just carry a lot more weight.’” Such perspectives tend to reinforce the judgment, put forward by NFL quarterback Drew Brees, that Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem is “disrespectful to the American flag” and presents “an oxymoron,” since that flag and anthem represent the political system that protects his right to speak in the first place.

The second framework turns this view on its head, suggesting, as Borden writes, that the real oxymoron “comes from those who trumpet the freedoms the flag represents but then criticize someone who exercises those freedoms.” Shouldn’t Kaepernick be understood as “simply doing his duty,” Borden asks, “by trying to set right that which he sees in his country as having gone awry?” True patriotism, in other words, means holding one’s country to its own highest standards; protest doesn’t dishonor flag or anthem, but rather the opposite.

For what it’s worth, I agree. That’s why I’ve always supported the rights of flag-burners, much as their actions make me wince. You don’t have to like the protestors, or the particular point they’re making, or the impulse behind their protest. But if your impulse is to quash their right to make that protest – and to do so in the name of loving freedom --  then aren’t you killing what you claim to love? That’s patriotism shooting itself in the foot.

Returning to Kaepernick’s action, I’ll admit to never having liked what some are calling the “forced patriotism” invoked – and impelled -- by flag and anthem at sporting events. I resist being forced to show my patriotic bona fides at risk of incurring ostracism, even wrath, if I don’t. The truth is that I would prefer not to stand at attention before flag and anthem at a basketball game; but I do stand, because the value of rejecting this compulsory patriotic obeisance is outweighed for me by the value of not being seen publicly as making an unpatriotic statement that I don’t actually want to make. (Got that?) Put more simply, I don’t want to offend anyone. It’s not worth it to me.

Such reflections oblige me to confront a basic question: Am I unpatriotic? I’ll admit, I don’t like how our civic culture has become steeped in patriotism since 9/11. While I can be brought to tears by individual narratives of heroic sacrifice evoked in books or movies, I resist the ritualized mass observance of public honor for “first responders,” with its mustering of collective emotion. I don’t like being manipulated in that way. I resist having my patriotism construed as, and by, an act of ritual devotion. This is not religion. It is citizenship.

I do love my country. But I love it obliquely, at slant angles and unexpected moments, via the many instances of generosity, humor, creativity, resilience and democratic goodwill shown by fellow citizens -- actions and qualities that make me smile and think, Now that’s American!  I prefer to experience love of country this way, rather than in the well-worn grooves of orchestrated mass emotion. I’m wary of the power of patriotism: how often it has been used to fuel the machinery of war; how it can stifle dissent and conscience; how it takes your solo voice and channels it into a mighty force that can be used as easily for evil as for good.

No nation has learned these lessons more harshly than Germany, and I recall being struck, when I lived there twenty years ago, by a civic culture that instinctively rejected flag waving. Here was a nation where many people my age didn’t even know the words to their own national anthem. OK, maybe that is a bit extreme. But the renunciation of nationalism goes deep there. When German President Gustav Heinemann was asked, in 1969, Do you love your country?, he responded, “No, no. I don’t love states. I love my wife.”

These are sentiments befitting a country destroyed by the excesses of nationalism and rebuilt, citizen by citizen, around a deep wariness about nation-love, and a determination to redirect emotional allegiances from the collective and abstract to the personal and particular. The Kaepernick flareup lays bare the strong instinct so many Americans have for public displays of patriotism. But some of us want to practice, and preserve, a different kind of country-love.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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