Some Thoughts on Patriotism and the Anthem Protests

As another National Football League season gets underway, I’ve been thinking about the anthem protests and the angry debate they’ve triggered. It raises the question of how we think about patriotism in America – a subject about which many Americans hold strong opinions.

This is an opinion piece, not a research-driven post. It includes several thoughts on the idea of patriotism, not all are related to the anthem.

Point 1: The question of whether kneeling athletes are being unpatriotic or disrespecting the military ignores the more-central question about their right to protest.

It may be that some of the kneeling athletes don’t feel particularly patriotic, while others do. Based on player comments, the purpose of their action was not to communicate disrespect toward the military. But central to the debate is the right to peaceful protest, and in that regard, it should not matter whether the athletes involved are patriotic or respect our military.

First Amendment rights of freedom of speech don’t apply to censorship by a private employer. I’m not a lawyer and there seems to be a range of legal opinion regarding the rules an employer like the NFL can impose on its employees (the players). Irrespective of this context, it is also clear that our Founding Fathers placed a high value on the right to peacefully protest. More generally, in a free America, each person has a right to decide for themselves if and how they want to express their patriotism. A strong and confident America that cherishes basic freedoms has no need to intimidate its citizens to get them to worship its symbols or express patriotism in a specific way. That doesn’t mean that these traditions are bad or should stop. Shared love of a country can be a good thing. But in a free country this behavior must be voluntary.

Point 2: Basic common sense suggests that love and loyalty can’t be force-fed.

It really is basic common sense. Patriotism reflects a love of country and loyalty to one’s country. But love and loyalty can’t be force-fed. Doing so is counter to the essence of these feelings. And, as we have seen, it is counterproductive to impose one’s definition of patriotism on others. Consider that the number of kneeling athletes increased from only six the week before the President’s initial criticisms, to more than 200 the week after. Demonizing the kneeling athletes by calling them “sons of bitches” and suggesting they should be fired wasn’t a very effective way of changing the behavior. But it was a powerful trigger in stirring up and intensifying the anger in people on both sides of this issue. It also hugely increased the public’s awareness of the issue, which was a key objective of the original protest.

Point 3: Criticizing one’s country or government is not inconsistent with patriotic feelings.

In the America I would like to see, we understand that we can love our country and have pride in our country, and still criticize it for its failures. While it is understandable that some citizens may react with emotion when others criticize their country, criticism can be valid, and can even be driven at times by one’s love of country. Acknowledging that we make mistakes, that we can improve, and that at times we have acted in ways that are inconsistent with our values, is not a sign of weakness but a sign of confidence and strength. The inability to admit our failings is a sign of insecurity and weakness. For these reasons, we should encourage rather than resist this type of discourse. This is true at both the individual level (as I’ve tried to teach my kids), and at the country level. Well-founded critical self-examination opens us up to bettering ourselves while calling out bad behavior.

This concept was discussed in a Brookings essay about patriotism, “In Defense of a Reasonable Patriotism,” by William Galston. Here’s an excerpt:

Patriotism does not mean blind fidelity, no matter what. It means, rather, caring enough about one’s country to try to correct it when it goes astray…

In sum: I can believe that my country has made serious mistakes that must be acknowledged and corrected without ceasing to be a patriot. I can believe that my country’s political institutions are evil and need wholesale replacement without ceasing to be a patriot. I can believe that other objects of regard (my conscience, or God) on occasion outrank my country without ceasing to be a patriot. The fact that zealous patriotism can have terrible consequences does not mean that reasonable and moderate patriotism does so.

I deeply love my country because it is my homeland and because there are many things to love about it. However, I don’t love everything about it, yet that doesn’t diminish my patriotism. In America, the basic freedoms that we cherish include the freedom to feel patriotic (or not) and the freedom to express that patriotism in many different formsincluding criticism.

Point 4: Honesty about our strengths and weaknesses earns respect.

In the long run, understanding and admitting our weaknesses and mistakes strengthens us. This behavior is consistent with the character we aspire to live up to and will earn us the respect of others. The opposite behavior—denying mistakes, our shortcomings, and the times when we’ve lost touch with our values—erodes respect and damages our integrity. This has come across quite clearly in global surveys over the years.

Point 5: Loyalty to country is just one of many loyalties. Our greater humanity matters more.

Loyalty to one’s country is just one of many loyalties we hold, and it is not necessarily the highest loyalty. There is loyalty to family and friends. And above all, in my view, there is loyalty and love of our common humanity. This last point is consistent with one of the most repeated phrases in our Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” As a patriotic American I embrace this highest love and I greatly appreciate that many of my fellow citizens believe the same.

It is unfortunate, in my view, that some of us see the world as a zero-sum game, with our interests directly and always in competition with all others. This thinking assumes that the rest of the world has no relevance to us. We’ve learned that the opposite is true many times over the course of history (think of most of the wars we’ve been involved in or the refugee crisis). And the idea that if others are winning we must be losing gets coupled with the idea that, if we are doing well, we need not care about others. This also seems wrong to me. It puts no value on the lives and interests of others.

We have many neighborhoods in our interdependent world, ranging from our local neighborhood to the larger world. It is in our long-term interest to live in healthy, thriving neighborhoods. Though it is not always easy and we will fail at times, if we try, often we can find ways to work toward win/win outcomes, with the required cooperation and compromises. And because it is in our long-term interest, a commitment to the health of our greater humanity and world is entirely consistent with loyalty to our country.

Point 6: The athletes’ protests are not indicative of a lack of patriotism or meant to disrespect the military.

I started this post making the point that the substance of the protest was largely irrelevant to the debate about the right to protest. Now I’d like to address the intent of the protests. The intent has been clearly stated. It’s a protest to bring attention to the issues of inequality and brutality against people of color on the part of some police (it is not meant as an indictment of all or most police). One can debate those underlying issues, but that is a different debate that I’m not going to address in this post.

The athletes have been accused of various things: disrespecting the anthem, the flag, the military, and our country. Although I can see how some of what Colin Kaepernick has said has been viewed by some people as offensive, those comments have been tangential to the core message. That message, based on what Kaepernick and many of the athletes have said, makes it clear that the purpose of the protest is not meant to disrespect the anthem or military.

Unfortunately, some critics have put forth the narrative that the athletes are ungrateful and disrespectful of their country, while refusing to hear or acknowledge what the protests are about. Or, if the critics acknowledge the underlying issues, they dismiss the substance as illegitimate. It seems to me that in forming one’s view of the protests, it is important to thoughtfully consider the athletes’ motivation and purpose (as well as the freedoms that we profess to believe in).

It’s worth pointing out that some of these athletes are giving back to their communities in meaningful ways that represent the type of behavior that we would normally admire in our citizens. (For example, Colin Kaepernick contributed a substantial amount of his time and $1 million over one year to various community and larger causes.) Now, I don’t know the character and background of each of the protesting players and I’m not speaking to that. But it seems unfair to conclude that these athletes don’t care about their country because they choose to use their platform to bring attention to what they believe is a longstanding major and dangerous injustice in their communities and country. There are various ways to express one’s patriotism and contribute to our society. If anything, the way the athletes have been treated by some critics seems to me to disrespect not only the athletes, but their right to peacefully protest, a core value that goes back to our country’s founding. (As far as the NFL policy, it is still up in the air. This was the NFL’s statement after Kaepernick’s initial protest: “players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” Since that time the league has struggled to revise the policy as it is squeezed between the President’s continued criticisms and the views of the players.)

Regarding the idea of disrespecting the military, I always viewed the anthem as being about our country, not the military. So, there’s that. I realize now that there are people who view the anthem in terms of the militaryI’m curious if that’s a new perspective. Of note, Stars and Stripes, the news publication for the military did a voluntary poll and found that 59% of its surveyed readers felt that protests were disrespectful to the military, while 38% felt they were expressions of free speech or had nothing to do with the military. So while, based on this informal survey,  many with military backgrounds feel that kneeling athletes are disrespecting the military, a meaningfully large minority do not seem to be offended by the protests and many say this freedom is part of what they fight for. (Those polled voluntarily responded, so this was not a well-designed survey and therefore may not be representative of the views of the military community.) This article from the Business Insider also offered interesting comments from an informal survey of veterans. It seems that even within the military there are a range of views on this issue. The article is a quick and useful read.

For more perspective, I want to share something Stephen Curry wrote last Veterans Day. It addresses what it means to have a platform, the protests, the question of respect for the military, and causes that matter. I’m a big Warriors and Curry fan so full disclosure of my bias. But a big part of my admiration for Curry extends beyond his amazing skills on the court. I don’t know him personally, but he appears to be an extremely grounded and caring person who has well-developed opinions and perspective and thinks before he speaks. I appreciated what he had to say in this piece from The Players Tribune. I found it to be a particularly thoughtful and valuable point of view. I encourage you to read it.

I hope that we Americans can respectfully bond our patriotism to our commitment to our values and freedoms. We seem to be losing that linkage as tribalism rages. Tribalism in our country has intensified to a disturbing level. The fact is that we are a diverse country, so we will always have differences. It is in our collective self-interest to learn to live with those differences by listening and seeking to understand our differing perspectives so we can find enough common ground for cooperation and compromise.  Doing so is not easy. Sadly, these days the challenge has intensified as anger and fear is intentionally stirred up without any honorable purpose. Instead, the purpose seems to be to further divide us by inflaming negative passions rather than facilitating understanding and building on our considerable shared interests.

With this backdrop, I’m saddened that sports, the one part of our lives that people of all races, socio-economic backgrounds, and religions could experience and enjoy together, is now also being infected with tribal passions that go beyond the teams we root for. Who wants that?

Here again are all the links included in this story with some additional background so you can decide which, if any, you want to read:

This is a longish, intellectually dense essay about patriotism by the Brookings Institute’s William Galston (excerpted earlier). I found it interesting but it’s not a high priority read unless you’re really interested in thinking more about this subject.

For years the non-partisan Pew Research has been surveying the U.S. image around the world. The latest survey was published last year. It’s long, detailed, and data heavy, but I found it fascinating.

This is a Forbes article about Kaepernick’s charitable activities. He’s also been actively involved in youth mentoring and support (not covered in the article).

This is the Stars and Stripes article about veterans’ reaction to the anthem protests. This article referenced the survey I wrote about.

This is a Business Insider article with many quotes from veterans about their views on the protests. It offers a range of views and I found it a worthwhile read.

This is the Stephen Curry piece which is well worth reading for one athlete’s view.