On 26 August, in a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers, American football player Colin Kaepernick chose to sit during the national anthem rather than stand with his hand over his heart, as is traditional. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said after the game. He would continue to sit during the anthem, he added, until the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent”. (He has since amended his protest and will be kneeling rather than sitting in future games, to show deference to military servicemen and veterans.)
The rest of the nation, predictably, dissolved into a sustained, histrionic, toddler-who-missed-his-nap meltdown (our national pastime), which is still going strong three weeks later.
Kaepernick, rightwingers insisted, had insulted the country, the flag, the special magic song about the flag, every person who has ever served in the US military, every person who has ever watched a movie about the US military, all of their grandmas, and your grandma too. Deep in his tomb in Mount Vernon, George Washington shed a single, fat, wooden tear. Clack.
(Did you know that Frances Scott Key didn’t even write the music to The Star Spangled Banner, by the way? He just took an existing song and changed the words to make them about flags and then got all the credit. He’s basically a 19th-century Weird Al Yankovic, if Weird Al wasn’t funny and owned slaves.)
The planet is melting and we are a hair’s breadth from electing a bona-fide white supremacist to the White House but my country decided to pause this cornucopia of national emergencies to discuss whether or not a professional football player should make his body into a bendy line instead of a straight one during a ritual celebrating a government that summarily executes men like him in the streets. Sure! America!
Some athletes joined Kaepernick’s protest in solidarity; others critiqued him harshly. Celebrities and politicians weighed in on both sides. The hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick trended on Twitter. Preening white blowhards – who apparently just have $79 lying around! – took to Facebook to film themselves burning their ($79!) Kaepernick jerseys with buffoonish gravitas.
Kaepernick’s social media feeds were choked with death threats and racial slurs. The woman who gave him up for adoption when he was an infant popped out of the woodwork to tweet, “There’s ways to make change w/o disrespecting & bringing shame to the very country & family who afforded you so many blessings” – a sentiment lauded by many, the perpetual whine of the white moderate.
The Kaepernick conflict illuminates a cleft in America’s self-image that has grown especially deep since September 2001. In one camp are the flag-waving jersey-burners who believe that “patriotism” means unconditional, unconsidered cheerleading for anything “American” (ie, anything that enforces the white, traditionalist status quo — Donald Trump’s “great” America of yore), while tarring any dissent as “un-American”. This version of patriotism is more a sport than a political philosophy: root for the home team, even if we’re cheating.
The rest of us believe that our country is a collective that we have a duty to shape; that patriotism is earned, not owed; that if our nation is going to demand worship and supplication from its inhabitants, it needs to fulfil its mandate to protect and care for all of them. If you love something, you want it to be better, and you work for it to be better. Patriotism doesn’t preclude protest; it demands it. “I love America,” Kaepernick said. “I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”
I love so much about America. It’s my home. It’s beautiful and wild, and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I am proud to have roots in a place that, at least on paper (however spectacularly we may fail), holds sacred the balance of personal freedom and social equality.
There’s a particular exuberance to the people here – an audacity. At our best we are outlandish and daring and optimistic and guileless and absurd. We are fun. I love that.
But at our worst we’re murderous and proud, incurious and spiteful. We tell marginalised people to sit down (unless that slave guy’s special song is playing) and wait for equality. We insist their oppression is their fault because they refuse to chase the perpetually shifting goalposts of the “right” way to protest – ie, in any way that never disrupts or disturbs any white people whatsoever; ie, in any way that is actually effective; ie, in any way at all. We threaten Kaepernick’s career in retaliation for his dissent, as though it’s reasonable to expect black people to choose between their dreams and their humanity. Our citizens hang Hillary Clinton in effigy for not knowing her place, howl for the mass deportation of Muslims, demand a wall to keep out immigrants, insist to this day that Barack Obama isn’t a “real” American, and do it all without shame on stolen land.
How could we feel pride in any of that?
Do we want an empty, performative, coerced pride? One that honours nothing and means nothing? I don’t. I’m proud of my country, but it’s the dissent that makes me proud – the capacity for change and the resilience to demand it. Blanket, rah-rah patriotism is just a patch over the rot. It’s a way for the privileged to avoid swallowing uncomfortable truths, like a child changing the subject in hopes you’ll forget about his chores.
The fact is that Kaepernick is unequivocally correct. People of colour in America – including Kaepernick and plenty of veterans – are being underserved by a government whose paycheques they write. Declining to stand and laud that country until these outrageous, deadly imbalances are repaired – until our flag actually does represent everyone – is a perfectly reasonable response. America gets my unreserved, hand-on-heart patriotism when it earns it.