I wrote the following commentary several weeks ago for the Perry County News where it appeared shortly thereafter–here where I reside in Tell City, Indiana, along the Ohio River. I send it out to you, now, as a complement to last week’s blog-essay on the Native Lives Matter movement and the events in North Dakota:
I have been interested by the flurry of highly emotional and outraged responses to Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem. And while at one time I might have agreed with the News’s editorial on the subject (“National anthem not the time to stage protests,” 9/12/16), at this time I find it necessary to explain why I no longer do.
For one thing, let’s establish a not-sufficiently-noted truth about patriotism: the outward show of it (saluting the flag; wearing a flag pin on one’s lapel; standing for the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance; even voting, if unaccompanied by other forms of civic engagement) is not equivalent to a true possession of it.
Why? Because the outward display, at least by itself, is shallow, superficial, easy to come by—and, at its worst, a danger to any form of government that depends, such as ours, on the free and reasoned exchange of ideas and the art of sensible compromise.
Absolutism leads inevitably to violence. Absolutisms of any sort are the device of demagogues and would-be Bosses of every stripe. It is neither security nor greatness that they offer us.
While, on the other hand, the true possession of a reasonable and balanced patriotism requires depth, patient and shared inquiry, and thoughtful consideration; an understanding built on an ever-evolving awareness of the lessons of our past and the contingencies of the moment we live in; as well as an honest appraisal of future challenges and the range of possible responses.
Any scoundrel can wrap himself in the appearance of patriotism while, in truth, hating the democratic privilege of “We the people” and working covertly against it. Sometimes it is the one speaking the loudest on behalf of “real Americans” who is hardest at work eroding the democratic principle itself.
Most popular and effective among the strategies employed by those eroders of democracy is to divide and conquer. Because by doing so it becomes easier to disassemble the House United in Diversity (or in a “more perfect union”) to which our better nature aspires.
And such “anti-patriots” do exist. I use that term for those who place their own accumulation of wealth and power above the basic needs and dignity of the nation and its people—never mind how vigorously they celebrate our national symbols and send our children to fight for them.
Though we should be extremely careful about attributing that label to those who may simply and honestly disagree with us. The problem is the unbending ideologues who, rather than hear reason, will stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to listen.
It is my considered opinion, based on a conscientious and continuing examination of both emotional and rational evidence, that Kaepernick, by daring to criticize the nation he loves for its persistent contradictions and forgetfulness of its most sacred ideals, is in fact a truer patriot than those whose instinct is to suppress all dissent and divest it of Constitutional protections.
In any case, it is the real possibility of that greater unity that gives the lie to the ugly phrase (real Americans) that threatens to bring the whole house crashing down; with its hateful implication that some of us—some shadowy and always suspect “Other”—do not really belong here; by virtue of race, immigration status, or political or religious affiliation, among other things.
It is in this context that Kaepernick’s civic engagement—in this case, his act of protest—must be considered. And to simply dismiss that protest as somehow inappropriate to place or time is to ignore a deep strain of the practice and theory of American independence, which at its best is reflected in the American Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Emerson, certainly one of our nation’s two or three great native philosophers, believed that in order to be a truly independent and self-reliant citizen—morally and intellectually, in the first place—one must be, not an automatic follower of the herd, but an original thinker and a nonconformist. He was the teacher who inspired Thoreau, in his personal protest against President Polk’s morally questionable war with Mexico, to write his great essay on “The Duty of Civil Disobedience.”
Thoreau’s first method of protest was his famous refusal to pay his war tax, which landed him in the local jailhouse. The story is that when Emerson asked him what the devil he was doing behind bars, Thoreau turned the question back on his mentor with a pointed rebuke for not joining him there.
To the extent that significant social change only takes place when compelled by social activism and protest—backed up, ideally, by constructive rhetoric, argument, and conversation—it strikes me as natural that Kaepernick’s civic engagement, in this instance, has taken the form of quiet but public protest. And it hardly constitutes an act of protest if it can only be performed at designated times and places—which is to say, wherever and whenever it will attract the least attention and cause the least disruption.
Given the vitriolic response from some quarters, if Kaepernick’s object is to bring white Americans to reflect more deeply on issues of a persistent (and resurgent) racial bias in our country, then it appears that he has chosen precisely the right venue for his protest.
As to the other options that the editors prescribe, they have all been tried before and often. Still, we white Americans (for the most part) have shown ourselves particularly stubborn in our refusal to fully and honestly engage with the real and continuing effects of our shared history of racial animus and of judicial and socioeconomic inequality.
If roles were reversed, and they were white mothers who lived in constant fear of deadly prejudice against their sons or daughters, our perception of the problem would change completely. And if the slogan were White Lives Matter instead of Black, we would not blame those protesters for inciting violence by simply calling attention to an obvious reality: that some lives have always mattered more, in our imperfect union, than others.
Consider the aptness of this Biblical verse to Kaepernick’s real message to his nation and ours: “… for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).
I believe that we would do well to consider why Kaepernick or any other black man or woman in America today might consider our routine and exuberant patriotism little more than a tomb freshly covered with layers of white paint, but at its core essentially hollow.
The question, ultimately, is whether we are even willing to entertain such thoughts, much less to know them. Or if we prefer the bliss of willful ignorance, as James Baldwin accused white America in 1963:
“… and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed or are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”