Colin Kaepernick pissed off a lot of people last Friday. Not because of his 2-6 passing performance in a preseason game. Not because of his recurring inability to consistently make plays from both in and outside of the pocket. No. It’s because he refused to stand during the National Anthem.
Yup. In 2016 USA, we still obsess and worship the American flag as if it were a holy object or a proxy to some divine power. We rightly decry jihadists and ultra-conservative Muslims alike for being offended by cartoons of Muhammad in a secular society. We correctly chastised North Korean dictator’s Kim Jong-Un’s over-sensitivity to a crappy Seth Rogen and James Franco film. Any free speech advocate understands the value of expressing oneself and critically interacting with any set of ideas, morals, and principles. After all, one can’t have a democracy without such an exchange. Hell, we have a neo-fascist demagogue running for President and no one has thrown him in jail for expressing fundamentally undemocratic views.
Yet, when it comes to citizens and the American flag, if you refuse to salute, pledge your allegiance, or stand for the national anthem, you’re somehow disrespecting the military or being “anti-American.” Hence, it is a cult. If you step out of line or act in a way that is harmlessly “disrespectful” or disengaged, you’re an evil person.
People at large still use the stars and stripes as a symbol of the military (i.e., “support the troops”) even more so than the American people themselves. These nationalist drones usually state something of the following: “The troops fight for your freedoms, so you should show them some respect!”
This rhetoric is incredibly idiotic for a multitude of reasons. For one, our tax dollars pay their salaries, which aren’t that good to begin with. Secondly, standing for an anthem does not automatically improve the lives of any soldiers or vets. Not all vets look to people flying the flag to feel validated or respected, especially given their varying experiences in combat. Thirdly, plenty of people will talk about standing for a flag in seeming reverence for our troops while passing by homeless Vietnam War vets or failing to address our horrendous Veterans Affairs system. A lot of so-called patriots in Congress (especially Republicans) refused to increase government spending to help war survivors. Finally, invading Iraq, a country that posed no existential threat to us, under false pretenses did not “defend” or even extend our liberty. Instead, it unnecessarily led to the deaths of over 3000 US soldiers (which is fundamentally anti-American) and at least 200,000 civilians. In the same vein, the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and the First Persian Gulf War did not keep us free or safe from tyranny.
This is not to deny those who acted with courage to protect others nor to slander veterans from even unnecessary wars. Rather, we need to rid ourselves of uncritical hero-worship. Not everyone who serves is automatically a hero. Furthermore, they don’t need to exceptional to get the assistance that they deserve. Like any other human being, they should be entitled to our respect beyond granting discounts at IHOP, offering meaningless platitudes such as “respect the troops” or “God bless the troops,” or obnoxiously flying the flag. After all, you can fly the flag all day and still hate universalist human rights expressed in our Constitution. That is more a disservice to our soldiers, our fellow human beings, more than standing for a flag.
Yet, unlike the above paragraphs, Colin did not protest against or even disrespect the military (which are his rights anyway). He simply sat on the bench (which may be a familiar sight for the upcoming season) and waited patiently for the game to start. He didn’t disrupt anything, attack anyone, or even burn the flag (which he’s also allowed to do to one so long as he owns it). He’s not the first athlete to protest an otherwise ridiculous ceremony nor will he be the last.
Now, any rational person can understand that someone can be patriotic, to love people and country, without having to be nationalist, to uncritically idolize a nation. You don’t need to eat apple pie (which I hate) or love baseball (which is losing its national audience). You don’t need to wear red, white, and blue just to show how much you love the US. You don’t need to love everything the US government does just to be a citizen. Hell, you don’t even need to love the country so long as you don’t declare war on it.
However, nationalists have always propagated a disconcerting narrative that automatically equates any sort of criticism of the US as being anti-American. If you criticize economic exploitation, you’re a Soviet-style communist. If you criticize the military’s actions, you are somehow a jihadist terrorist (or at least a sympathizer/enabler). This sort of mindset fundamentally violates the Enlightenment principle that critical dissent is necessary for any self-referred democracy. It also reveals a poisonous trend of folks who misrepresent other’s opposing arguments to create strawmen or boogeymen for audiences to try to tear apart. So long as one does not pledge loyalty to or spew the hateful rhetoric of established enemies of state (such as ISIS), one cannot be an anti-American via dissent alone.
Now, despite some calls to do so, Kaepernick will not be punished by any authority nor should he. Certainly, one can criticize Colin’s actions or position in any free exchange of ideas. If you’re Drew Brees, Victor Cruz or the average person, that is your right so long as you don’t threaten him with violence. You can disagree with his either his stance and/or action while being respectful of him. Pundits can also write all the articles they want to chastise Kaepernick while using the ludicrous framework of anti-Americanism I outlined from earlier.
However, let us consider just how idiotic to revere a piece of cloth and all the songs dedicated to it. Whether it’s Obama hating Tea Partier Joe Walsh or gun-nut authoritarian Sheriff David A. Clarke, the right wingers and nationalists are far too oversensitive with Kaepernick protesting an anthem that has been played a billion times over. Just as many grow weary with the Christian Evangelical Right being constantly offended by Harry Potter books, consenting adults having sex, or South Park satirizing them, I grow weary of the American public’s reverence for an inanimate object over Kaepernick’s argument.
There is one principle that we should adhere to before all others – human beings are automatically entitled to our respect; flags, books, ideas, institutions, and property are not. We cannot be enslaved to things and ideas, even the ones that supposedly represent people, to the point where we lose compassion for actual humans. No student in school should be compelled to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, which mentions “God” despite representing a supposedly secular nation. “God Bless America,” which is a travesty of a hymn to begin with, shouldn’t be played during the seventh inning stretch of baseball games. And the Star Spangled Banner, whose third verse was written to celebrate slavery anyway, isn’t necessary to begin any event not sponsored by the government, much less a sport.
Colin Kaepernick did the right thing by placing a group of living breathing human beings at higher priority than inanimate national symbols and antiquated cultural practices. Instead of condemning him, we should be commending him for escaping the cult of American flag worship.