When Colin Kaepernick, with the country still high off Olympic hyper-patriotism, refused to stand for the National Anthem he struck a cord with many Americans. Some felt pride in his actions and unapologetic explanations. Others felt outrage and disgust conflating Kaepernick’s stance into an anti-military and veterans protest (even though Kaepernick has repeatedly articulated why he is doing it which has nothing to do with the military, and many veterans have spoken out in support of him). There are all kinds of think pieces out there that dive deeper into all that. Most of these pieces are framed in a sort of 1st Amendment-protesting is the highest form of patriotism- he loves the country so much he wants it to be great rhetoric. I get that, it certainly is his right to protest. It’s also true that, some people believe, wars have been fought to secure that right. But none of that is why I support Kaepernick’s stance.
I don’t feel protest is the highest form of patriotism. I don’t feel a deep love for the country and want it to be as great as I know it can be. It’s actually quite the opposite for me. I ain’t patriotic at all. I don’t love this country. I don’t find any pride in saying I’m American. I know the blood that the flag has soaked up. I know the crimes that the flag has spun into tales of honor and glory. I know the way this country has interwoven patriotism and poverty in order to manipulate folks into killing and dying for it. I know how my uncles, my friends, people from my neighborhood, and my students come back after serving. I’ve seen the un(der)treated PTSD. I’ve seen the bogus recruitment promises. I watched a senior in high school sign up for the Guard while this country deported her family. I’ve seen the abandoned and foreclosed family homes, some of which had lived there for generations, as politicians and bankers got rich.
I don’t hate this country either. It’s not that simple.
I understand the desire to want to be a part of something bigger and better than yourself. I understand wanting to be part of a community, and to be proud of that community. I think, at its core, that is what patriotism is about. Still, the reality of patriotism is, ironically, the exact opposite of unity: division.
Patriotism consistently urges people to silo themselves with others who are defined by increasingly rigid and narrow definitions of their countrymen. The resulting archetypes are labeled exceptional and we are expected to strive to be more like them. Of course, those with power define the archetypes and set the parameters for who gets to be patriotic –who is on the inside– and who is left out, who is other. Nothing illustrates this dynamic better than Donald Trump’s reaction to Kaepernick’s protest. Trump said Kaepernick should find a “country that works better for him.” This from a man whose campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” implies that America’s increasing diversity and any of the gains made by movements such as the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Gay Rights Movements have somehow weakened America as opposed to moving it closer to its ideal. Tragically, this is much more than a different construction of who is or who isn’t American. If it were simply that Kaepernick’s protest wouldn’t be necessary: we could just vote for the candidate that conceptualized a more inclusive definition. No, the problem is much deeper. The problem is systemic. The problem is Trump is right, America is far from the “greatness” the founders envisioned. It is far from the imagined America which is the root for so much of our patriotism.
When the founders conceptualized America they did not imagine a beacon of freedom. They imagined a slave holding aristocracy that would hierarchialize humanity in order to rationalize amassing incredible amounts of wealth through genocide, slavery and class oppression. James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, warned his fellow WASP’s of the danger of too much democracy. The Constitution was designed as a system of checks and balances against not only government tyranny but a “tyranny of the majority.” The founders, those wealthy, white, men –many of them slaveholders, none of them workers– were cognizant of how to systemically protect their position. The brilliance of the Constitution, then, is not its egalitarian vision, but rather how folks bought into that vision when the reality is the exact opposite. The answer to that, of course, is patriotism. And, we must never remove our conversations about patriotism from that context. America is built on a foundation of heinous acts and crimes against humanity. Any conversations about patriotism that ignore this history are merely attempts at protecting the position of white males who feel threatened by movements for justice. Furthermore, any conversations that redress and attempt to heal this history fall outside the parameters of American patriotism which leaves patriotism as we know it an empty gesture at best, and a hateful, violent one at worst.
When Kaepernick refuses to stand for the National Anthem he is refusing to forget our history. He is refusing to look away as this history is played out in the present with the same outcomes: death and oppression. He is reminding us that patriotism is largely a tool of social control and distraction. He is reminding us that we must love people. All people. These imagined and false borders we continue to place on maps and on people only serve to keep us from each other. Rather that build the community that so many are earning for when they embrace patriotism and nationalism, borders isolate and disconnect. Kaepernick is pointing out that “patriots” are chanting “Build that wall” while burning bridges. Bridges we so badly need.