On Patriotism and Protest

What does it mean to truly love America? To be a patriot? To honor our country?

In both basic and profound forms, it must include giving one’s heart to the ideals that are evoked in the promise of America: ideals of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, liberty and justice. It includes tirelessly striving for these ideals, with the audacity to believe that the promise of America extends not just to some of its citizens, but to all of its citizens.

Loving America includes honoring America. And the best way to honor America — to love the promise of America — is by honoring the ideals for which America stands — ideals which people have lived and died for — which includes doing all one can to honor the memory of those who died by making sure what they died for — the ideals that truly make America great — are put into practice (to make sure they’re concrete realities and not just ideological concepts).

Anytime our country falls short of the ideals for which it stands, patriots have the responsibility to tirelessly strive so that the promise of America (liberty and justice for all, as the pledge teaches) matches the reality of America. If one doesn’t strive for the realization of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, liberty and justice, then one just pays lip service to the promise of America. When this is the case, sayings like the pledge become nothing more than empty words, devoid of meaning.

William Sloane Coffin once said there are three kinds of patriots: two bad, one good. “The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.”

As such, those who love and care about their country have the responsibility to call attention to the ways it falls short of its promise. Not because they don’t honor or love the ideals of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, or liberty and justice, but precisely because they honor and love them so much that they won’t rest until they’re realized. This idea of patriotism is nicely summarized in “America the Beautiful,” penned by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893:

“America, America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

The dream of America has always been a dream in process. Langston Hughes, one of Missouri’s most famous writers (he was born in Joplin in 1902), reflected on the experiences of being black in America, and how the America described in popular folklore as the land of freedom and opportunity was never the America of his experiences. But he still dreamed of the America that could be, the America rooted in the ideals of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, liberty and justice. In “Let America Be America Again,” he writes:

“O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!”

More than fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, because he too believed in the promise of America:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ . . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

It was precisely because King loved and cared for the ideals of America that he held America accountable for falling short of its ideals. This is part of the cost — and demand — of true patriotism (as opposed to cheap sentiment).

Contrary to popular belief (and let’s recall that in 1966, only 15% of whites thought “demonstrations by Negroes” were appropriate), NFL players who take a knee to protest racism are working out of a patriotic tradition that holds America accountable for its actions, even and especially when it falls short of its ideals. They’re not protesting the flag or the troops, as they’ve stated time and again, but instead are honoring the ideals to which the flag points (it’s not just a piece of cloth), and for which many have died.

As soon as any of the protesting players say they’re taking a knee in protest of those in the military or in protest of the promise of America, then I will no longer support their reasons for taking a knee.

Relatedly, as soon as President Trump apologizes for calling a POW war hero a loser and for belittling a Gold Star family, whose son died in service to our country, then I will consider that President Trump’s desire for players to stand truly is about honoring the military — because his actions show exceptionally low regard for the military. And when Roger Goodell stops requiring the military to pay millions of dollars to the NFL for “military appreciation events,” then I’ll believe his interest in having players stand is to honor the military as well. Otherwise it’s just a cheap symbolic gesture.

If a person is naive enough to think (along with Mike Ditka) that oppression hasn’t existed in America for the last 100 years, or that slavery wasn’t the central reason the Civil War was waged, or that unarmed black men in America aren’t killed by the police at a disproportionately high rate, then there’s nothing this article can do to convince them otherwise. 

But if we’re at least willing to acknowledge that the long history of racism in America is a problem yet to be solved, and that the promise of liberty and justice for all is a goal yet to be achieved, then perhaps you’ll understand — if not appreciate — why some players take a knee in protest against racism. I for one admire their courage and their conviction. Not because they disrespect the ideals of America and those willing to give their life for it, but because they believe in them so much.

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