Image – “American flag 2017 aluminum, fasteners, latex paint, duct tape and glitter stars” by Matt Swanson
Dear Mr. President,
There’s been a lot of talk (and tweets) lately about standing for the national anthem, respecting the American flag and otherwise properly exhibiting patriotism. You have claimed that the actions of some sports figures to draw attention to vital social issues are disloyal and unpatriotic. That’s a fair charge if your definition consists of turning a blind eye to the faults in our system and the people who administer it. That is not my definition.
On Sunday afternoon, you tweeted: “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable.” Newsflash: You don’t get to decide how the rest of us demonstrate our patriotism.
For starters, I disagree that this form of protest is disrespectful. The players kneel during the anthem, rather than shouting over or otherwise disrupting it, turning their backs on the flag or simply remaining seated. To me, this is a deliberately respectful form of protest.
More importantly, I’ve long felt that patriotism fundamentally encompasses a belief and faith in the ability of our country to evolve. I would argue, then, that those people who advocate most vigorously for change are the people most loyal to the United States because they want to see us become the best we can be, and they believe in this vision enough to talk about the necessity for change. The people we should worry about are not the people who raise (and, yes, even speak out against) the hard issues we face as a nation. Rather, we should be concerned about those who have been silenced or succumbed to quietism because they are either afraid or no longer feel it will make a difference. In the Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, Elizabeth Cary (a contemporary of Shakespeare) wrote “Move thy tongue, / For silence is a sign of discontent.” It is when silence reigns, when we lack dialogue and a diversity of voices, that we can be most sure something is fundamentally wrong.
As highlighted in another letter, your opinion doesn’t encompass the viewpoint of all American service members and veterans. Military personnel are committed to defending the freedoms guaranteed to all citizens under our Constitution and also recognize the history of athletes with a significant public platform using their fame to call attention to social issues. Noting that Jackie Robinson demonstrated against racism in a similar fashion, an open letter signed by numerous veterans from many walks of life states: “[W]e write to express our support for the tradition of advocacy by athletes that is embodied by Jackie Robinson and carried on by Colin Kaepernick…. [M]any veterans do not condemn the protest of activists like Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick and everyday Americans seeking justice. Indeed, we see no higher form of patriotism.”
Speaking up and calling out injustice has undoubtedly made our country greater. I hate to think where we might still be without people brave enough to do that. If they didn’t care so much or believe we could improve, they would simply stay silent and permit wrongs to go unaddressed. Athletes who engage in these respectful protests are putting their livelihoods on the line. Colin Kaepernick was not signed to a team this year and owners could take up your asinine challenge to fire any players who do not stand during the anthem.
Interestingly, your twitter ravings have spurred far more people to take action than before. And now they are kneeling with the specific purpose of opposing what you stand for. Miami Dolphins player Julius Thomas knelt during the anthem for the first time on Sunday “to send a message that I don’t condone … the president trying to intimidate people.” Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics became the first player to take a knee during the anthem at a major league baseball game for similar reasons. “This now has gone from just a Black Lives Matter topic to just complete inequality of any man or woman that wants to stand for their rights!”
Citizenship is a relationship that each of us has with our country, and like all important relationships, it takes effort to sustain. The work doesn’t always feel good, but it’s worth it.
Likewise, our democracy isn’t shiny and brand new anymore; the glitter is wearing off our stars. It’s our responsibility as citizens to maintain it, even if the only way we can hold it together is with duct tape and the hope that we as a country really do stand (or kneel) for the beliefs on which this country was founded.
Since you abandon in some fashion almost every ship you steer, I think we both know you’re not long for the Oval Office. The true patriots among us will rebuild our democracy from the dismantled scraps you leave behind when you go.