The National Anthem, and What It Means to Love One’s Country

american flag flying on cloudy day

(I developed these thoughts in a radio interview with Charone Nix, Mandisa Thomas, and Rogier. I can’t remember now who made which point, so I’m crediting all of us for all of them.)

I’ve been thinking about Colin Kaepernick and other sports figures sitting down or kneeling during the National Anthem, to protest systemic racism and racist police brutality. And I’ve been thinking about what it means to love one’s country.

There are things about the United States that are tremendous, and things that are terrible. And many of the tremendous things exist because people saw something terrible, and protested. We ended slavery, expanded voting to include women and people of color, created a social safety net (or the vague semblance of one), created protections for voters, established safety standards for the food we eat, established child labor laws and workplace safety laws and a minimum wage, and much, much more — because people looked at the way things were and said, “No. This is not acceptable. We can do better. We must do better.”

Protest is one of the highest forms of patriotism. Seeing things that are terribly wrong with the country, and speaking out in whatever form (short of violence) is available and effective, is one of the highest forms of patriotism. It says, “We can do better. Our potential is so much greater than what we are right now.” To look at a country with rampant poverty, inequality, voter disenfranchisement, racist police brutality, homophobic and transphobic violence, institutional trivialization of rape, and more — and think, “Yeah, whatever, that’s the best we can do” — how is that patriotic? That’s not love of your country. That’s giving up on your country.

There’s a lot to be said about the National Anthem protests, and many people have said it well. It’s been pointed out how absurd it is to shrug off or rationalize the reality of racist police brutality, but lose your shit over a football player sitting down and not singing a song. It’s been pointed out that a relationship that demands unquestioning support even when you’re treated terribly isn’t loving — it’s abusive. It’s been pointed out that it’s absurd to fetishize symbols and ignore the realities they represent. It’s been pointed out that Jackie Robinson also refused to stand up for the National Anthem, for pretty much the same reason as Colin Kaepernick: we love our rebels and protestors from the past, and yet excoriate them in the present. (Prophets have honor in other countries, and the past is another country.) It’s been pointed out that “when nationalism and religion are understood as functionally identical, we see what Colin Kaepernick’s crime is: heresy.” It’s been pointed out that anti-racism protestors are told to protest nicely and politely in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone, are told not to march in the streets or block traffic or even call people racist — but when someone protests by literally sitting quietly, that’s not okay either.

All of that is true, and important. But it’s not my point today.

Patriotism is often performative, in much the same way religion is often performative. I don’t think this is always conscious or cynical (although I think it sometimes is), but in circles where patriotism is equated with goodness, performing patriotism persuades people of that goodness, and bigger performances are seen as more authentic. Displays of both religiosity and patriotism are “in-group” displays as well — and as such, they’re often driven by fear. In some circles, there is considerable pressure put on people to perform both patriotism and religiosity, and a significant cost to not doing so. The demand that patriotism be performed is all too often a demand, not for genuine love and work, but for unquestioning conformity.

But protest is patriotic. Seeing our potential to be better, speaking out about how we could be better, and working to make things better — often at great personal cost — is patriotic. In the words of Carl Schurz: “My country, right or wrong. If right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”

The National Anthem, and What It Means to Love One’s Country

One thought on “The National Anthem, and What It Means to Love One’s Country

  1. 1

    “You know you love the country. Otherwise you wouldn’t be getting so mad when things are screwed up.” -Folk singer Utah Phillips [paraphrased]
    It’s the clowns that can paste a smile on their faces and keep cheering that worry me.

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