Monday, September 26, 2016
Ill-Advised Dissent–How Protesting The National Anthem Erodes The Notion Of Union
Much has been made of Colin Kaepernick, a professional quarterback who has chosen to sit out the National Anthem. It is his Constitutional right say supporters, since freedom of speech should not be curtailed in any way. If he feels that black Americans have suffered unfairly and unjustly and that the United States as a corporate, political entity is responsible, then he should have the occasion to protest the greatest symbol of the Union, the national hymn.
While this Constitutional principle may be true, and while Kaepernick does have a juridical right to voice his protests however and in whatever venue he sees fit, his action has consequences which he has not foreseen.
‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, said Samuel Johnson; and appealing to national pride, honor, and integrity can seem, especially in these days of moral relativism and and post-modern reappraisal of institutions and republics, naïve and hopelessly déclassé.
It smacks of Babbitry, boosterism, America-first nativism, and antiquated notions of national h0nor. Cultures, societies, and nations are of equal value, say progressive advocates of multi-culturalism. Even less reason to be patriotic and xenophobic. National borders have been artificially-drawn, politically inspired, and irrelevant given the gross regional inequities of income and social class.
There are only fictive, artificial borders between the United States and Mexico, India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, or Europe with Turkey. Human beings were never meant to be corralled and penned within limits determined by elites. Nationhood, the nation-state, the very concept of the sanctity of national borders are meaningless in today’s dynamically changing pluralistic world. Patriotism under these conditions, is indeed a refuge of the ignorant.
The culture of any nation is never a fixed, determined quantity. There is no more reasons for the Netherlands to remain a land of Hans Brinker, dikes, windmills, and tulips than there are for France to be perpetually a nation of berets, baguettes, and Camembert. The culture and social norms which define and describe a nation in one decade will sure to be outdated and irrelevant the next.
Of course few Dutch, French, or residents of any other country go complaisantly to this new, changed, and strange world. The most tolerant countries of Europe – Denmark and Holland especially – are turning far right because of what citizens see as an assault on their ‘traditional culture’. France is outraged that the principles of the Revolution are being challenged. We are not all French say Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and older French are not at all happy at this erosion of moral and political values.
This is all well and good; but there is no such thing as one, permanent, unshakable culture of any country. The world is too small, borders too impermeable, and social and economic divisions too great for the Old Guard to remain in place. For traditional bourgeois values to remain intact. For assumptions about racial and ethnic superiority to remain unchallenged.
What, then, defines a nation? As long as borders do exist, then what defines La France, Britain, India, or the United States? More importantly, if a clear definition of national culture no longer exists and has been so diluted by the influx of non-nationals that its parameters, core values, and principles are indistinct, then do nationalism and patriotism also disappear?
The case of the United States is particularly problematic. We are a country of process rather than substance. We represent freedom, liberty, economic liberalism, and capitalism – not a multi-century history of great art, literature, architecture, and political thought. We have never had a culture to defend, for we have always been the willing and welcoming hosts to all comers. We have no Roncesvalles where Roland and Charlemagne held off the Saracen hordes. We have never been Athens, Imperial Rome, Persepolis, the Mauryan Empire or the Hand or Meiji dynasties. We are nothing but politically philosophical principles.
Yet we are still a nation. We may have few empirical markers or cultural points de repère, but we still feel – understand – a national integrity. If we were to go t0 war with the Iranians, North Koreans, Russians, or Chinese, we would know why. We would be defending our core Enlightenment principles – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Despite the fact that Western, American-style liberal democracy is increasingly questioned – English may be the international lingua franca, but corrupt, secular, ill-defined capitalistic entrepreneurialism most definitely is not – we are confident that our God-based, proven principles of universal suffrage, respect, and tolerance will always prevail.
So what to make of the protests against the National Anthem? Harmless expressions of frustration for the perceived insults of the white majority? Disingenuous but legitimate cries for recognition of the dispossessed? O r a more serious step towards the disintegration of the Union?
If the United States were to enter a war of consequence; i.e. not a war of easy victory like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria but one of existential possibilities with a nuclear power – what then? Would all of those who now kneel on the sidelines refuse to take part? To serve their country? To stand with their confreres against the enemy?
Standing with locked arms against a police line, marching on the Capitol, joining a Million Man March are all clear, distinct, demonstrations of dissatisfaction and anger against a particular antagonist. Kneeling against the National Anthem, the symbol of America – protesting against the entire country and all for which it stands – is quite another matter. Does such protest mean that young men and women of the draft age of Colin Kaepernick would refuse military service? Would anything but refusal and acceptance of prison time be hypocritical?
Protest against the National Anthem is tantamount to protest against the United States; and Kaepernick and his followers have said as much. Despite the benefits and rewards that American has given them, the country as a whole is corrupt, elitist, racist, and destructive. The country, not white Southerners, illiberal Philadelphians, or hypocritical liberal East Siders is responsible for and behind the oppression of black people.
Choosing such a revered national symbol – the National Anthem – to protest means casting one’s lot against the cultural, political, and social integrity of the nation. Protesting, objecting, and defying the country and the principles on which it is based is corrosive at best and destructive at worst.
Yes, Kaepernick and his colleagues had a Constitutional right to kneel during the National Anthem; but should they have? Should they not have chosen a means of protest more appropriate to their cause – one which would not have the same collateral national damage as this one?
Kneeling or sitting during the Anthem has little to do with patriotism, xenophobia, or naïve nativism. As an act of disrespect it serves to unravel hard-won social integrity and erode national integrity. We cannot face an implacable enemy so divided.
Demonstrate if you will, but pick your grievances, your venue, and your purpose very, very carefully.