I wrote this posting originally in response to a video that I saw on Facebook (see above), shared by someone I know. The letter reproduced in it pushed my buttons rather firmly, as someone who loves the ideas of America, rather than loving symbols or songs, flags or anthems. I had long held off on posting it, though, because I thought maybe I was overreacting, and in any case, I’d written “The Idolatry of the American Flag,” which covered much of the same ground. However, given the President’s absurd remarks about the NFL, and the many well-intentioned but foolish people following the above-quoted gentleman down the mindless patriotism rabbit hole, I decided it was worth saying everything again.
The man who wrote the letter above apparently has no idea what he actually was fighting for (or what he should have been fighting for) when he served in the Marines. It’s not, after all, an inherent good merely to be trained to kill people and then to carry out the fruits of that education. War is a necessary evil, not something to be relished or to be romanticized. It’s an act of necessity, and though this Marine’s deeds, and the deeds of all such warriors, were brave, noble, honorable, and worthy of great respect, they are not inherently of greater worth than playing football is. This may seem an absurd claim, but to see why it is correct, just realize that all sane people would surely wish, fervently, for a world where soldiers are no longer necessary, and where humanity has reached a stage of natural cooperation and peace. Is there any need for one to dream of or pray for a future without football (barring the laments of “football widows,” of course, and tabling for the moment the very real concerns about CTE)?
It is acceptable, and even admirable, for a football player to refuse to stand for the national anthem, and the reasons are multiple.
Firstly, the making mandatory of any obeisance to any symbol is fundamentally antithetical to the very principles upon which this nation was founded. No piece of cloth, no song, is at the heart of America. That heart beats in the ideas expressed in The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
To address the silly comparison made in the above letter about the enforcement of rules against unsportstmanlike conduct and the like: the reason it’s just and correct for players to be penalized for violating sportsmanship rules, and other rules as well, is that those are the rules of the game that they chose, voluntarily, to play. On the other hand, when the country in which you were born, and of which you are a citizen, violates its own rules and its own ideals—as it has and does on all too many occasions, though we strive always to come closer to those ideals—it is right and proper to withhold displays of respect until and unless those violations are addressed. It is proper to call attention to those violations by making a public statement, which effort has clearly succeeded in this instance, since discussion is now occurring (though I fear the original cause, which was to call attention to racially biased police brutality and related issues, may have become obscured).
Many protesters in American history have openly flouted social norms—and received public reproach from benighted citizens of their times—in response to our failures to live up to our national ideals. The very founders of our country took a public stance against injustice, no doubt offending many loyal British citizens by doing so. Was this shameful? Was this unacceptable because it insulted the many fine soldiers in the British military who had been, no doubt, a crucial presence during the foundation of the colonies?
Unlike the writer of the above letter, I myself would be inclined to boycott the NFL if they were to bring official sanctions against any individuals who have refused to stand for the national anthem. Such sanctions would violate the very spirit of the nation for which our many fine military personnel have fought and died.
When the United States as a nation goes against the tenets of our own Constitution, when we fail to live up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, then it is right that we hold ourselves to task, and it is particularly right that those who are successful and publicly visible make a statement…especially when calling attention to injustices that affect those with whom they share ethnic or social characteristics. It is, in fact, morally courageous for them to do so, precisely because they have much to lose, and it would be so easy for them to accept and revel in their own success without giving a thought to others, less fortunate than they.
Those who have fought in our military, like all Americans, are perfectly within their rights to disagree with the choice of a football player not to rise for the national anthem, or to disdain someone who refuses to repeat the pledge of allegiance, or to be angry if someone burns the flag. Those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are within their rights to say why they are angered by such actions. But to request that sanctions be brought against someone simply because they knelt during the national anthem before a football game betrays confusion about what they should be fighting for. The oath of a warrior of the United States does not—to my knowledge—call upon the oath-taker to protect and defend a piece of cloth, or a song, against all enemies, foreign and domestic; it calls upon them to defend the Constitution, and by implication, the ideals and freedoms of our nation, including the freedom to disagree with it, and to protest its policies. Blind patriotism is no more morally acceptable than blind antipathy toward a country, or a culture, or to those of a certain skin color. In many cases, such blind patriotism can be horribly dangerous.
A warrior of the United States who fought and died to defend a flag, or a song, or any other symbol, but not to defend the fundamental principles represented by those symbols, was fighting for the wrong thing (or perhaps for the wrong country). We rightly honor a warrior’s courage, we honor his or her service, we honor his or her memory. But we cannot ethically honor the point of view of a warrior who decries the occasionally uncomfortable aspects and consequences of the ideals of the nation for which he or she is fighting.
Moral courage is different than physical courage, and it’s not as simple to maintain, let alone to be certain of. It requires a constant willingness to reevaluate one’s point of view, and those of one’s community or country, and to change them when such change is needed. But because we have difficulty being objective about our own point of view, it is crucial—if we want to give ourselves the best possible chance of being right, rather than just feeling righteous—that we not merely allow, but encourage, dissent. America was founded on an intellectual and physical revolution, led by people who were open to questioning themselves and their ideas. That they failed to live up to their own lofty standards was perhaps inevitable, and that we have continued to fail in that regard ever since should not shock us. But unless people—even sports figures—make statements, and call attention to failures of justice and failures of morality, we will often disregard our own shortcomings, no matter how brave and battle-ready we may be. To do such a thing willfully would be truly offensive and disgraceful to anyone who wishes to be called an American.