This past Saturday, just before the start of Penn’s first home varsity football game, two members of the Penn cheerleading squad “[made] a statement,” according to a photo tweeted out by Penn Athletics. One took a knee and one raised her fist during the national anthem.
In doing so, they chose to follow the growing trend of athletes sitting out or otherwise declining to participate in the patriotic rituals which traditionally precede sporting events. That gesture, of course, began with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sat out a national anthem during NFL preseason.
Of course, no one who protests in this way ought to face retribution for exercising their rights. That doesn’t, however, immunize them from criticism, and it is to criticize I intend.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in explanation of his actions. I will assume, for purposes of examination, that those who have followed his lead, including at Penn, share the same motivation.
Though I am also deeply concerned with the treatment of black people nationwide, I don’t think Kaepernick’s implication that demonstrations of patriotism constitute indifference to or endorsement of those injustices holds water.
There’s much to protest about American society as it stands in 2016. But the choice to protest these phenomena by refusing to engage in patriotic display or by disparaging patriotic symbols, still leaves something to be desired. For one thing, it leaves room for its audience to mistake the intended message for either a specific denunciation of the United States government or for a condemnation of American ideals and values, because similar disrespect of national symbols — such as flag burnings — are often used to convey these messages.
More significantly though, this form of protest necessarily insists that what patriotic symbols represent — America, the nation — is essentially defined by its sordid reality, rather than its lofty aims.
That’s understandable. There are lots of things in the world which we define by the actual results they achieve rather than by the goals they aim at. If you bought candy designed to taste like strawberries that in reality tasted like disinfectant, you’d correctly write it off as bad candy, and not revere, respect or praise it. But human institutions are not like consumer products. Their realities are not fully determined by their constitutive processes and so are not static and fixed. One needn’t necessarily rewrite a nation’s “recipe” to make it more like what its label says it ought to be.
Moreover, a nation, unlike a society, is not defined fully by its realities. As any political scientist will tell you, nation is an idea, a cultural myth of a people who share a land, a heritage and a set of values.
As such, I believe it’s fully possible to respect and revere the idea of the American nation and its symbols without signifying approval of its current reality. It is the idea of America, made up of those essential American ideals and values articulated in our founding documents which our symbols, rightly understood, represent not the imperfect present or the shameful past in which those ideals are and have been sadly unrealized.
Recognition of this allows one to avoid the nihilism which insists that the present failure to actually achieve our goals indicates the essential corruption of the goals themselves and to embrace the truly patriotic notion of ongoing struggle towards an ever more perfect union. It allows one to embrace patriotism itself as the most powerful form of protest against ongoing transgressions of the ideal of representative democracy guaranteeing equal treatment under law.
It was this very embrace of patriotism as protest which made this year’s Democratic National Convention so powerful and unique. In particular, the speech given by Khizr Khan, who, in protest, literally elevated the most concrete symbol of American ideals to denounce their violation. Khan certainly has as much reason as Kaepernick to be dissatisfied with the present reality of America. It has taken his son’s life in a failed and frivolous war and threatens to elect a man who denies Khan’s ability to be an American based on his faith. And yet, Khan chose not to denigrate America’s ideals, but to hold them up and challenge us all to realize them more fully. By Kaepernick’s logic, he should have thrown the document down and tread upon it. My respect for him is very much heightened because he did not.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough” usually appears every Wednesday.
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