A Point-by-Point Rebuttal to “Protesting the National Anthem is REAL Patriotism!” Arguments
So this whole NFL national anthem protest stuff. There’s been a lot of misuse of the word “patriotism” on the left recently, as well as on the right. I disagree with both usages, but the left’s irks me more, and in any case I think the right has a better intuitive grasp of its actual meaning (even if it applies it in the most distorted ways possible and is far more hypocritical about it than the left.) Regardless, I’ll be a curmudgeon against my friends on the left- it’s time for a rectification of terms.
So first off, let’s look at Webster:
Love for or devotion to one’s country.
That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? And at a very basic level, the division is this: the right in this country idolizes and idealizes “America” to a ludicrous degree, and wraps itself in the flag whenever it has the chance to, resulting in a childish parody of “devotion to one’s country” that often leaves out significant portions of one’s countrymen. That’s not devotion to country- that’s devotion to what one thinks one’s country is, and there’s a huge difference.
Meanwhile, the left in this country is incredibly ambivalent about “America,” associating it, as they do, with racism, colonialism, genocide, inequality, imperialism, and all sorts of other unsavory things. The left will typically say “America is good because we can become something better” or “America is the ideals of freedom and equality.” Conveniently, this leaves out having to have any devotion or loyalty to actual human beings and actual human institutions, which by the nature of reality are and must be morally imperfect. Loving abstractions like justice and equality is the easiest and most banal thing for anyone to do. It’s different from loving a country, or a person, with all the moral complexity and compromise that involves.
Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself. What follows is a systematic, point-by-point takedown of what I consider to be inaccurate, if widely-and-honestly-held, views on the left about patriotism. I’ll start off with how I define patriotism.
Patriotism: Love and Devotion for the Patria
I wrote a piece a while back, lambasting President Trump for being an idiot and turning patriotism into a high school fight song, and contrasting that to what CIA’s Directorate of Operations cultivates in its operators:
“I’ve always thought there were no greater lovers of country- quiet patriots, invisible servants- than the men and women of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations/National Clandestine Service. To give your life to your country so fully as to surrender your judgment to a code of pure and silent duty to a cause greater than self, to live no other life- is a high order not all of us are worthy of bearing, or called to take.
Patriotism isn’t flags and eagles. It’s a way of life, replete with a demand for virtues we moderns are uncomfortable with thinking about in this age of rights and feelings- honor, duty, sacrifice, service, and yes, love- a love that transcends self-interest and conscience, what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” We’ll never hear about the silent heroes of the CIA- they’ll never be grand marshals of parades, they’ll never stand before adoring crowds and wear gold medallions around their necks. They don’t do their work for glory- they do it out of love. They are superior, but they’d never say it, or, frankly, think it.
They are patriots. They are our best, and their patriotism ought to sober us into emulation.”
So that’s the gold standard I’m talking about. That’s the definition of patriotism for me, to the degree that it can be written down. Not mindless flag-worship, not kowtows to the Lincoln Memorial, not rah-rah-rah-and-hot-dogs-too, none of that- but patriotism. A way of life, a dedication of one’s whole self to a cause higher than self, the cause of country. There are many ways to live this, of course, and CIA/DO is only the purest of them. You can do this as a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine; you can do this as a civic leader in the Rotary Clubs or the Lions Clubs; you can do this as a businessman or businesswoman; you can do it as an activist for social justice or political causes; you can do it as a politician or political hack, heck you could probably even do it as a poor, unassuming policy researcher and political journalist (and I hope to do so!) You can do it while pushing for a diverse array of causes and while holding a diverse array of philosophies. You don’t need to be a George Marshall or a Dwight Eisenhower- many types of people can be patriots.
You just have to, like, be a patriot. And when you are actively not being a patriot- when you are actively opposed to the basic tenets of American patriotism, and your conscience tells you that you don’t really love your country the way so many of these other people do- then you shouldn’t bother calling yourself a patriot.
That’s fine- not everyone is called to be a patriot. Some are called to be humanitarians, others are called to be great purveyors of human justice, other desire to be cosmopolitans. That’s fine as well. I’ve had priests who were uncomfortable calling themselves American patriots for that reason, and I don’t disrespect them for it. They have a different walk of life, a different set of duties.
But for the love of god, if being considered a patriot and sacrificing for your country isn’t a big deal for you, don’t go insult those to whom it matters most and call yourself patriotic. Have the least amount of respect for terms and traditions and go follow the path you want to follow, but don’t insult those who follow a path you consider inferior to yours.
As for me, I’m a patriot because I honestly do love my country. I love the United States of America- the nation-state, its heritage and history, its people, its culture, its future- in all its messiness and all its moral taint. I’m under no illusions about some superiority on the part of Americans, I’m not an American Exceptionalist. I just love it because it’s good, and it’s mine. Henry Clay was said to love his country partly because it was his country, but mostly because it was a free country; I suppose it’s the opposite for me, regardless of how much I love Henry Clay- I love America partly because it’s a free country, but mostly because it’s my country.
The very real accomplishments of the United States of America are too numerous to account for and comprehend. That we might have preserved some semblance of order over the entirety of a continent, and been subjected to only one foreign invasion, and only one internal revolution, and we overcame them both; that with our resources, ingenuity, and spirit, we overcame four great Eurasian totalitarian attempts to destroy the freedom of the international order; and moreover, that though we once were a racial caste system, we now have become a nation of all the nations but a nation still, where people of all backgrounds can live and flourish and participate as unquestioned and unquestionable Americans- we are, as a country and as a heritage, both great and good. There are contradictions in our character that have led us to do great things, and we will only do greater things in the future, til we perish from the Earth. You bet I’m goddamn proud to be an American, and I intend to spend my career studying it, writing about it, and serving it. I hope I can be considered, in the eyes of those who matter, a patriot as well.
And it’s an insult when people who are disgusted by most of that legacy have the gall to call themselves patriots to my face, by the logic that they somehow “are living American ideals” better than such a brainwashed dolt as me.
Well, here’s how I’d respond to the arguments that they’ve been making, that the NFL players who knelt during the National Anthem and refused to salute the flag are the real patriots:
8 Arguments and 8 Responses
Argument 1: “The NFL players are just Trying to Highlight Injustice Against the Black Community!”
Response: Yes, I agree, I’m aware, and I sympathize, and I want action on that issue too. It’s an important thing to bring attention to, and the fact that entire communities of Americans feel disenfranchised from the national community means we are doing something terribly wrong at a societal level to address their problems.
Ross Douthat wrote the other day that the current status of the American culture wars- basically a bloodbath of purely-identitarian issues rather than legitimate policy debates with actual room for compromise and progress- is dividing America without having any upsides at all. I think that’s right- I think if we were actually talking about the issues these athletes are purporting to call attention to, there might indeed be room for progress.
Alas, Colin Kaepernick picked his target of protest very strategically, and turned what could’ve been something resembling a debate between law-and-order activists and BlackLivesMatter activists into a polarized question of identity- do you support the American flag religion, or do you support these black athlete-activists?- that of course was always going to spark huge divides simply due to the depth of feelings about identity, both ways, on that issue. Douthat notes that Trump poured gasoline on the fire to his own benefit, but the left refuses to admit that Kaepernick was the one who brought the flag into it, and the NFL is following him.
The NFL, by following Kaepernick and kneeling, protesting the National Anthem, continues to discredit their cause in the eyes of millions of people who might otherwise possibly be open to compromise. But no one will compromise on the root of their identity. “Some men just like to watch the world burn.”
Argument 2: “The NFL players are just using their right of freedom of speech. Using your constitutional rights is patriotic! You don’t want to SILENCE THEM do you???”
Response: That last part is the classic “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” gotcha sort of question, so it’s worth ignoring. But, if it must be answered- I think I speak for a lot of people in saying, yes of course- the NFL athletes have the right to protest, it’s been enshrined in juridical precedent many times. The question is are they right to protest, which is not a question of law or silencing at all. It’s a question of whether or not they should be lauded for doing what they do.
But let’s look at the more interesting part- “using your constitutional rights is patriotic.” This is a favorite argument on the left to suggest that protest is actually an act of love of country, a setup in which standpatter dinosaurs like me are actually like the British Tories in 1773 who opposed the Patriot Colonists’ protests that led to the birth of America. (For the record, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were both vigorously opposed to acts like the Boston Tea Party and other colonist riots, because they loved order as much as they loved freedom. I would’ve opposed the Boston Tea Party, too, had I been alive back then.)
I won’t go so far as to suggest that using the constitutional rights of speech, assembly, petition, etc. are unpatriotic– I think it’s certainly possible for there to be instances where protests are done, truly, out of love of country and a feeling that there is no other recourse. But the act of protest itself does not seem to me to be a particularly patriotic thing- in fact I’ll neutralize the point, and say that the exercise of constitutional rights seems to me to be neither patriotic nor unpatriotic- it’s just allowed. Is voting patriotic? Is bearing arms patriotic? Is not having to quarter soldiers patriotic? I really don’t think so in any case, so the whole “protesting is patriotism” argument never strikes me as very convincing.
Going off of my earlier definition of patriotism-as-sacrifice, it would seem to me that giving up your constitutional rights to free expression is in fact what real, practicing patriots do out of a sense of duty. For that’s the thing- rights are inherently self-centered and expressive, but duties are inherently cause-centered and sacrificial.
As articulated further above, spies are the greatest American patriots. And why? Is it not because they dedicate their entire lives and all their liberties, including of speech and conscience, to make sure that patria lives?
Perhaps there are many ways to display patriotism. I’d agree with that (not least because I’m unqualified for intelligence service and still want to be a patriot!) But I’d say there’s a real qualitative, and probably quantitative, difference between using your right of protest to call attention to the point that the patria is unjust, and sacrificing time, freedom, and limb to preserve that unjust patria.
Argument 3: “The NFL players are trying to make America better because they love their country and just want progress and solidarity. That’s patriotic!”
Response: If it really were that simple, I’d be more open to believing this argument. There are good reasons to believe, I think, that this is honestly the way most of the NFL players are thinking and choosing- Ross Douthat noted in his aforementioned column that there are many legitimate reasons for players to take a knee, now- opposition to Trump, solidarity with their teammates, legitimate concern for the problems facing the black community, etc. I don’t doubt their sincerity.
I do doubt their judgment and prudence.
So this: if a morality of intentions were all you needed to have to be a good person who should be lauded, the world would be easy and there would be no moral dilemmas. But as any student or practitioner of actual politics knows, there must be some morality of results as well- do a good thing for a good reason and get a bad result, and regardless of how clean your conscience is, you just screwed something up. Do a bad thing for a good reason and get a good result, and no matter how tarnished your conscience now is, you at least accomplished a real goal as well (perhaps the election of an important person, or the preclusion of what might have been a catastrophic war.)
The NFL players, if I’m being charitable, might be accused of having done a good thing for a good reason, but they got a bad result (and they goddamn should’ve known they were gonna get a bad result. You don’t get to metaphorically piss on the flag and not pay for it in the eyes of the American public.) Their consciences might be clean, which is all well and good; but they also brought down a furious and useless culture war identity battle upon themselves and all Americans, aided by Trump. The continued destruction and tearing-apart of the national consensus on what is acceptable is at least partly their fault, and by pursuing the pure version of what their conscience told them, untempered by prudence about “what will the results of this righteous action be?” they contributed to the problem. (Not saying I’m not contributing to that problem, by the way.)
Oh, and solidarity? Complaining about the lack of national unity? Don’t disrespect the last remaining symbol of national unity, and make it a legitimate target for partisan political protest, and say it’s solely the other side’s fault that we don’t have national unity.
Argument 4: “What’s so disrespectful about not standing for the flag? They’re not burning it or taking it down or anything!”
Response: Don’t play innocent with me- we all know exactly what’s so disrespectful about not standing for the flag. We’ve heard this story before, for decades, as activists of all colors and protestors for all kinds of causes have alternately burned, ripped, refused to salute, or jeered the American flag, for some reason that vaguely follows the trope- “I don’t owe this country a goddamn thing. It’s guilty of racism, it’s guilty of warmongering, it’s guilty of putting down labor strikes and peaceful protests with the violence of the state. It’s an evil institution and it’s disgusting that anyone would love it. It’s Orwellian that it would have a “Pledge of Allegiance.” You can have your flag, but I won’t have any part of it.” Regardless of what the means or end of protest, the logic has remained the same- the flag represents the country and the country is bad. Don’t respect the flag, do it either through active disrespect or omission of expected respect, because the country it represents is bad.
But don’t take my word for it- ask Colin Kaepernick, the ringleader of the current iteration of the “don’t-respect-the-flag-because-it’s-racist” movement:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…”
Not really self-consciously patriotic, huh?
Now, I’m open to the notion that some of the players, even many of the players on the field doing this stuff, aren’t thinking this way- I would hope that the NFL, some of America’s finest people, are not so ensconced in deconstructionist social justice warriorism that they would entirely agree with the logic of Kaepernick. I’m not mad at the NFL, for the most part- just disappointed.
But even if a majority of these players don’t hate their country the way Kaepernick is disgusted with his, the fact that they’re following Kaepernick down that road and taking the same actions implicates them in ways they might not fully understand- for there is a deep symbolism in the act of refusing to salute the American flag, and it is inextricably linked to that leftist disdain of America that has so far characterized the act of refusing to salute the American flag. Let me explain with a metaphor on the other side of the aisle.
Suppose a white guy in Northern Virginia, where I’m from, were to do something equally controversial and equally laden with political-cultural statements- suppose he were to burn a cross in public. Suppose he were then interviewed and said “I’m just using my free speech! And this has nothing to do with racism- I swear I’m not racist, I have black friends too! I just… I’m concerned about how things are going for the white community, drugs and free trade and all, and aside from that, well, I’m really proud to be white!”
Now assume you took him at his word (which is hard enough to do, but just assume he’s one of these stupid Millennial dudebros who’s innocently read alt-right materials and hasn’t realized their implications yet.)
There would still be a massive public outcry, even if psychologists determined that he was as non-racist as anybody and he really did enjoy his black friends’ company- and there would be that massive public outcry because he was committing symbolic acts that were inseparable from a particular political-cultural statement. He might not be racist, but he’s doing things that 1) enflame racism and 2) are inseparably linked to racism. NFL players might not be anti-American, but by taking a knee they are doing things that 1) encourage anti-Americanism and 2) are inseparably linked to anti-Americanism. People who fly the Confederate flag might not think much of slavery and secession, but they’re doing things that 1) remind everyone of slavery and secession and 2) are inseparably linked to slavery and secession.
(This is not to compare the NFL players’ beliefs to white supremacist racism by any means- it is simply to illustrate the inseparable connection of certain acts to certain causes, regardless of what the committer of those acts might think of those causes.)
Argument 5: “Well, it’s only “disrespecting the flag” when white people take it as “disrespecting the flag!” If you interpret it right, it’s really just about protesting injustice against the black community!”
Response: That’s nice. It sure would be nice if people only interpreted you as you meant for them to interpret you.
But alas, human beings are human beings and they’ll do what they do and will react as they’ll react. And, as mentioned before, the NFL players really are holding out a “touch this and you’re racist!” trap for everyone, and know exactly who they’ll piss off and get to call racist. Kaepernick certainly did, and in the year since his protest, everyone has had the opportunity to observe what the reaction will be if they follow suit: the praise of coastal educated liberal America, and the spurn of interior uneducated conservative America.
So don’t say “they’re just not interpreting the protest right.” The people protesting have so many other ways they can bring attention to the issue. Making it a de facto question of “support the flag, or support social justice” and then saying you’re not doing that, is divisive and disingenuous.
By the way, I haven’t been covering Trump’s reactions and baitings and the very real racism that exists around this issue in certain quarters of the right. Those have already been covered by others extensively, and I hope I need not make clear that I despise those as well. I’m covering the left side of the equation, and the left’s role in inflaming it, because that’s something that hasn’t really been covered intelligently (and in my opinion, most of the conservative commentariat has sold out on this issue by standing with the NFL against Trump rather than with the American flag against the NFL and Trump. But maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.)
Argument 6: “The NFL players are not disrespecting veterans! They’re just standing up for what they believe in, and that’s patriotic!”
Response: I actually generally am inclined to believe the best of these players’ intentions, and I don’t think they’re trying to disrespect veterans. Some might even say “well I have some friends and teammates who are veterans, so I can’t POSSIBLY be anti-veteran or do anything that’s anti-veteran!”
But as per my response to Argument 4, above- the NFL players are, at the very least, committing an action that is directly associated to statements and attitudes that view veterans’ life work and sworn loyalty- the United States of America- as unjust, oppressive, evil, etc. It may well be that the NFL players and their liberal supporters DON’T despise veterans, and I think this is probably generally true. But to disrespect those veterans’ life work and object of loyalty while claiming to be pro-veteran seems to me to be a kind of “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of patronization. “I love our troops, I just don’t like the country they fight for!” is not something that would exactly convey admiration.
Let’s walk through this step by step.
The U.S. Armed Forces Oath of Enlistment reads as follows:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen all take their oaths of enlistment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States- and, so it is implied, the American patria. (The Constitution doesn’t exist without the flesh-and-blood nation and the institutional state, which doesn’t exist without the heritage and mythos, etc. By pledging to protect the Constitution, our defenders pledge to protect the United States of America as a whole- and this is the very United States of America Colin Kaepernick really doesn’t like.)
So when an NFL player chooses- for whatever personal reasons that may be well-founded- to kneel during the National Anthem to protest it, he is consciously or unconsciously making a statement about the United States of America. As with generations of protestors who have done similar things, the message goes out to the world, from the NFL player- “The United States of America is not worthy of my loyalty and pride.”
To the sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines, and for that matter the diplomats, bureaucrats, and politicians who swore similar oaths to protect and defend and uphold that racist, oppressive institution, the United States of America- the NFL player is not messaging “I appreciate what you do!” He is instead subconsciously telling them “I don’t have anything against you personally and I admire you, but the thing you’re dedicating your life to preserving, protecting, and advancing is a worthless shell of a racist past.” And it follows, “I don’t think your life work is particularly honorable or noble.
So again- I’m not arguing that the NFL players are anti-veteran out of any conscious choice. But by the implication of everything they’re tying themselves up with, they are subtly dissing the national public service community, even if they don’t know it or want to do it.
I clearly have opinions about whether that’s a good thing or not, but my point is not to change your opinions. My point is to get supporters of the NFL players to realize that there are implications to their support of the NFL players that go beyond their own intentions. And those implications imply that what you’re doing is not particularly supportive of the mission and life purpose of our troops. Just accept that, if you will.
Argument 7: “But what about those stupid rednecks who put the flag on bikinis and beer cans and stuff? Why aren’t you pissed off about that?”
Response: You know that’s not relevant. In a technical sense, yes, that does indeed go against the flag code and people shouldn’t do it. But, they’re not doing it out of protest against what they view is an illegitimate, unjust order. They’re doing it because they don’t know any better. Next.
Argument 8: “Fine, I’ll concede: maybe I don’t love my country as much as you say you do, but that’s because there are some things that come before country, like human rights and social justice. But I’m still a patriot, right?”
Response: It’s perfectly fine for you not to be as into this whole “America” thing as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush were. They dedicated their lives to their country. As I said earlier, patriotism isn’t for everybody- not everyone is called to be a statesman, and not everyone is called to be a patriot.
But if America isn’t your first loyalty, you shouldn’t say you’re as patriotic as someone for whom America is indeed the first loyalty. If you’re sufficiently disgusted by America that you qualify your patriotism with a bunch of caveats, just say it.
Now we do need to be constantly reforming our institutions and our society. Patriotism should never, ever, EVER become a cover to preclude important social changes, and real patriots should support important social changes out of love for their fellow citizens and the knowledge that it’s just the right damn thing to do.
Moreover, patriotism should never whitewash the bad out of history. It should never be blind to the fact that bad things happened at one’s own country’s hands. It should never be so callous as to disregard those who suffered at the country’s hands.
But at the end of the day, good patriotism incorporates social justice and historical acceptance while keeping true to itself, and becoming all the more beautiful for it. It is necessarily a morally complex endeavor and temperament to attain and to practice and to live. It should be expected and required of everyone ascending to high public office that Patriotism, so defined and so incorporated, is their first instinct and last goal. (Alas, that hasn’t been the mainstream situation in this country for a few decades- ambition and ideology have generally filled the top space in our leaders’ consciences.)
I love my country and want it to continue along, to go great places, and for it to we’ll need more young patriots to step up. But we need to know what patriotism is, and what it is not, if we are to honestly get anywhere. I fear the present discourse is orienting us away from that.
 I wish I could’ve taken this oath, by the way, so I could write with a little more legitimacy and not be a patriotic chicken-hawk. Alas, my mental illness precluded my enlistment or commissioning every time I tried to get into the Armed Forces, so I am forever consigned- or privileged!- to support the troops from the outside, as a fan who can never really know what they go through.