In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit it is the first.
-- Ambrose Bierce
I recite the Pledge of Allegiance when the opportunity arises. Since I was in junior high school, I have skipped over two words, pronouncing this "one nation indivisible," with no pause or Red Scare-era religious interlopings. But I recite it, and it has meaning to me.
I do these things because I believe in this country. I believe in the framework set forth in our Constitution. I believe that we have been and can continue to be a beacon to the world, not because we are ordained to speciality, but because we chose to be special.
I believe in human beings. I believe that the moral imperative common to all of the world's great religions and to all great ethical systems—that we should help each other—is the principal reason why we have survived as a species. I also believe that the best method of implementing that moral imperative is to balance our incentives by rewarding individual initiative, within reason, and common cause, within reason. And I believe that the United States of America has come the closest of all nations to striking that balance.
Lately, some people are confused about patriotism and about what it means to love your country. They believe that only those who believe in "my country—right or wrong" are patriots, that patriotism means accepting and applauding everything your country does.
They are wrong.
"'My country, right or wrong,'" wrote the English writer G.K. Chesterton in 1901, "is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"
I am not a patriot because I believe that this nation is perfect. To believe it is would require me to ignore the many ways in which it is imperfect. Rather, I am a patriot because I believe that we have the will and the structure to become better. The men who conceived, wrote, advocated for, and established the Constitution lived in a gloriously imperfect society. Slavery was legal and enshrined in that document. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Women had no say in politics and would not gain the vote anywhere in America for nearly a hundred years. We were a frontier nation, governed in the small instances as much by force as by law. But they understood that it was necessary to begin somewhere, and they wrote with the understanding that while absolute perfection is impossible in any human society, if we can set up a few fixed stars of a just society, we can navigate toward greater and greater fulfillment of our promise.
For that reason, I have always believed that our best days as a nation lie ahead of us. We face enormous challenges. In many ways, there exist two Americas, one for middle- and upper-class white folks, who don't generally have to worry about things like getting arrested, beaten, or murdered by law enforcement officers; and one for poor whites and all minorities, who suffer thousands of wrongs, some slight, some major. People of color in particular have yet to experience the same kind of freedom that I, as a relatively well-off white man, can easily take for granted.
For example, I have never had a negative interaction with a police officer. I've been pulled over a couple of times, once because I was speeding (71 in a 60, for which I received a ticket), and once because my tag was expired (I was on my way to the repair shop to get an inspection, and the officer simply told me to keep going). When I go somewhere, nobody questions my right to be there. When I walk in a bank, I can open an account without much fuss, and I can feel confident that my loan application will be judged on the merits rather than on my skin color.
These are things that people of color cannot take for granted, no matter how well off they might be.
We have a serious, abiding, and embarrassing problem, in that law enforcement officers in many jurisdictions can mistreat people of color, up to and including cold-bloodedly murdering them, and 24 out of 25 of the few who are charged escape any conviction at all. This is not the mark of a society that values "liberty and justice for all."
So, what is the patriot's imperative? What do those words mean, "one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"? To what do we pledge allegiance: Blind acceptance of injustice, or a demand that our nation actually be just?
Because I love my country, I desperately and earnestly want for it to be better. It cannot get better without protest, without criticism, without Americans standing up against injustice and racism and white supremacism.
When I sing the Anthem, or pledge my allegiance to our beautiful flag, it means that I am, as an American, dedicating my energies and efforts to making this a place worthy of the world's respect.
When Colin Kaepernick knelt respectfully during the playing of the Anthem, he did so not to protest our nation, to seek the violent overthrow of the government, nor to urge that we abandon our high principles. He did so to remind those of us who cared to understand that we have not yet met the standard to which we committed ourselves long ago. He did so because he loves this country even as he hates some of the things we allow this country to do.
After all, if he didn't care about this country, he could easily go elsewhere. He is a man of means. He could settle elsewhere and live out his days in comfort. He is more a patriot than any of the pretenders who bang away on their keyboards or shout on the neverending parade of political talk shows, condemning him and the many other NFL players who joined his protest on Sunday.
Those pretenders claim to love America, but they hate Americans.
They claim to respect the flag, but many of them glorify the Confederacy.
They claim to love the troops, but they don't care about the damage that endless war causes them--the PTSD, the traumatic brain injuries, the lost limbs, the deaths--and they are more than happy to politicize the military in service of their views.
Most of all, they can't see beyond the narrow range of their own zone of comfort. They see a black man, wearing an Afro, making politically divisive clothing choices, and refusing to go along with their displays of empty patriotism, and suddenly that black man is "disrespecting the flag and the nation and the troops." They don't realize—or maybe they do—that by opposing that protest, they are siding with the white supremacists who believe that a proper role of law enforcement is to beat down minorities.
I have known many people who served in the military. I don't know anyone who joined, fought, or died for the right to force people to stand for the national anthem. Most of the ones I've spoken to about this issue echo the sentiment expressed by Gen. Michael Hayden, a four-star general and former CIA and NSA director, who in an op-ed yesterday wrote:
As a 39-year military veteran, I think I know something about the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and I think I know why we fight. It’s not to allow the president to divide us by wrapping himself in the national banner. I never imagined myself saying this before Friday, but if now forced to choose in this dispute, put me down with Kaepernick.The lines here are ever more sharply drawn, and I know which side I'm on. I'm on the side of the real patriots. Put me down with Kaepernick, too.