I too easily forget just how recently the United States became a representative democracy. For the first two hundred years of its existence it was a slave state; for the century that followed it was an apartheid one. It’s only in the last fifty years that it ceased to be a racially divided one, at least as far as its governing legislation is concerned. Sadly, however, the divide continues, and appears to be deepening.
The current situation is a deeply disappointing one. It is also one that has been misrepresented – and continues to be misrepresented – to a degree that would be farcical if it weren’t tragic. A number of players of American team sports, mostly football, have knelt rather than stood for the national anthem. They have done so because they are following the example of Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year to protest, and start a conversation about, the ways in which the police treat or mistreat black Americans or other people of colour. “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in the flag of a country that oppresses black people,” he said in a press conference shortly after he began his protest. This was a protest that came in the wake of a slew of videos showing police officers shooting unarmed black men on American streets.
If it hadn’t been for the intervention of Donald Trump – a man who is to unenlightened discourse what gasoline is to a dumpster fire – the protest would probably have fizzled out of its own accord: Kaepernick is insufficiently influential on his own to give his movement the critical mass it needed to trigger the conversation he wanted to have. But Trump, whose ego will not allow him to confront the grim reality of the polls that show a steady decline in his support, instead saw an opportunity to appeal to his shrinking base of diehard supporters by recasting the players’ actions as an assault on the sanctified American Flag, rather than as a gesture that drew attention to the failure of the state to live up to the very ideals that that flag is meant to represent. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,'” Trump said at a rally in Alabama, using language less temperate than that with which he described white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville (some of whom, you’ll remember, were “very fine people”).
The result of this intervention was pretty much exactly what you’d imagine. Far more athletes started copying Kaepernick’s actions, while the President’s counter-narrative has also gained increasing traction. But lost somewhere in the middle of all of this is a different debate,, and it has to do with the meaning of the word ‘patriot’.
Trump’s argument is not a stupid one. He knows very well the sway the flag exerts over the American public. But my contention is that ‘the flag’ is no longer the focus of patriotism. It’s not even the focus of nationalism. It’s a fetish object.
You can teach a dog the difference between ‘the finger that points’ and ‘the thing at which you’re pointing’, but this seems increasingly to be a distinction that eludes those who talk about ‘disrespecting the flag’. The flag is just a piece of patterned fabric. It’s not important. What’s important is what it represents, and the patriot, unlike the fetishist, concentrates on those national ideals. They are what truly defines a nation. In America’s case, most of them are written down in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
The Constitution begins thus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When you have officials of the state demonstrating evidence of a systemic bias towards shooting unarmed black men, those national representatives are displaying that as far as they are concerned all men are not created equal, that their rights are not inalienable, and that there is no reason not to deprive them of their lives, their liberty or their pursuit of happiness. Those state officials are, in other words, un-American. They can no longer be considered national representatives, regardless of whatever badge they wear, because their actions do not accord with the ideals upon which the nation is based.
Patriots understand this, and are honour-bound to draw attention to it. “If these individuals hide behind a flag and use it to cover their appalling actions, they may do so only on the understanding that I will refuse to acknowledge that flag as anything more than a figleaf.” This is a perfectly logical and patriotic response. The patriot, remember, doesn’t care about the flag; he or she cares about what the flag represents. Meanwhile the fetishist sees the flag and only the flag, and views anyone who isn’t similarly monomaniacal with at best suspicion or at worst outright hostility.
(It is a bizarre twist of historical irony that the President, who after all is the one who sought to create the false division between ‘patriots’ and ‘those who kneel during the anthem,’ that he has offered solace to the people who by any rational standard most oppose the Stars and Stripes and what it stands for: those who seek to honour the wielders of the Stars and Bars, the Confederate flag, who represented the greatest existential threat to the United States in its history).
In a further toxicity, Trump and his supporters have sought to equate ‘kneeling during the anthem’ with ‘disrespecting the sacrifices of servicemen and -women’. This is iniquitous. First of all, members of the armed forces understand – with a clarity that perhaps Trump lacks – exactly what ideals their nation is founded upon. Second of all, they understand that those ideals govern how – and, crucially, why – they fight. Or as Maria Tillman, the widow of former NFL player and US Army corporal Pat Tillman, who was killed on active duty in Afghanistan, put it:
“Those that serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. They and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.
“The very action of self-expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views.
“It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.”
Colin Kaepernick wanted to ignite a public debate. He succeeded, but sadly so far all we have learned from it is that American public morality is never so outraged as when it is forced to examine itself.