Ever since the 2016 election, it seems like political conflict has crept, sinister unstoppable, into every corner of our lives. One example is the recent protests in the NFL, kicked off by player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick has kickstarted a national conversation by taking a knee during the National Anthem rather than standing.
His protest was about police brutality. However many people have decided, in an act of willful misunderstanding so typical of our politics today, that kneeling during the national anthem actually means the players hate America.
There are many unpleasant things about America that have been exposed by the response to Kaepernick’s protest, but perhaps the most obvious has been the right’s inability to self-reflect.
In many culture war debates, conservatives will refer to the left’s tendency toward “outrage”. While outrage is certainly a constant along the political spectrum, there’s no one who makes their own hurt feelings central to their politics quite like conservatives.
As a leftist, when someone asks me to examine the meaning and purpose behind something I enjoy and value, I can do that. Many conservatives either can’t or won’t. Kaepernick and other NFL protesters have made it very clear what the purpose of their protest is. They’re calling out the hypocrisy of American ideals, of ideas of equality and equal protection under the law that in practice, simply do not apply to people of color.
If you value the symbolism of the American national anthem, whether because you served in the military or simply because you think patriotism is an important value, you shouldn’t be outraged. People have a legitimate grievance which leads them to feel ambivalent or hostile to American symbols. You should wonder what it is about the way America operates that could be changed for the better to help these people who face disadvantages who don’t feel as positively about the country as you do.
That’s not what conservatives do. Instead, they reject protesters with hostility, anger and in this case, often racism. There’s nothing more typical of “outrage culture” than this: a violently outraged rejection of others who see the world differently than you do.
If viewed rationally in the context of how America truly operates we should see the NFL player’s decision to kneel as a decidedly mild protest. We live in a country run by a president who has all but explicitly endorsed white supremacy and where black people are struggling against a policing system where police officers murder them . That’s only the tip of the iceberg of racism in America; a country built on the basis of slave labor. Forget kneeling for the national anthem, I wouldn’t blame black Americans for burning flags in the streets.
There’s a lot I could say about America’s near-religious devotion to displays of patriotism or the fundamental absurdity of singing the national anthem before a sporting event (it’s not like we do this before a movie premiere or concert). But if these rituals are important or meaningful to you, you should want to improve our country so that everyone else can enjoy the pride and love the anthem inspires in them.
If you truly believe America is the greatest country on Earth, that implies a belief that patriotism is earned, not owed. Why not listen to what the protesters have to say and help our country earn it?