11 October 2017

Is love of country blind?

A Delmar woman addresses the national anthem controversy in a letter published in today's Albany Times Union.  "Before we all go boycotting the NFL," she writes, "perhaps we should consider a broader definition of patriotism, one that moves beyond blind deference to the flag and military and embraces all the values our flag was created to represent." Her word choice exposes another of the conflicts of perception dividing the country. The crucial word, as you may have guessed already after reading the header, is "blind." This is another way of expressing the sentiment I've ascribed to those taking a knee, which sees any requirement to stand or otherwise "show respect" during the anthem as a requirement to ignore the pressing problems of the nation. To show respect unconditionally, as President Trump and his supporters appear to demand, is to say everything is okay when it is not okay. Put another way, the demand for an unconditional show of respect on certain occasions is seen by many as just another way of saying, "My country right or wrong," a sentiment abhorrent to those for whom the rights of conscience override every other consideration. Yet I'm fairly certain that no one demanding respect for the flag and the anthem understands himself to be demanding that anyone "blind" themselves to anything. For whatever reason, they feel that there are some times and places where the right of conscience should temporarily yield to other considerations.

It's important to understand the backlash against athletes taking a knee is not just a demand for respect but also a demand for solidarity. The present populist moment in our history is driven by an anxiety that Americans don't have each other's backs. It's a reaction to as many as three generations of escalating mutual distrust and disrespect, and what it requires of everyone is some act of affirmation. The sort of affirmation demanded depends on the people making the demand. As this controversy continues, with an ultimate showdown possible during this Sunday's NFL schedule, I grow more convinced that the demand for shows of allegiance/respect from pro athletes is the "Black Lives Matter" movement of white populists, absolutely equivalent in its insistence upon an explicit affirmation that others would rather be taken for granted. In the case of "Black Lives Matter," the refusal of activists to be satisfied with "All Lives Matter" baffles and infuriates many people. In the case of the anthem, the refusal of Trumpists and older superpatriots to be satisfied with anything along the lines of "Of course I love my country..." is equally infuriating and baffling to those who feel obliged to perform perhaps the mildest act of civil disobedience possible. The offense in both disputes is basically the same. BLM activists don't trust that their lives matter implicitly to those who say "All Lives Matter," on the assumption that if their specific lives really did matter people wouldn't have a problem making the more specific statement." Angry superpatriots don't trust people unwilling to "honor America" for one measly minute to have their backs, keep faith with the troops, etc.

If anything makes the anthem controversy  more controversial it's the athletes' understanding that they have no more public or dramatic way to publicize their dissent than what they've been doing, though by now it's probably become unclear to many people what exactly Colin Kaepernick's successors are protesting. The point remains that for all the other opportunities they presumably have as celebrities to promote their sociopolitical agendas, nothing gets in people's faces more effectively, if only to rile them up, as taking a knee on national television, and since just about everyone in the U.S. reserves a right to dissent on their own terms when they please, the athletes will surrender the field only reluctantly, if not after a fight.  Their obdurance must leave others wondering whether there is any occasion left when Americans can forget their partisan or parochial differences and affirm their common citizenship and national solidarity.  The answer to that question is yes, but lots of people have to be killed before those moments happen. For the situation to improve, many Americans will have to convince themselves that they can (and should) express allegiance to the republic -- not "the troops" -- that guarantees their freedom on appropriate occasions, while reserving and using their right to dissent every other time. As long as people remain confident of their rights -- and that may be another underlying problem right now -- a minimal show of allegiance like standing for a flag that does not stand for Donald Trump need not be seen as blind loyalty, or even as the blink of an eye.

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