Patriotic cognitive dissonance

For a variety of reasons, I don’t follow or even watch NFL football. I didn’t even watch the last Super Bowl. So I paid no attention to items on the internet about some football player not standing during the national anthem. But a piece on the CBS Evening News Thursday reminded me of the cognitive dissonance of some “patriotic” Americans.

For any who, like me, may not know the background, Colin Kaepernick is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Although he’d done the same at two prior preseason games, he drew national attention when he sat during the national anthem at a preseason game on August 26. Kaepernick, who is biracial, said after the game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” During a preseason game in San Diego last night, he was on one knee during the anthem, joined by another teammate.

Naturally, the story blew up with people on both sides. But last night’s game was the Chargers’s annual Salute to the Military night. This, of course, drew more attention. One thing jumped out at me in the CBS story about the game. “If he’s not for our country and the United States flag, get out of my country,” one veteran said on camera. While this clearly hearkens back to the old “love it or leave it” that arose during the Vietnam War, it is most striking that it is a veteran who said it.

We always praise the military and veterans for “defending our freedoms.” Yet a core freedom is the right to protest; it stems from something called the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long recognized this when it comes to the U.S. flag:

  • 1943 — “A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man’s comfort and inspiration is another’s jest and scorn.” (Compulsory pledge of allegiance to flag unconstitutional).
  • 1969 — “We have no doubt that the constitutionally guaranteed ‘freedom to be intellectually . . . diverse or even contrary,’ and the ‘right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order,’ encompass the freedom to express publicly one’s opinions about our flag, including those opinions which are defiant or contemptuous.” (Conviction for verbal remarks disparaging the flag unconstitutional).
  • 1974 — Displaying an upside down American flag with a peace symbol taped on it, “was not an act of mindless nihilism. Rather, it was a pointed expression of anguish by appellant about the then-current domestic and foreign affairs of his government.”
  • 1989 — The unconstitutionality of convicting someone for the expressive act of burning the flag “is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as [the defendant’s] is a sign and source of our strength.”
  • 1990 — “[T]he mere destruction or disfigurement of a particular physical manifestation of the symbol, without more, does not diminish or otherwise affect the symbol itself in any way.” (Holding federal Flag Protection Act unconstitutional.)

People are entitled to announce they are offended by or object to Kaepernick’s actions. They are simply exercising the same right he does. But it is antithetical to claim the NFL or anyone else should punish Kaepernick for his actions because they insult what the flag or military stands for. “Love it or leave it” is fallacious. Americans tend to criticize their country because they want to correct its failings, to see it realize its aspirations. And Kaepernick says his actions came about because “this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” Seems like he’s trying to champion the same rights veterans and the military seek to protect.

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)

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