Undisputedly, America is one of the most patriotic countries on earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans identify as “very patriotic” while 62 percent of Americans display the flag at home, at work, or on their cars. Gallup found that approximately 80 percent of Americans celebrate the 4th of July, the anniversary of American independence, with barbecues, parades, and fireworks, while patriotic blockbusters like American Sniper and Captain America are a perennial presence in theaters. But what does it really mean to be an American patriot today?
In recent weeks, controversy has erupted over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem. He chose to kneel to protest the treatment of minorities, especially recent incidents of police brutality against African-Americans. His protest was entirely peaceful, yet the size of the backlash against the protest shows that the debate over patriotism is at the forefront of Americans’ minds. Instead of being allowed to peacefully exercise his freedom of speech, he has become the target of attacks from across the nation, including a social media firestorm involving racial slurs such as the use of the n-word and the phrase “go back to Africa.” People have called for him to lose his job, boycotted 49ers games, and burned his jersey, and the reaction hasn’t been limited to the Internet; Congressman Steve King (R – Iowa) went so far as to say that Kaepernick’s act was “sympathetic to ISIS.”
What were the grounds for complaint against Kaepernick’s protest? Some view his act as disrespectful to veterans and to soldiers fighting for American freedom, sacrifices honored with the singing of the national anthem. They view Kaepernick’s act as unpatriotic, and worse, un-American. Conservative pundit Tomi Lahren summed up this sentiment by saying, “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world who would gladly take your spot.”
This reaction to Kaepernick kneeling is part of a larger trend of protesters being silenced by accusations of un-Americanism. In July, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the entire Black Lives Matter movement “racist” and “un-American,” and he is not alone. Even Beyoncé received criticism for being un-American after her Super Bowl halftime show, when she premiered her song “Formation” with references to the Black Panthers. And Kaepernick isn’t the only athlete to receive criticism related to the national anthem. This summer, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas was excoriated for slumping during the national anthem without her hand over her heart, although she wasn’t protesting anything. Douglas follows a long line of athletes who have been criticized for not giving proper weight to the traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events.
Yet, the conflation of American symbols, like the flag and the national anthem, with American values is harmful, and takes away from an honest reflection on patriotism. Much of the anger over Kaepernick’s kneeling centers on his supposed disrespect to soldiers who fought so the national anthem would continue to have meaning. Yet a 2004 Harris Interactive study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t even know the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” More worrisome, fewer than half of Americans can name the three branches of government and more people know who Paula Abdul is than what the electoral college is. This raises the question: who is displaying more patriotism, the sports fans who half-heartedly mouth the words to the national anthem without any true reflection on what they are saying, or the person who loves America enough to admit that it has flaws and cares enough to call attention to them? Who is dishonoring those who fought for our country, the person indignantly pretending to hold a monopoly on knowledge of what America is and should be while failing to understand significant American values and institutions, or the person who criticizes America when she is wrong and applauds her when she is right?
We need to stop acting like it is inherently undemocratic to criticize aspects of our democracy. We must rid ourselves of the notion that it is un-American not to unequivocally support everything America is or does. We need to give more worth to the values and ideals that stand behind the American flag, the pledge, and the singing of the national anthem, and less weight to the symbols themselves. Yes, symbols and words matter, but actions and principles matter more, and we obscure the real issues when we stop an important conversation short by calling it unpatriotic or un-American because it wasn’t done “the right way,” however that might be. As novelist James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we are not honoring a piece of fabric likely made in China; we’re honoring “the republic for which it stands.” Likewise, when soldiers fight for America, they fight for American values, and for American symbols only to the extent they stand in for those values. The pledge, the flag, and the national anthem have no inherent meaning; their importance lies in the ideas they represent, values like liberty, justice, tolerance, and opportunity for all.
It’s time to reexamine the slander of “being un-American.” Rather than lashing out at attempts to start a dialogue, crushing conversation before it even has a chance to be considered, we need to embrace the reality that our country, though great, is imperfect. When critics exercise their freedoms of expression, speech, protest, and association, we have an opportunity to listen, and perhaps improve. Our culture of consumer patriotism—owning a flag, going to see the latest Captain America movie, having a 4th of July barbeque—only scratches the surface of American values and ideals, and merely having a flag on your bumper sticker is an insufficient way to demonstrate you are a true patriot. Loving America means recognizing America’s flaws and, in the true American spirit, constantly striving to make America better, not criticizing those who call attention to those flaws as in some way transgressing on our idea of patriotism. Only when we also honor those who have the courage to seek to perfect our union at home can we truly say we live in the land of the free, and the home of the brave.