Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers game has caused a broad national debate.
Kaepernick performed his act before thousands of fans and millions on television to bring attention to a particular cause — the ongoing killings of black citizens by police officers throughout the nation. It did that, of course, but it also has prompted a broader question: Just exactly what constitutes patriotism and can there be too much patriotism?
Recently and particularly since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has been subjected to an excess of phony patriotism; American flags are festooned all over the place. If you’re a candidate running for office, you are constantly flanked by a phalanx of red, white and blue, regardless of your party. Sporting events of all types are awash in patriotic symbols.
All this flag-waving is much more than an innocent show of patriotism; it reinforces the nationalistic trend that blinds us from the truth and that more often than not colors our thinking about the role of the United States in the world.
Extreme nationalism is dangerous; it leads to dictatorial rule. Witness how Adolf Hitler stirred up support for the Third Reich and its unconscionable strategies. He did it with constant showing of the Nazi flag, with rousing patriotic marches and with other reminders of how great that nation was, even when it was slaughtering millions of people.
In more modern times, witness how Kim Jong Un has kept his North Korean people in line with the same kind of imagery. Just recently the New York Times reported that the Chinese government has required all school children to view a 90-minute documentary on the “Long March” of 1934-36, turning it into a victory for the then-fledgling Communist Party, when it was actually a retreat. The Chinese government is engaged in a constant propaganda campaign to indoctrinate its citizens. It’s a reality of all totalitarian governments.
To be sure, the United States is a truly great nation; it’s still among the most powerful in the world, both militarily and economically. Its success comes from its democratic underpinnings and it is indeed the world’s longest surviving democracy. But we are wrong to think that the world circulates around us, that we can continue to wall ourselves and act independently, and that our nation always acts in the wisest and most humane way.
After the end of World War II, a significant number of Americans believed it was important for the U.S. to shed some of its sovereignty and participate in the community of nations. Some even proposed forming a world federal government, a United States of the World so to speak. Obviously that never happened, but the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did. Although the nations retain their sovereignty in both the UN and NATO, the nations often act in a collective spirit.
Today, we live in a world that festers new and different types of terrors; we can’t afford to think the oceans protect us from direct harm in a war, as they did in all our wars up to the 21st Century. Now the threats can end up in the streets of any community of the nation. The only way to protect our future is to face the issues honestly and openly. We need to more fully understand what turns people to terrorism, both at home and abroad. And we can’t do that without looking at the problems openly and critically. We can’t afford to be blindfolded by a patriotism that declares: My country right or wrong!
Yes, we must honor our flag. It is my hope, however, that as we honor the flag we recognize that we’re honoring a proud nation that has the world’s most diverse population, that it has the strongest and most continuous democracy and that it has achieved unexpected economic successes for its people. We must also recognize that sometimes our people and our elected leaders have not always done the right thing, that they may have engaged in foreign adventures unwisely and committed cruel and inhumane acts, that we have subjugated whole peoples by removing them from their lands or by supporting slavery and then institutional racism and discrimination.
Colin Kaepernick was being patriotic when he knelt down; he’s telling all of us that we have some ills in our nation and that they must be resolved to save this great nation.
Yes, let’s honor the flag, but let’s do it without being deafened by singing too loudly or blinded by seeing too much, red, white and blue. Kenneth Germanson, Sept. 26, 2016