Loving your country is a very natural thing. I’ve traveled a lot and can confirm that pretty much everybody in the world does, even those whose countries seem pretty unlovable to us.
Canadians love their country. Mexicans love their country. Germans love their country. Brits love their country. Russians love their country. The Chinese love their country. The North Koreans love their country. The Iranians love their country.
And it has pretty much always been that way. Heck, during World War II, the Germans, Japanese and Italians loved their country fiercely and many were willing to die to prove that love, even though history has shown that the regimes running those countries were deeply unworthy of their love.
And we Americans love our country. Some like to call that love patriotism, and are fiercely proud of how “patriotic” they are, as if it were something special, rather than pretty much the global and historical norm.
Pretty much every country in the world has symbols as well, like flags and anthems, and people love those too.
That’s not what I call patriotism. It’s what I call nationalism, which when you get right down to it is just another form of tribalism, a way to divide the world in simplistic terms into “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the other guys, who may or may not be good but are definitely different, and thus unworthy of our love).
For me, true patriots are men and women like our Founding Fathers, who were willing to speak out against the powers that were in their country (England at the time) when they faced injustice. Who risked their lives to create a country they thought would be better. A country where inherited titles and class distinctions did not determine your future. A country where all men (well at the time at least white men who owned land) were theoretically created equal. A country where there was supposed to be liberty and justice for all. A country in which we chose our leaders and were free to replace them when they did not perform as we wished.
True patriots are not those who wrap themselves in the flag and tell each other how patriotic they are, while keeping a sharp and critical eye out for anyone who doesn’t do the same. They are not those who worship the symbols of our country, but care nothing for the ideals on which it was founded.
True patriots are those who love what America is supposed to stand for: Justice, Equality, Freedom and Democracy. True patriots are those who know and understand our history, who realize how often we have failed to live up to those ideals, but take comfort in the knowledge that many times we have lived up to them, and that we have done much good in the world as a nation, outweighing the bad (at least in my opinion).
True patriots are those who want our country to live up to its ideals, and who are willing to take a stand to make it so. True patriots are those willing to go face public condemnation, risk their careers, face death threats, risk going to jail, even risk their lives, to make us a better country. True patriots are people like Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, and Cesar Chavez. Not the people who criticized or persecuted them, who usually called themselves patriots.
Those who are trying to turn a protest against racism and in justice into a referendum on support for our military and/or patriotism (those are also not one and the same) are not true patriots. They’re just nationalists. They love this country just because it happens to be the piece of dirt they were born on and/or call their home now. They cling to the symbols of our country while ignoring the ideals on which it was founded. I have no doubt at all that if they were born in Russia or China or North Korea, they would love it just as much. All those countries have flags and anthems, too. A flag and an anthem don’t make a country special.
I do believe the United States of America is a special place. What makes us special, however, has absolutely nothing to do with our flag or our anthem. It doesn’t have much to do with our military might or economic muscle or our standard of living, as impressive as those may be. We would be special even if we were the smallest and weakest country in the world militarily and economically.
What makes us special is our ideals. It is the idea that, from our founding, and despite many errors and failings along the way, we continue to strive for Justice, Equality, Freedom and Democracy. So long as we hold to those ideals, or at least keep coming back to them after we fail, we will continue to be special as a nation.
I do worry now that we are beginning to abandon those ideals. That we are becoming more concerned with the symbols than the substance. That we are becoming just another country. That the true patriotism that led our Founding Fathers to rebel is being replaced by ordinary nationalism such as can be found everywhere in the world.
All that said, I have a recommendation for all the NFL teams and their players to help turn this conversation around. My recommendation is simple. Stand together as teams during the national anthem with hands over hearts, so that not even the most vehement nationalists can find any way to try and change the conversation and make it about something it isn’t. Then, as soon as the anthem is over, every player as a team take a knee for a minute or two of silence to protest ongoing and endemic racial injustice in this country, which undoubtedly exists and needs to be changed. Tell the press and the public what you are doing and why.
I recommend this even thought the criticisms of you for taking a knee or protesting in other ways are completely unjustified and inherently bound with the very racism you are trying to protest, because that criticism, cynically manipulated into being by politicians and the right wing propaganda machine, has succeeded in clouding the issue and dividing our country. It is also dividing some teams, and fan bases (even my beloved Steelers Nation). I think that, staying united in this way, while removing the outward excuse for criticism, would make a powerful statement.