Patriotism and protests

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the recently published “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.” In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as chair of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

By now, you probably have heard of  Hampshire College in Massachusetts lowering the American flag to half-mast after Donald Trump’s election. In the same spirit, other colleges offered expanded grief counseling services, anticipating an unusually heavy load of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among students and faculty unable to cope with the fallout of constitutional democracy. 

This sort of “alt-left” behavior on the part of Canadian wannabes is almost as infantile as that associated with Donald Trump’s “alt-right” America Firsters. Nativists have been competing with navelists (navel-gazers) over who is wackier, although the American people seemed a bit more turned off by the latter than the former in the recent election.

Patriotism often has been called the last refuge of a scoundrel.  It seems the scoundrels have now found additional places to seek comfort, not only on college campuses but also in other respectable venues. 

Take, for example, Colin Kaepernick and the National Football League.  

Kaepernick is the biracial San Francisco 49er quarterback who refused to stand during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” prior to a preseason football game in August, an action that has inspired dozens of other professional athletes, as well as college and high school players, to do likewise. More recently, after the death of Fidel Castro, he praised the Cuban dictator at a Nov. 27 game in Miami.

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On the one hand, it is a free country, and he can do what he wants in terms of taking a knee during the anthem to protest what he sees as racial oppression in the United States. That same freedom permits me to call his behavior (including wearing socks during practice depicting cops as pigs) a misguided, knee-jerk reaction to recent police shootings of blacks. 

The emphasis here is on the word “jerk.” I join those such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who called Kaepernick’s decision “stupid.” Although she later recanted her comment, there was little reason to. 

Oh, say, can you see how questionable his actions are, as are those who have enabled and followed him? 

First, here is a black athlete paid millions of dollars to sit on the bench, hardly the poster boy to protest white oppression. (He was the second-string QB much of the season, only recently regaining the starting job on a 1-11 team whose futility has continued under his leadership.) Even Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns star running back and vocal critic of American society who had far more reason to protest racism — he retired in 1965, with the ink on the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act barely dry and the prospect of an African-American in the White House a distant dream — never squatted for the national anthem.  

Then, too, Brown and the players of his generation never mugged for the TV cameras. It was not until the 1980s, when, in Daniel Moynihan’s words, we “defined deviancy down,” that we started seeing such boorish behavior, encouraged not only by the deterioration of social mores but also by the birth of  ESPN. ESPN has defended Kaepernick in the name of “free expression” even as it has silenced Curt Schilling and other employees for making politically incorrect remarks. 

Liberty has never been considered license except, apparently, when it comes to flag-burning and other forms of desecration of national symbols.   

Second, as Moynihan also once said, “One is entitled to one’s opinions but not one’s facts.” The facts are not on Kaepernick’s side. As most empirical evidence shows, notwithstanding legitimate concerns about ongoing racial discrimination in America, the Black Lives Matter narrative of systemic, race-based police violence against unarmed black men is a false narrative, including the “hands-up, don’t shoot” myth that animated St. Louis Rams players to vilify Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in their own pregame antics in 2014; even if their level of ignorance matched Kaepernick’s, at least the Ram players stood for the anthem.  

Third, the National Football League brass who have supported Kaepernick’s stance as a First Amendment issue have fined players for far less (e.g., for unsportsmanlike conduct such as “excessive celebration” after a touchdown). 

As retired Marine Col. Jeffrey A. Powers put it in a social media posting, “I was with a battalion of Marines in Desert Storm [in Iraq in 1991]. Fourteen of my Marines returned home with the American flag draped across their lifeless bodies. Now I watch multimillionaire athletes … disrespect what brave Americans fought and died for. I observed a player getting a personal foul for twerking in the end zone after scoring. I guess that’s much worse than disrespecting the flag. Why is taunting not allowed yet taunting America is OK?” 

The colonel ended his message suggesting it was “time to change the channel.” Judging from sagging NFL television ratings, many viewers have. 

You would think that the NFL could easily justify a rule requiring players to observe the national anthem ceremony, if not as a matter of simple decorum at least as a business decision, because, no doubt, many prospective viewers and fans have been alienated by Kaepernick and his acolytes. Many sports teams already have codes regulating certain dress, facial hair and assorted other forms of expression that may undermine the brand. 

The penalty for violating the rule need not be as harsh as was meted out by the Indianapolis Colts, one of the few teams willing to punish unpatriotic displays. The Colts released Antonio Cromartie after he not only took a knee and raised his fist while the American national anthem was sung before a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars played in London but, to add insult to injury, stood for “God Save the Queen.” 

Fourth, if players like Cromartie want to stand for social justice and offer themselves as role models, they can find better ways to express that than sitting for the anthem. They could do good works. Cromartie himself has fathered a dozen children with eight women and owes more than  $300,000 in child support. 

It is sheer chutzpah for such people to claim they represent moral principle and courage. And it is truly pathetic for young people playing high school Friday night games to seek to emulate them and follow their lead. 

This is not about mindless flag-waving but preserving what New York Times columnist David Brooks (Sept. 16) has called our “civic religion,” our eternal project to work together as a nation to live up to our ideals. 

Kaepernick, presumably chagrined about the Trump election victory, has never even gotten off his duff to bother registering to vote. The same likely can be said for many Hampshire College students and their peers, given the low Nov. 8 turnout rate among young people.

When Itzhak Perlman played the national anthem on his violin before the New York Mets’ playoff game against the San Francisco Giants in October, it was a stirring tribute to his adopted country. He could be forgiven for sitting, given his history of polio. Not so Mr. Kaepernick. If you don’t want to take your hat (or helmet) off to America, imperfect and flawed a nation as it is, fine, but at least stand up.  

And rather than whining, go vote, and keep your head up even if in a democracy the result does not always go your way. Unlike Cuba, we have free elections.

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