I’ve seen a lot of angry people expressing their outrage about football players kneeling during the anthem. I respect their right to their viewpoint, while at the same time, I don’t share it. Donald Trump, predictably, got in the middle of this, seeing in it another opportunity to exploit the anger of his remaining base voters. At a rally in Alabama, Trump juiced up the crowd with, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” And on Twitter, there was this:
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Kurt Warner, 2017 Hall of Fame inductee, former Super Bowl winning Quarterback (St. Louis Rams) and Arizona Cardinal, issued this demurrer of Trump’s inflammatory comments:
“The President of the United States, his role is to uphold and to fight for the rights of every person, every American – and so when I heard the comments, I was so disappointed because I believe the comments are completely contradictory to what the flag represents.“
I’ve covered this issue before and written about the NFL situation in particular. But my comments today are more general in scope. Most common in the comments about athletes not participating in the pre-game observances, is a desire to see team owners deliver an ultimatum – “participate or be fired!” The other is a variation of that. “I’m going to stop buying tickets or watching on TV until they get on board with patriotism.”
What does this really amount to? In my view, it is a call to enforce tribalism and groupthink. Is that really patriotism? It sounds to me rather more like policing patriotism, akin to religious enforcement in Islamic dominated societies. American Taliban-ism.
It looks and feels at this point, less like devotion to the ideals that made America great, than mindless fetishism. One of America’s greatest poets and essayists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was skeptical – “When a whole nation is roaring patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart.”
The First Amendment
Some of these commenters are trying to sell the notion that American servicemen (and women) died in battle or were severely injured in wars for the purpose of protecting an obligation to salute a flag or to stand during the national anthem.
The reality is quite to the contrary. They defended the Constitution – not the national emblems or patriotic traditions. What does the Constitution defend if not inalienable rights?
Freedom is freedom to participate or conversely not to participate in these observances.
As Supreme Court justice, Robert Jackson observed in 1943, dealing with a case that involved charges of non-participation in a patriotic ceremony (Pledge Of Allegiance),
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette)
I can’t think of anything that better illustrates the health of a democracy than to see people openly declining to take part in an observance they don’t believe in, support or agree with. They may understand civil liberties better than do their critics.
Where opting-out is illegal and hazardous to your health
It’s interesting that some younger democracies are not just talking about the values of patriotism, but taking steps to compel it.
Such is the case in India, where there is an analog to our situation with sporting events and where there is a raging national debate about the merits of compulsory patriotism. India’s national supreme court ruled last November that movie theaters play the national anthem before every film and everyone in the theater must “stand up to show respect.”
India also has an Independence Day, which is celebrated for a week every August. They also have a national anthem of their own, called the Vande Mataram, which regional governments are making compulsory in schools and mandatory in colleges. Theatergoers there, have even been arrested and jailed for not standing for the anthem.
Noting the fundamental issue here, is Valson Thampu in The Hindu, an Indian daily paper:
So, we need to be ever on our guard against the emergence of coercive mindsets, ideologies and dispensations. Coercion of every kind and in every context — including that of patriotism — does more harm than good to the nation. The agents of coercion may don the garb of patriotism, but their misconceived adventures are sure to undermine the country.
Patriotic slogans are like smiles — outward manifestations of an inner state. You cannot force people to be patriotic, just as you cannot force them to keep smiling for 10 years for reasons they know not. The mindset of coercion is driven by raw, adversarial power. It bristles with hostility towards a person, group or community, not love for the country. The returns from forcing someone to shout a slogan of your choice are psychological, not political or patriotic. What is at work is the imposition of one’s will on the target of coercion.
What Mr. Thampu describes there, strikes me not so much as anything resembling patriotism, but rank nationalism.
The situation in India is somewhat reminiscent of Yankee Stadium’s use of NYPD officers to enforce observance of the playing of “God Bless America” over the public address system. Michael S. Schmidt, writing in the New York Times set the scene:
Seconds before “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” are played, police officers, security guards and ushers turn their backs to the American flag in center field, stare at fans moving through the stands and ask them to stop. Across the stadium’s lower section, ushers stand every 20 feet to block the main aisle with chains.
It took a lawsuit against the Yankee stadium management in 2008 and another one in New Jersey, a year later, to put an end to this unlawful practice.
Dissent is not disrespect …
Something else I take issue with is the assumption on the part of some to brand athletes as “un-patriotic” or as ‘disrespecting veterans’ or the military. Bob Livingston, writing on the Personal Liberty Blog, concurs in this – asking the question:
“What are we saying when we say that someone “disrespected the flag,” “disrespected the country,” “disrespected the veterans” if he chooses to not stand for the national anthem? What is the flag but a piece of cloth? By the reaction to Kaepernick, it seems it has become more of a golden calf to represent mother country or the god of government.“
To reach the conclusion that someone is dissing the military or veterans, you must impose motives on their actions that may not be at all accurate. It requires mind reading. Mind reading, in the case of former San Francisco 49er Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is not necessary:
“I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family. I have friends that gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as, you know, giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.”
Shenandoah University professor and Army vet, Fritz Polite, who teaches on the subject of sports and media, told the Christian Science Monitor, regarding Kaepernick, “He’s actually hit a vein. What Colin Kaepernick elucidates is the flag represents certain unalienable rights and freedoms. ‘I’m exercising this freedom. Now you want to tell me I’m unpatriotic. All I’m doing is all the rights and privileges people fight for.’”
There are all sorts of rationales behind these more frequent incidents of declining to participate. Matt Peppe in Counterpunch sums up a particularly dominant strain of attitude among dissenters:
“Those who rule and benefit from the political status quo want compliance to be subconscious. If the ruling class is able to achieve blind respect for its symbols, they are able to associate the state with benevolent abstractions like “freedom” and “democracy” and hide its inherently unjust manifestations – police brutality, military adventurism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the exacerbation of inequality, warrantless surveillance, mass incarceration, evisceration of social programs, natural resource extraction fueled by unrestrained profit seeking, etc.”
I happen to agree with some facets of the assessment, while disagreeing fundamentally with the interpretation of the observances. When I respect the flag, for instance, my personal orientation is that I am making a fresh commitment to individually contribute to solutions, to reform and the betterment of my country and community.
The late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed certain aspirations in a way that define my sense of patriotism:
“Make a career of Humanity, commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
I am not writing out a blank endorsement of everything the government does in my name. Far from it. And that is what I would emphasize with the objectors if I had the opportunity. But that is really not the fundamental point here. It is about rejecting compulsion and coercion.
But the First Amendment doesn’t apply in the workplace!
Don’t be so sure. It certainly does in the NFL and chances are it does in your workplace as well. It applies in the NFL, because the league is in bed with the government. How so, you ask? Here’s how. According to Eric Boehm on Watchdog.org, the NFL is “technically a nonprofit — thanks to a special exception in the tax code carved out by Congress in the 1960s — despite making billions of dollars of profit each year and paying top executives seven-figure salaries.”
Beyond that, NFL owners hit local and state taxpayers up for added billions in financing and construction of stadiums, stadium improvements, free utilities and much much more. Boehm notes that in just one example, the San Francisco 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara included $116 million in public funds and $900 million in loans through a new public financing authority backed by state and local taxpayers.
But there’s more. Congress learned in 2015, that the Department Of Defense had been paying the NFL, a cumulative $6.8 million to stage patriotic events that, while in some cases, memorialize veterans – are in actuality, designed as recruitment promotions. The Pentagon paid a total of $53 million overall to sports franchises in the United States.
As Gregg Easterbrook wrote in The Atlantic, the NFL “is about two things: producing high-quality sports entertainment, which it does very well, and exploiting taxpayers, which it also does very well.” The takeaway here, is that the NFL and state, local and federal governments have a skin in each other’s game and that brings the government into the workplace, which consequently brings the Constitution and the First Amendment in too.
The same is quite possibly true at your place of work – if your company or corporation is benefiting from industry subsidies, monopolies, cartels or tax benefits created by federal and / or state legislation.
Legal patriotism is voluntary, not mandatory, enforced, compulsive or coercive
Gary Reed, in a quote I have not been able to source, reacting to calls for the Pledge Of Allegiance to be made compulsory, made a keen rejoinder:
A compulsory pledge has no more legal or moral authority than a confession tortured from a criminal suspect, no more validity than a military oath extracted from a conscript, no more legitimacy than a promise made to a burglar not to call the cops for two hours after your jewelry walks out your front door in his pockets.
Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute:
“The best argument for saying the Pledge of Allegiance comes from the freedom not to do so. What makes America great is not a willingness to demand obedience to every arbitrary dictate advanced by one government official or another. What makes America great is the recognition that the most fundamental values of faith and patriotism cannot and must not be coerced.”
The last thing I’ll ever do is support the idea of coercing anyone into faking a “patriotgasm”. Count me out on that. Freedom, despite what some people think, is not a one-way street. Freedom is freedom to participate and freedom not to participate. Same thing with religion. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and it also protects freedom from religion.
It’s not about obedience to the tribal shibboleths, it’s about freedom. If it’s about coercion, you don’t have America – you have North Korea.