By Tom Ehrich
I am not a high school football player. So I won’t be facing a decision about whether to stand or kneel during the National Anthem at Friday’s game.
But I understand the movement that a San Francisco 49ers quarterback began when he took a knee during the anthem to protest racism in American life. The Times looked at a school in Colorado where Black and Hispanic students see racism every day in how they are treated, and now many players are following Colin Kaepernick’s lead. So are student athletes across the country.
Many adults support them. Many are outraged by what they see as disrespect for flag, anthem and nation. In Texas (where else?) death threats have been aimed at kneeling players.
I was 18 once, of course, and our moment of decision was the Vietnam War. Many fought in that war as an expression of their patriotism. Many protested the war and fought to end it, also as an expression of patriotism. Although the right-wing tried to narrow the definition of “patriotism” to nothing more than support for the war, those of us on the protesting side were doing so out of our love of country, our belief that a nation must be just in its dealings, and our belief in democratic ideals.
It was like the battles in Christianity. Fundamentalists try to define other points of view out of existence. They view diversity as inherently erroneous, especially when it threatens their franchise. In fact, faith takes many forms, and two people arguing heatedly about the will of God might both be guided by Scripture, tradition and reason, both be expressing a deep and abiding faith, but saying different, contradictory things.
The anthem protests are another in a long history of protests that a free people pursue and their opponents try to stop. The same has been true when workers organized labor unions, when women demanded the right to vote and to manage their own lives, when people insisted on reading whatever books they wanted, and people pursued inventions that others said were wrong.
The forces of resistance to change and diversity, and those who demand special status for whites or the wealthy or whatever group they belong to, will always try to strip away the freedom and dignity of those holding opposing views. Instead of asking what life experience causes a black quarterback to protest racism, they defame him as anti-American.
Patriotism, like love and respect, cannot be compelled. It must be felt deeply, and to some extent it must be earned. If you believe your nation has gone astray, the patriotic thing to do is say so and seek a better path, as you understand better. This is the push-pull of a vibrant democracy.
It is always easier to demonize opposing viewpoints and to say, as Trump is saying, Vote for me or else. Many will gladly pick up their assault rifles to provide the “or else.” But true patriotism expects disagreement, values disagreement, and will defend both sides in a disagreement.
In a democracy, every voice counts, not just the ones that sound like yours. And every posture during the National Anthem must be allowed, from the quarterback kneeling to the veteran saluting to the mockers hoisting brews.