By Bill Shunas
A couple of months ago footballer Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers began to stay seated as a protest while the Star Spangled Banner was performed before the 49er games. After this, with the help of the media and social media, Kaepernick's actions became widely known and controversial. He received significant support, including from fellow athletes. He also received much condemnation. Then there seemed to be a good number of people who didn't agree with his action but understood that he had the right to make his protest as a form of free speech. Many of these people would also say that Kaepernick had the right to do what he did because American troops fought so that citizens may have rights, including those of free speech.
Some of those who brought the troops into the argument brought it even further, saying that the sacrifices made are reflected in things like the national anthem and the flag. Therefore protests involving these are disrespectful of the American soldier. Unfortunately President Obama also fell through this logical trapdoor. The argument is twisted. If you think soldiers sacrificed for free speech, why in their name deny free speech? If free speech is limited to what everyone wants to hear, then there is no free speech. This controversy is doubly interesting because it is an intersection between a righteous cause — the injustices faced by African-Americans and other minorities — with the questioning of the meaning and challenging of conventional ideas of what patriotism is.
There's got to be a whole lot of people whose take on the progress of African Americans is that the civil rights movement opened doors for blacks and others. The perception has been that things are moving forward, and all is well and good and getting better in America. Now along comes publicity about how unarmed and/or non-antagonistic people are getting shot by the police. And that it is common practice for police to stop black citizens. And that the prosperity that is America doesn't seep down to all neighborhoods. And that funding cuts do seep down to those neighborhoods. And that poverty is a monster for too many lives. Many do not want to hear this let alone hear it as a challenge to the blessed Star Spangled Banner.
If someone doesn't stand for the national anthem that is a challenge to what is considered patriotic. It is a challenge to the carefully cultivated nationalism that enables our leaders to confuse the common good with the carte blanch to make acts of war or injustice for whatever excuse. A protest of the national anthem hits the nation at a spot not questioned very often. It is a wake up call for a serious issue.
This isn't the first time that an athlete has protested by challenging conventional nationalism. Most famous might have been Muhammed Ali refusing to be drafted into the military at a time when the Vietnam War was raging and most Americans were supportive of that war. And at the 1968 Olympic games US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos received the gold and bronze medals for their event. Instead of standing at attention as the Star Spangled Banner played, they stood with heads lowered and a fist raised to salute black power. For this they were vilified at home. Also in the 1968 games there was gymnast Vera Caslawska who also made a protest. When she received her gold medal she bowed her head and turned it to the side. Dastardly? No. American patriots had a warm glow from this one. Caslawska was a Czech. Her fellow medalist was a Soviet, and Caslawska was making her protest over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia when the Soviet anthem was played for the Russian athlete. Great going. Not like that Tommie Smith. Made an American proud to disrespect a national anthem. She was a real cold warrior.
It depends on your perspective. George Orwell wrote that "Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage... which does not change its moral color when it is committed by "our" side... The nationalist does not only disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them." (from Such, Such Were The Joys by Orwell) Orwell was writing about pig-headed nationalists, and the extension of that would be the roles that symbols play in this nationalism. These symbols of nationalism can and should be challenged.
A national anthem has a place in our country. I think we could choose one with better words and music, but that is not the point. What we usually get is a misuse of the anthem. Standing for the anthem, saluting the flag and singing God Bless America may be appropriate at times when our national being is threatened, such as December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001. But why are we expected to salute the anthem and flag at every damn sporting event when that action is only to brainwash us? Colin Kaepernick challenged this, even if inadvertently, when he made his points about the treatment of minorities. And it is a good thing. This super patriotic, war promoting nationalism needs to be challenged. As Orwell wrote, when the bad stuff is done by our side, it's not really bad. That's nationalism doing its job.
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.