Gabby Douglas mural. US, 2012.

When conservative American pundits berated black gymnast Gabby Douglas for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem during her team’s medal ceremony at this summer’s Olympics, the subsequent furor recalled the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the meaning of patriotism was called radically into question by the counterculture and Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” answered back harshly.

To Douglas’s defenders, the criticism was ridiculous yet hurtful, another example of the sort of trumped up controversies that Fox News and its less mainstream competitors on the Right have been promoting since Bill Clinton was in the White House. When some of the same people held up white pole vaulter Sam Kendricks as a counter-example, because he had stopped his run short to turn towards the sound of the national anthem being played for another event across the stadium, the racial dimension to the attack on Douglas became even more clear.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that American professional football player Colin Kaepernick’s recent decision to remain seated for the national anthem as a protest against police brutality rapidly escalated into a cause célèbre, with denuciations coming fast and furious. It didn’t help that Kaepernick was already rather unpopular, even with fans of his own San Francisco 49ers, due to a decline in his performance as quarterback and an attitude perceived as too aloof and overconfident, no doubt reinforced by his starring in a television commercial for high-end headphones in which he is shown to drown out his detractors. Neither did the peculiar circumstances of Kaepernick’s upbringing, having been adopted by a white family because his biological parents, a white mother and black father, were unable to do so. Throw in the fact that his publicity-grabbing move didn’t come until after he had been relegated to the status of a reserve and was in danger of being released from the team altogether and it is clear that, from a rhetorical standpoint, he was operating at a serious disadvantage.

Nevertheless, despite the outcry against him – executives of the National Football League were reported to have declared that they hate him as much as any player since Rae Carruth, who was convicted of trying to have his pregnant girlfriend murdered – Kaepernick has proven to be a more resolute and articulate defender of his protest than many had supposed. Asked by a reporter how he was dealing with the notion that the flag is a symbol of the nation’s military and, more specifically, the sacrifices made by its men and women, he drew attention to the discrepancy between what it is supposed to stand for and what it currently represents.

“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” Kaepernick responded. “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.” In truth, the basic point being made here doesn’t differ markedly from the sort made by conservative political candidates like Donald Trump who blame President Obama for ignoring the plight of ordinary working Americans. But because Kaepernick made it clear that he was specifically addressing the ways in which people of color were being denied freedom and justice, he was vehemently attacked by people who want to “make America great again.”

Numerous people, from progressive activists to military veterans, have pointed out that there is a double standard at work here. The freedom that men and women in the armed forces have fought and died for is precisely the freedom to speak freely and hold government accountable for its failings. No clear-headed reader of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could conclude otherwise. But, as in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we live at a time when fear of social and political disintegration is rising sharply. In such a context, trying to force potential dissenters to go through the motions of demonstrating their loyalty to the flag and what it stands for can seem as important for national defense as a fighter plane or submarine.

Yet, as some of Kaepernick’s defenders have pointed out, such an approach can actually exacerbate the problem it is intended to remedy. If a simple act of public protest, like the famous gloved fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony for the 200-meters at the 1968 Munich Olympic games, is perceived to be that dangerous, then the freedom which Americans are brought up to value above all starts to feel like wealth that exists on paper but can never actually be spent. In an open letter on the affair published in The Washington Post basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar succinctly captured this paradox. “One of the ironies of the way some people express their patriotism is to brag about our freedoms, especially freedom of speech, but then brand as unpatriotic those who exercise this freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government’s record in upholding the Constitution.”

From this perspective, it’s not the willingness of athletes like Kaepernick or, most famously, Muhammed Ali to refuse to participate in the rituals of public patriotism that Americans need to worry about so much as the energy that is devoted to punishing their transgressions, particularly in light of the fact that there are still legitimate reasons to protest and, what is more, largely the same ones that existed a half century ago. “What should horrify Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar concludes, is that “we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”

Although not many of them would be comfortable saying it yet – not in public, anyway – many conservatives would disagree. The most ideologically coherent among them believe that any attempt to redress inequities in one domain is bound to produce new ones somewhere else, like the spot in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back that keeps migrating from one location to the next. If pressed, they might argue that showing proper respect for the flag is necessary, not only to honor the sacrifices of wartime, but to ensure that all citizens pledge not to seek special treatment on the basis of identity categories distinct from pure citizenship. In other words, the flag is first and foremost a symbol for a national identity that must take preference over all others.

Examined dispassionately, this can appear to be a compelling argument. After all, the strength of the United States has always been inextricably bound up with the relative weakness of the states that comprise it. Believing that one’s race, class, gender, sexual preference or religion is not reducible to being an American opens up the possibility that one of those identity categories will inspire more loyalty than national belonging. But being forced to assert the primacy of one’s Americanness through public rituals could eventually lead to an even deeper betrayal, in which the very ideals of the nation are regarded with cynicism.

Photograph courtesy of Vic Damoses. Published under a Creative Commons license.