Taking a Knee: Respect and Patriotism

By Merrill Ring

A well-known California political columnist criticized Colin Kaepernick and other sports figures for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.  This was my response to him.

As you allow, those players have a right to make that protest:  even the burning of the American flag has Constitutional protection as political speech, so this mild form of protest would fall under the same protection.  Moreover, the rule about standing during the anthem is not a legal requirement but is only a recommendation about how to behave.

So objections to taking a knee are not based on law but on what an objector thinks are appropriate and inappropriate ways of protesting.

What looms large in your critical vocabulary is the idea of respect:  that taking a knee at those times and places is disrespecting something that the protestor should be showing respect for.  However, it is your judgment that the good outweighs the bad in the Republic and therefore the protest ought not to be made. Or that it should be made in some other way and place (though protests done in the dark are wholly counter-productive.)

But the question is whether your judgment is correct – perhaps the protestors notice something that evades your assessment.  I think the point is that those who do not share the protestors’ point of view ought really to think through their calculations of the balance of the good and the bad.  Unfortunately, there is no sign of that in your response.

Speaking of respect, it seems to me that the Kaepernick manner of protest is itself a sign of the ambiguity of the situation.  Taking a knee is a very respectful way of disagreeing with the common judgment that things overall are hunky-dory in the country.  As a manner of protest Kaepernick et al could be mooning the flag or flipping it off or doing any number of other things.  However, they are not doing that, they merely peacefully kneel.  That is a signal that they are being respectful while also recognizing the serious faults they see in the Republic.

The idea of kneeling, rather than turning ones back, etc, was suggested to Kaepernick by veterans who noted that kneeling is a sign of respect that soldiers perform when memorializing a fallen comrade. 

One could (and probably should) go on to investigate how significant the idea of respect is in a healthy view of the world.  However, I want to take up something different, something that is not at all being discussed.

How appropriate is it after all that before sporting events (and other activities) in this country that we should hoist our flag and sing the national anthem?  (I’m talking only about domestic events, not international competitions.)  This practice runs down into youth athletic activities.  I see absolutely no point to it.  I suspect (with some personal evidence) that we are the only country who does that.  There may have been some point to it early in the nation’s history when it was necessary to overcome identity with one’s state – there was even point to it following the civil war when it became important to stress “one nation indivisible”.  But now when there are only very minor cries of allegiance to one’s state instead of to the nation? 

The practice leads people to think that they are doing their citizenly duty when they engage in the standard standing for the flag form of patriotism.  Voting, serious thought about politics? – those become secondary to standing for the flag.