Thursday, September 1, 2016

On Sports and Patriots

I don't ordinarily care about sports. It's not really on my radar. But football player Colin Kaepernick's controversial refusal to stand for the national anthem cannot escape comment. Mine is "Bravo!"

As many others have already pointed out, he is exercising his rights and not disrespecting the military in any way. And, they add, this critique from athletes is nothing new. Think of the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. In his 1972 autobiography, baseball legend Jackie Robinson had basically said the same thing as Colin Kaepernick. And the late, great(est) Muhammad Ali was famous for such bluntness on race. He could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but honeyed words were not his business.

Conservatives accuse Kaepernick of ingratitude. They say with all his wealth and fame he should shut up: Now that he has a platform, he should not use it. Conservatives invariably make a virtue out of selling out. To them, remembering where you had come from is an outrageous hypocrisy. (This is even the case when your success is specifically tied to voicing the grievances of your community: Witness the working class Michael Moore who still criticizes the rich even though he has become rich himself.) For conservatives, saying "SO LONG, SUCKERS!" is seen as an act of principle. Why, conservatives must wonder, can't Kaepernick be more like O.J. Simpson or Bill Cosby? - Or even Bill Clinton? To conservatives, Colin Kaepernick is an ungrateful gladiator. How dare he heap scorn on the glory and generosity of Rome?

This uproar underscores the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Far from being synonyms, they are practically antonyms and help explain why most conservatives cannot be patriots.

Patriotism is loyalty to the three interdependent liberal ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy - things conservatives chronically scorn and sabotage. Its logic ultimately turns against privilege and toward generosity. (Consider Thomas Paine's social security proposal.) By stark contrast, nationalism is loyalty to to some ethnicity, territory, or both. It is rooted in a suspicious, miserly tribalism that hoards resources and denies outsiders. Naturally, conservatives prefer nationalism.

As I wrote before on this blog, true patriotism is rooted in international Enlightenment principles. The Rights of Man are universal. And, as Mary Wollstonecraft, Judith Sargent Murray, Olympe de Gouges, and Abigail Adams had asserted, apply to women as well. (And I should note most of these women were also abolitionists.) Indeed, this universality is what distinguishes human rights from special privileges. Of course, conservatives routinely confuse the two, treating rights as some zero-sum game. Therefore, recognizing others' rights is painted as taking away theirs. When minorities demand equal treatment, they are oxymoronically accused of demanding “special rights.” The same sex marriage issue vividly illustrated this rhetorical reflex when its homophobic opponents claimed that gays wanted “a special right to marry.”

Monopolized rights are, by definition, denied rights. As Colin Kaepernick put it explaining his position:
There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust [that] people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for — freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.
Consciously or not, conservatives have always sought to sabotage America's democratic promise of liberty and equality for all. The conservative temperament (and weak liberal accommodation of it) is the source of all our country's most calamitous contradictions and ridiculous hypocrisies, from slavery to such modern absurdities as DOMA and DADT (both recently overturned). This is our country's history in summary.

Conservatives proclaim a monopoly on patriotism. In part, this is because they confuse it with nationalism, but it is also because they are dimly aware of their own hostility to patriotism and intensely defensive about it. Accordingly, they project and are quick to question others' loyalty and belonging. As I frequently stress, this hair-trigger response is hardwired into their ideology. It is part and parcel of their politics.

Another predictable result is the conservative tendency to venerate symbols of liberty over liberty itself - to value civic ritual over civic responsibility - which frequently begins with criticism. (The Romans were also overly fond of rituals.) When symbols become sacrosanct, that is when the real things that they represent are most threatened. Real patriots are eternally vigilant against such civic idolatry. As I wrote in my book:
Pat Buchanan calls a love of democracy “idolatry” because it replaces “a love of process for a love of country.” But it is conservatives who are committing idolatry because the symbol or vessel eclipses the real thing. Without process, the country is only a vast expanse of dirt like any other landmass on this planet. Indeed, without process, the country ceases to be free. So, why do conservatives dismiss the love of process? Likewise, the right is quick to trample the First Amendment to ban flag burning (among other things). But if sacrificing freedom for its symbol is not idolatry, then nothing is. For all their tough, concrete language, conservatives prefer vague, airy symbols over hard facts because symbols are abstract, emotional, and pliable. And given conservatives’ highly ambivalent feelings about freedom, it is no wonder they exalt its symbols over its actual applications.
In his otherwise excellent op-ed on the topic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar opined that there are different kinds of patriotism. He was too kind. Ultimately, there is only one. Colin Kaepernick took a principled stance. Whether he accepts the label or not, he is a patriot. But his critics are not. Every new utterance of Donald Trump furnishes us with fresh examples that conservative thought cannot be patriotic. This is nothing new. As I wrote before, Trump just embodies conservative qualities we have politely ignored for decades.

Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, liberalism has been too kind. Conservatism is a counterfeit operation and thus a threat to America's identity. If America is an idea rather than a piece of real estate, like any other nation, conservatism is an existential threat to America itself. And very little will get better until we finally grapple with that awkward fact. We must restore patriotism to its original Enlightenment definition.

To lift a line from the right's political hymnal, we must take it back.

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