Last week over lunch a friend asked my thoughts on the Colin Kaepernick protest controversy, it was the second such inquiry in a two-week period. I was aware of the athlete’s decision to first sit and then to kneel during the national anthem in protest to America’s continued racial injustice and police brutality. I was aware, but admittedly indifferent. His decision to not honor the flag, the symbol of our national identity, has sparked similar protests across the country from athletes of all ages and races. It has also sparked a backlash that has led to death threats and fueled criticism and widespread debate beyond the world of sports on patriotism and who and what we consider patriotic. His critics have called his actions disrespectful and unpatriotic. He has called their actions something else, “There’s a lot of racism in this country disguised as patriotism,” he said.
Then another unarmed Black man was killed by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma and left me wondering how we should be defining patriotism and what constitutes patriotic behavior.
Last week a new campaign was launched to persuade President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden – the N.S.A. contractor charged with espionage for leaking information on our government’s mass surveillance programs – under the protections of “whistleblower” status. The program was eventually found to be illegal by a federal appeals court. And his decision to “inform the American public about what the government was doing in secret, without their knowledge or consent” has led to reforms and better protection of our privacy rights as well as protections against this form of government overreach. Several editorials and op-eds have appeared this week calling Snowden a patriot, not a criminal.
I found Snowden’s comments on patriotism particularly interesting, and when viewed through the lens of the Kaepernick protest, immensely illuminating. “Being patriotic doesn’t mean simply agreeing with your government. Attempting to defend their values doesn’t mean simply saying ‘yes, I agree with everything you say,'" Snowden said via Google Hangout from Russia. “In fact, I would argue that being willing to disagree particularly in a risky manner is actually what we need more of today.” He continued, “…when we have this fact free environment when politicians can make a claim and then have it reported without critical analysis of what that means, what the effect would be, how do we actually steer democracy to guide the boat. But if we have facts and if we have people…who are also participating in their democracy, maybe we can do a bit better here.”
So Kaepernick, and those who support his criticism of our government and his desire to bring attention to those injustices that continue to plague our nation, may be the most patriotic of them all. “Protest is protected by our Constitution and is a vital instrument for raising issues and creating change,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said earlier this week to the International Bar Association. If patriotism is defined as “love of country," then perhaps that love is not an unconditional type where we ignore faults and accept abuse, but instead it's the kind we should all strive to have, where there are high expectations, equal treatment, and mutual respect.