Reinvention and revision. The first is that for which we should strive, the latter is that in which we drown. Reinvention of a system that has systematically denied human rights to black and brown people, to women, to those sexually oriented aslant the norm. Revision of history: a whitewashed history of labor, sparkling Manifest Destiny to a golden Pacific, “War Between the States,” deification of clearly faulted leaders. Revision gives us our pass to look backward through our favored lenses. A nation striving for greatness, without the nastier wounds of lived history. It allows us to bury ourselves in symbol—the flag—and conflate symbol—the troops. When we revise our past, we have no need for reinvention, no need to do the incredibly hard work of what it should mean to be American.
If you haven’t read Sean Patrick Hughes’ piece on uncomfortable questions, or Terrell Jermaine Starr’s argument that patriotism is steeped in white supremacy, do so. While seemingly in opposition, these authors are addressing the questions of revision. What does it mean to say that not standing during the anthem is a sign of disrespect? And disrespect towards whom? To a symbol in which we can ensconce both our worst and best identities?
Disrespect is necessary in reinvention. Institutions cannot be taken at face value, or allowed to revise their past. While I disagree with Starr on his definition of patriotism (I think he is really attacking a version of nationalism), I then hit Hughes’ uncomfortable question: Am I really arguing this to make myself feel better as a white patriot? Can I really look back at everything I’ve written—wherein my readers recognize I hold fast to certain American values—and not say those ideas are steeped in a certain white privilege? So how can I avoid revision and move towards reinvention?
Certainly the argument of disrespecting the troops begins to crack at the seams. Draping ourselves in the flag, equating somehow love of country with fetishization of warmongering and military might, inherently requires that revision. John Prine informed us our flag decals didn’t open St. Peter’s Gate, and Muhammed Ali questioned the righteousness of our cause in Vietnam. After 9/11, our nation grieved, but adhering a flag to our collective bumper morphed into a strange solidarity with our worst aspects. It became an easy display of fealty, acquiescence to a new normal, informed through a burgeoning militarization of the American mindset.
Many years ago, I was drinking tea with an Italian man. Somehow our discussion had moved to football, American football. He didn’t understand Americans’ need to introduce overwhelming military might to the already powerful juggernaut of the NFL—he asked why we have flyovers during the Super Bowl. A young me, ignorant in the bliss of unquestioning youth, had some blithe answer about respect and the flag—an answer that crashed into the desert and mountains of Afghanistan. What freedoms of America were we fighting for in dusty Khan Neshin? Did a young man in flip flops with a Kalashnikov and no concept of the Pacific Ocean represent an existential threat to our liberty?
Kaepernick asked us to question our revisions. Asked us to start a larger conversation on race and equality and what freedom truly means. If the oppressor is himself oppressed, how have I not bought into a system in which I know red and blue lights in the rearview mean at most an annoying ticket, and not a death sentence? How can I ensure that to be American means taking a hard look at how we have used our symbols to uphold systems of inequality, oppression, racism, cruelty? How can I help reinvent this system so the self-evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are enjoyed by all? It starts by taking a knee.