In the present controversy over the NFL, there are basically two sides.
On the one side are the Kaepernickists, those professional players and their apologists who insist that in refusing to stand for the national anthem and acknowledge the American flag, they do not intend any anti-Americanism but, rather, wish only to draw the nation’s attention to “police brutality” toward blacks.
On the other side are millions of Americans—about two-thirds of the country—who agree with President Trump that Kaepernickism is indeed anti-American.
If genuine thinking was as valued as moral showboating, we could use this occasion to explore a much-underexplored concept: patriotism. At bottom, whether the Kaepernickists or their detractors are correct turns upon the meaning of patriotism.
I’ll put my cards on the table at the outset: Both Republican conservatives and leftist Democrats, inasmuch as they have made America into an Idea, an abstract and universal Principle or Proposition that anyone at any time and in any place can affirm, have not only mired the concept of patriotism in a swamp of confusion. In transforming patriotism into devotion to a Principle, these proponents of America-as-Idea have implied that it is not a virtue, but a vice.
Edmund Burke, traditional conservatism’s “patron saint,” famously referenced our “little platoons,” those local, particular associations that comprise the stuff of which the individual’s identity is made. Our families, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, schools—comprehensively, our local communities—serve as a buffer between the individual and the government, and the means by which we come to love our country. The little platoons elicit affections and command allegiance while investing our lives with meaning and direction.
Yet my friends, family, parish, neighborhood, town, and country are mine; as such, they are concrete and particular—not abstract and universal. As such, I am more partial to them than I am to your friends, family, and so forth.
Patriotism is partiality to one’s own country over that of others. If, as we commonly hear, patriotism—or at least American patriotism—is commitment to or love for a universal principle, then anyone anywhere becomes an American patriot as soon as they affirm that principle. If the object of the “patriot’s” devotion is a bloodless, lifeless, timeless abstraction, then it isn’t partiality, but impartiality, that is the proper attitude.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts the point well when he notes that patriotism “is defined in terms of a kind of loyalty to a particular nation which only those possessing that particular nationality can exhibit.”
While it’s true that the patriot’s loyalty is not “mindless,” that it involves “a peculiar regard…for the particular characteristics and merits and achievements of” his nation, these are valued precisely as merits and achievements of his nation.
In other words, “the particularity” of the patriot’s relationship to his country is “essential and ineliminable.”
MacIntyre continues in explaining that the patriot’s morality is “a morality of particularist ties and solidarities,” of “a class of loyalty-exhibiting virtues” like “marital fidelity, the love of one’s own family and kin, friendship, and loyalty to such institutions as schools and cricket or baseball clubs.” The morality of patriotism demands of the patriot “a peculiar devotion” to his country. It demands that he “regard such contingent social facts as where I was born and what government ruled over that place at that time, who my parents were, who my great-great-grandparents were, and so on, as deciding for me the question of what virtuous action is [.]”
Notice, this vision of patriotism is, as MacIntyre says, “systematically incompatible” with any view that conceives patriotism in terms of commitment to a universal principle. Those who subscribe to the latter view believe that to make moral judgments is “to judge as any rational person would judge, independently of his or her interests, affections, and social position.” Persons—in this case, American patriots—must abstract “from all social particularity and partiality.”
MacIntyre rightfully concludes that whether those who hold it realize this or not, their perspective, the perspective of those who see America as an Idea, Principle, or Proposition, “requires that patriotism—at least in any substantial version—be treated as a vice.”
In point of fact, the American patriot is not in love with “natural rights” or “human rights.” He is not devoted to an Ideal of Freedom or of Liberty or any other ideal.
The American patriot is devoted to his country.
In the real world, as opposed to the airy ideal world of the ideologue’s imaginings, there is no Freedom and Liberty. In any event, for the American patriot, his love is oriented toward only the many historically and culturally-specific freedoms and liberties that he enjoys as his inheritance as the citizen of America, an inheritance that was centuries in the making and that was bequeathed to him by generations and generations of his compatriots. As Burke remarked, the patriot sees his country as a covenant, a compact between the past, the present, and the future; the dead, the living, and those not yet born.
Patriotism, then, is a sentiment, an affection not unlike that which is shared by spouses and that which parents have for their children. This being so, the patriot does not live by Reason alone. Between the virtue of patriotism and the moral imagination, there is a particularly powerful, indeed, an inseparable, bond: Symbols, like the country’s flag and its national anthem, are sacramental.
So, in returning to the NFL controversy, we’re now able to reach a decisive verdict:
Their insistence to the contrary aside, Kaepernickists most definitely have been engaging in anti-Americanism.
The flag for which they refuse to stand represents to the American patriot, not just his government and certainly not some ideal or policy; the flag represents his country, that spiritual unity that reaches from centuries past to the present and, he hopes, well into the future.
The flag stands for, not just his country, but that of his ancestors and that of his posterity.
It stands for the achievements, sacrifices, hardships, tragedies, and joys, the blood, sweat, tears, and laughter of countless numbers of human beings who are united only insofar as they have been members of one and the same country whose flag it is.
Kaepernickists, thus, repudiate not some specific aspect or other of America when they refuse to honor its flag. They repudiate America itself.
Kaepernickists, the players and all of their defenders, partake of anti-Americanism.
American patriots must now resolutely repudiate them.