In the last few weeks, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has faced everything from false accusations of having converted to Islam to calls for his expulsion from the NFL by the social media commentariat, all due to his refusal to stand for the national anthem. As soon as nationalists caught wind of his protest there was no quelling their reactionary, melodramatic patriotism. To flag-clutchers, Kaepernick exemplifies all that they hate—an individual who is meant to serve them as an object of obedient entertainment who then becomes, of his own volition, an unyielding voice of dissent.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media. And with this statement a match was lit, one that would ignite both a firestorm against him, and one slowly building in favor of his silent protest. In Lincoln, Nebraska, two football players at Lincoln High School fell to one knee during the national anthem in nod to Kaepernick. In Norfolk, Virginia, nearly the entire Maury High football team “took a knee” before a game. Coaches and all but two players at Woodrow Wilson High knelt during the national anthem after coach Preston Brown told his players that he would be kneeling in protest.
“[T]his was our way of saying that things have to change in our country. There’s oppression, there’s social injustice, and these kids live it,” he told reporter Phil Anastasia. In Kentucky, West Virginia, and other states, students across US high schools have taken to falling on one knee in solidarity, proving, as Kaepernick said at the start of his protest, that this is “bigger than football.” The impact that Kaepernick’s civil disobedience will have on younger athletes, and even students, will be immense, especially as he remains steadfast.
Nationalism is arguably at its worst as seen in the US. Not even the British, with their medieval obsession with the Royal Family, are quite as devoted to ol’ Union Jack as Americans are to the Stars and Stripes. After Kaepernick’s protest went viral, so did the angry, violent reactions. One of the most notable cases involves 49er fans filming themselves setting their jerseys on fire. According to a report by the Washington Post, “a fan who calls himself Nate3914 set fire to a Kaepernick jersey and told the quarterback “if you don’t love our country, get the [expletive] out of it. You should never play another down in the NFL. Move to Canada.” The American experience is rife with similar, violent displays of chauvinism, all of which are meant to threaten deviant voices and reaffirm mainstream jingoist sentiment—you either express your patriotism and remain uncritical of the US, or you leave.
American nationalism, in all its red, white, and blue glory, is shaped in part by race, class, and religion—from the belief that the United States is a Christian Nation, divinely inspired and tasked, to bourgeois patriotism that invokes widely accepted “bootstrap” mythology in order to show disdain for the poor. Trump, who is rebuffed by liberal commentators for his bigotry, is a product of this nationalist sentiment. His patriotism, even as expressed in oftentimes violent, discriminatory language and aspirational policies, shares the same obsessive devotion to the state as that of many other lawmakers and laypersons who may not share his politics. Spectacles of patriotism are admirable when exhibited by more palatable legislators, despite the inadmissible thread of American exceptionalism that guides the pageantry.
Hillary Clinton, who has been advertised as being the lesser evil, has argued recently that “The United States is an exceptional nation.” During the American Legion’s national convention in August, she went on to that it’s “not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on Earth, it’s also the strength of our values…Our power comes with a responsibility to lead.”
The notion that the United States is a shining beacon on a hill is the kindling of right wing populism, as well as mainstream nationalism. It is what has made wars more palatable; it is what justifies surveillance measures, black sites, and what has made the castigation of dissenting voices not only permissible but necessary in order to preserve the lore, that America is a remarkable nation, and for that you must be grateful. When there is something wrong in America, then either there is something wrong with you, or you must hold your tongue because ‘it could be worse,’ ‘you could be living over there,’ and ‘if you don’t like it, leave.’
In the case of Colin Kaepernick, the commodification of sport, intertwined with nationalist expression, has turned even the most hushed of demonstrations into treasonous behaviour that undermines the industry as well as the nation, and it’s because of this that Kaepernick, and other players, are being stigmatized further. But Kaepernick, regardless of who joins him on the field during the anthem, has already forced open a national conversation on the targeting of Black people in America. What happens next in terms of where this conversation will go will depend on how many much longer Americans can go on pretending that there’s nothing wrong—and pretending that nationalism, as they express it, is benign and admirable.