In the early 1900s, a British author by the name of Evelyn Beatrice Hall was looking for a way to describe the French philosopher Voltaire’s passion for the freedom of speech. She wrote a famous line which is often contributed to Voltaire himself. It reads, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Those words came to me recently following the actions of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
As you probably already know by now, Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem at a pre-season football game. In his statement to the NFL, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
His action or lack thereof, unleashed a firestorm across the media, especially on the Internet. I have good friends posting anti-Kaepernick memes on Facebook and I have tried to stay out of the frenzy and just analyze what’s going on. One of those memes pictures Kaepernick with his parents, who are white, and chides him for being a hypocrite. I don’t know much about his upbringing, but I do know he is of mixed race and was adopted by his parents.
The problem with Internet memes and Twitter feeds is that they boil down very complicated issues to a picture and/or a few words ignoring all the nuances and even the facts of the story. Unfortunately, many news organizations have done the same thing inspiring knee-jerk responses.
For example, after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, Spike Lee (the famous director) Tweeted Mr. Zimmerman’s address to his 240,000 followers. There was only one problem.
It wasn’t Zimmerman’s address, but an elderly couple’s address and their life became a living hell overnight.
In this case, we need to step back and think before we grab our pitchforks and torches. Kaepernick may have the spotlight of the NFL to use, but he is like any other person of color who perceives that great injustices are taking place and nothing is being done about it. Whether or not that perception is correct is beside the point. He used his notoriety to make a statement and that statement was not standing up when the national anthem was played. Unpatriotic? I don’t think so.
One of the tenets of this nation is the freedom of speech. I am a card-carrying free-speecher. I may not like what a person says or does as they exercise that right, but, as Hall wrote, “I will defend to the death their right to say it.” If we only allowed actions we agree with then we wouldn’t have free speech. Either everyone is protected or no one is protected.
I am an Air Force veteran. Due to our status of forces agreement in Turkey, the only time we could fly our flag at my station was on July Fourth and other special occasions.
It was a proud moment when the flag was raised. Not having the flag ceremony every day did not make me any less American or any less patriotic.
I have a real problem with enforced patriotism. To me it’s an adult form of bullying. Do you remember the uproar over candidates who didn’t wear flag pins? What does wearing a flag pin have to do with patriotism? It became politically dangerous not to wear one, so most candidates now wear them, the bigger the better. Does this truly reflect their patriotism or their desire to get elected?
As a pastor, I understand why some people refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. They’re one and only allegiance is to God, so how does forcing them to go against their religious beliefs and stand and/or say the pledge promote the freedom of religion?
Many have fought and died for this nation, and many, including me, have served this country honorably. I swore to defend the Constitution and that’s what I did and still do.
That document protects people like Kaepernick who, for whatever reason, choose not to stand for the national anthem or say the Pledge of Allegiance. His ability to do what he is doing without getting arrested should be celebrated. It shows the world that when we say we have the freedom of expression we mean it, even when someone expresses something we disagree with. That, and not forced patriotism, is what makes our country great.