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The Courage to Kneel

“Oh say can you see . . . ”

The anthem starts. I can feel the courage . . . of Colin Kaepernick, the (then) San Francisco 49ers quarterback who refused to stand for the national war hymn, not when one of the wars was directed at Americans of color. Occupying the public spotlight that he did, Kaepernick risked — and received — widespread condemnation. Rabid fans burned replicas of his jersey. I’m sure as he knelt that first time, as his knee touched the earth, he had a sense of what he was setting off.

This is patriotism.

A year later, his action still resonates. The president got involved (of course), ranting and tweeting that kneeling NFL players should be fired, thus, as Adam Erickson points out, joining his list of scapegoats:

“Donald Trump,” he writes at the Raven Foundation website, “attempts to push this mythical narrative on almost every minority: Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, journalists, immigrants, the transgender community, and now we can include professional athletes in the long list of Trump’s scapegoats. The mythical narrative (i.e., the lie) he espouses is that these minorities pose a significant threat to American values.”

Patriotism is not a spectator ritual. Patriotism means participating in what Erickson calls the “struggle for the soul of the United States.”

I felt the patriotism — the courage — of the disabled men and women who were hauled out of the Senate hearing room by U.S. Capitol police a few days ago, shouting, as the Graham-Cassidy bill to repeal Obamacare was about to be discussed: “No cuts to Medicaid, save our liberty!”

Fifteen people were arrested in the hearing room and another 166 were arrested in the hallway.

The pseudo-patriotism that assumes the American soul is securely enshrined in law and ritual, that we pulled it from the clutches of Great Britain 240 years ago and now we just need to wall off the bad people beyond our borders — and that nothing much is asked of citizens except obedience and applause — is part of what I would call “democracy lite.”

Fifteen years ago, when this country was on the brink of invading Iraq, I wrote: “Looks almost like the real thing, this processed governance product for the new millennium — ‘democracy lite,’ you might call it. Comes with elected representatives, a mass media, bunting, hoopla and the same soaring ideals as the Lincolnesque version.

“Caution: Democracy lite has nothing to do with the nation’s actual decision-making process; that occurs separately.”

Trump, you might say, is the logical consequence of a passive, spectator citizenry: a “leader” who tweets the unconscious impulses — the fears and hatreds — of his supporters and delivers one comforting scapegoat after another for the public to revile. Actual decision-making still occurs separately, but the president has mixed a dark unconsciousness into the process. Before the arrival of President Trump, the United States was an aggressive, highly militarized global empire, in possession of nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons. Now it still is, but much of the comportment and protocols of empire have been abandoned.

And then came the most outrageous tweet yet: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”

North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho responded; “Given the fact that this came from someone who holds the seat of the U.S. presidency, this is clearly a declaration of war.”

The game unravels. What country is this? The soul of the nation is MIA.

As The Guardian reported: “Ri’s threat came after a week in which tensions between the U.S. and North Korea escalated rapidly, with an exchange of insults between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, and which culminated in Trump’s Sunday tweet and a sortie by U.S. B-1B heavy bombers escorted by fighter planes off the North Korean coast — the first time this century that U.S. warplanes have flown north of the demilitarized zone that has separated North and South Korea since the 1950-53 war.”

North Korea has declared it would shoot down the U.S. bombers, but the Pentagon insists it has the right to fly sorties off the country’s coast and will keep on doing so. All this, according to The Guardian, adds up to: “. . . experts and officials say the risks of all out war are now substantially greater.”

And U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said: “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings. The only solution for this is a political solution.”

But we don’t sing anthems about “political solutions,” which are always flawed and imperfect. I fear that the shallow impulsiveness of Donald Trump aligns too easily with militarism and empire: with armed arrogance. On a dangerously complex planet, force gives pseudo-patriots the illusion of simple solutions.

Struggling for the soul of the country means unwrapping the flag from this illusion.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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