Like so many, I have a negative visceral reaction when I see athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem as a form of protest. I like to try to understand my visceral reactions if I can. Understanding them helps me to come to a logical, reasoned decision as to whether they’re warranted or not. I realized though, as I considered the question, that my answers were still mostly instinctive rather than well-reasoned. “It’s just not right” or “they’re just trying to stir up trouble” don’t really cut it. I had to dig much deeper than that. It occurred to me that it might be easier for me to determine why I’m motivated to stand-up for the national anthem than why I’m angry and frustrated at others choosing not to do so. Perhaps that process might lead me to the answers I was looking for.
I’ve heard a lot of reasons some folks have said they think people should stand for the anthem. They don’t generally ring true to me and I often find myself frustrated, shaking my head and thinking “that’s not right…that’s not why I stand for the anthem”. Some say not standing is disrespectful to soldiers and veterans who have served under the flag and risked their lives as directed by the commander in chief, sometimes for our very freedom from an encroaching tyranny. While I respect and appreciate soldiers completely, and have no complaint with them whatsoever on those occasions when I disagree with policy decisions that may send them in harm’s way, my respect and appreciation for them is not why I stand. I still get a swell in my chest and once in a while, even goosebumps, when I hear the anthem and see the flag presented at a ball game. Those reactions don’t come merely from respecting and appreciating soldiers and veterans. There’s something deeper going on there.
More generally I’ve heard some suggest that it’s simply unpatriotic not to stand. The idea is that one should stand for the anthem in order to demonstrate fidelity to the country, no matter what. Though this probably comes a little closer to my personal perspective, I can’t quite get there either. I think in particular the “no matter what” bit gives me pause and prevents me from jumping on board. I’m sure there must be hypothetical circumstances in which I might decide not to stand for the anthem anymore, though I’d prefer to avoid the discomfort of considering what those circumstances might be.
Like most of us, I started standing for the anthem because that’s what I was taught to do, and I don’t discount that factor as a motivation for why I think it’s important to stand now. I suspect that a general respect and appreciation for the country legitimately known as ‘the land of opportunity’ as well as good old fashioned tradition are not insignificant factors motivating most of us to stand for the anthem. But I don’t think they’re sufficiently moving so as to account for the sense of pride or the goosebumps. There has to be more.
As I grew up, learned, and gained a deeper understanding of the American experiment and what it had accomplished, I came to a real appreciation of America and an understanding of how very fortunate I am to have been born here. In later years as I read and studied even more about the principles upon which the country was based such as limited government, a strict adherence to the rule of law, equality under the law and the unalienable rights of individuals, my appreciation grew more profound.
Not everything in our history has been perfect, nor could it have been. We call this planet we inhabit ‘Earth’ rather than ‘Heaven’ for a reason. Only delusional Utopian dreamers have ever suggested that the perfectibility of mankind is even approachable. No human institution will ever be perfect. But in the span of history, we’ve seen only one society become such a desired destination and such a consistent source of human hope and happiness. That society was created as a direct result of the institution of those founding principles. Such a society could only exist in an atmosphere of individual freedom, autonomy and responsibility, conditions which only existed because of those founding principles which informed the creation of limited, rights respecting governments.
When I feel pride in my chest or goosebumps on my skin, it’s because of those principles and the wellspring of goodness and happiness their implementation created. Those principles and the common creed we once shared which allowed those principles to remain in place and essentially unadulterated for so long, are truly what gave rise to American exceptionalism. Should ever the sad day come that I conclude those principles are dead from sea to shining sea, I’ll probably still stand for the anthem for the sake of tradition and a nostalgic appreciation for what once was, but instead of pride in my chest, or goosebumps on my skin, I’ll have a tear in my eye. Over the years, those principles have been tortured. They’ve been re-defined by those who have tried to hijack them for purposes contrary to their actual meaning. Sometimes they’ve even been vilified outright. And they’re in danger of fading into obscurity as we fail to teach them to our children. But they’re not gone yet. The ideal of small government and big individual liberty is alive in the hearts and minds of millions, if not in the halls of Congress or our state capitols. If embraced and re-implemented, that ideal will return society to the exceptionalism of which we are so proud.
In the end, my reaction to those who refuse to stand is no longer visceral, but it’s as negative as ever. I see those who started the effort as petulant and self-aggrandizing and the more recent tag-alongs as drone-like, choosing the ease of capitulation over the effort of exercising their own judgment. In any case, the effort further obscures the greatness of what America once was and could be again. It works to push that greatness a few pages further back in our history book and, I fear, toward being excluded altogether from a future edition. Their kneeling serves as a stark reminder of how under-appreciated and much endangered are our founding principles and what our long term fidelity to them achieved for humanity. The unique and successful idea of America warrants much more.