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After President Trump tweeted his way into the matter, the question of patriotism and protest became a hot issue in the public eye once again. A reasonable way to begin the discussion is to consider the nature of patriotism, which has been said to be the “last refuge of the scoundrel.”
One caricature of patriotism consists of shallow flag waving, the uncritical obedience to the dictates of the ruling class and the exaltation of popular prejudices. Unfortunately, this caricature is often the reality and is, unsurprisingly, what is often pushed by the ruling classes upon the masses. This is, of course, not the only viable account of patriotism.
One alternative approach is to go with the easy and obvious definition—patriotism is the love of one’s country. This simple definition leads to the philosophically complicated question of the nature of love. One way to look at love, at least a positive form of love, is that it involves a devotion to the higher principles, a commitment to what is truly and properly best for the loved one, and an exaltation of the best ideals. This sort of love has a strong moral component and is dedicated to what is truly best—something that might run contrary to what the loved one thinks they want. In the case of patriotism, the love would be for what is best about the country and would commit the patriot to doing what is truly best for the country. This is likely to make such a patriot unpopular for it often requires the patriot to oppose the dictates of the ruling class and to fight against the popular prejudices. While the definition of “patriotism” is a matter of semantics, the idea that it is a love for one’s country that commits one to trying to do what is best for that country (in the moral sense) seems rather appealing and should be adopted. I will now turn to the matter of the NFL players protesting (or showing solidarity with protestors) during the national anthem.
One standard criticism advanced by Trump and others against the protesting players is that these wealthy players are ungrateful. As others have suggested, “ungrateful” seems to be the new “uppity” although most critics are reluctant to utilize the n word. Ironically, some are quite willing to call black players by the n-word while also asserting that they have nothing to protest.
While the players should certainly appreciate their good fortune, to reject what the players say because they are wealthy would be a mere ad hominem fallacy. This would be the same error that would be made if the tax plans of rich, white Republicans were dismissed out of hand simply because they were made by rich, white Republicans.
A more substantial version of this attack is to argue that the players have no grounds for protest about how blacks are treated in America because they are proof that their criticisms are invalid. While this is better than a mere ad hominem, it is easy to counter. First, wealthy black athletes have still been subject to the sort of unwarranted police violence they are protesting. Second, the unusual success of these athletes does not invalidate the truth of their claims about what happens to other people. To use an analogy, if famous athletes urged people to take action against a serious disease, it would be a foolish objection to say that they are wrong because they are healthy athletes and do not suffer from that disease. It does, in fact, make the most sense that the famous should protest—they are the one who will get the most attention.
Another criticism against such protests is that people watch sports to be amused and to have a break from serious issues. While this does have some appeal (people do deserve leisure time), one reply is that people who are oppressed do not get a break from oppression. If the fans want their break, they should certainly recognize that the oppressed want their oppression to end. There is also the fact that the protests, as conducted now, do not actually disrupt the game—the players still play and the game goes on.
As might be suspected, some people try to counter the protests by contending that they should not have to deal with the protests because “they did not own slaves.” One reply is that while they did not own slaves, they most likely benefit from the system that arose out of slavery and that now serves to systematically oppress some while conveying unearned advantages to others. Oddly, this position does seem to acknowledge the existence of a problem, since the person is claiming they are not part of that problem. However, there are those who deny there is a problem.
One approach is to assert that the protests are pointless because there is nothing to protest—everything is just fine. This is obviously not true and can be rejected in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somewhat ironically, when people engage in racism while denying racism, they merely prove the existence of racism.
One interesting criticism is that the protests are just empty theatre, perhaps even some sort of marketing ploy aimed at improving viewership (albeit at the risk of alienating some fans). This criticism does have some appeal. However, there is the interesting fact that the playing of the national anthem at games was originally itself a marketing ploy that somehow became something more. It would be quite appropriate if the protests were marketing and even more so if they became more than mere marketing. In any case, even if the protests are marketing, this would not show that they are thus unpatriotic or unwarranted. At worst it would call into question the motives of those involved.
As far as whether the protestors are patriots, this question can only be answered by knowing their motives and goals. If they are protesting what they regard as injustice and are doing so to make America better, then they are engaged in true patriotism: they are trying to make the country they love be the best it can be. And that is a far truer patriotism than someone who just wants to wave a flag and uncritically praise their country be she wrong or right.