COMMENTARY: Taking a knee — Patriotism vs Nationalism

What’s in a song? NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s job, it would seem, and the reflection of this country’s sense of self.

The song in question is The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States that is currently the focus of intense media coverage. Its lyrics come from a famous poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 — an act of aggression against Britain, perpetrated by the U.S. when it attacked Canada — set to the tune of a popular English drinking song.

It celebrates war and glorifies victory.

And it entered the realm of sporting events in 1918 — 13 years before it became the country’s official anthem — when it was played during the seventh inning stretch of the first game of that year’s baseball World Series. It was WWI, and the mood was gloomy. But the crowd spontaneously began to sing along and erupted in cheers for the servicemen in attendance that day. From then on, it became a tradition during the World Series and, eventually, all sporting events — even during peace time. It was an effective public relations tool, a fact not lost on the country’s military establishment.

Case in point: In the NFL, teams did not come on to the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense started paying them to do so. A Senate investigation in 2015 revealed that the DoD had paid millions of dollars to the league and its teams to stage “patriotic” displays and events in an effort to increase military recruitment.

And paid for or not, logical or not, “respecting” the anthem has come to represent patriotism for millions of fans sitting at home on their couches.

Now, a professional football player kneels and dares to say why, focusing a bright spotlight on the ugly truth of racism in this country. The backlash is savage and relentless. His “patriotism” is questioned. He is out of a job. Battles rage over social and traditional media. And some days, it’s all just too much. Hope for logic and reason is lost.

And then, there was this. A post I found on Facebook Sunday, following a long day of anthem-related “news”:

“There’s a fine line between patriotism and nationalism.

One is a fundamental aspect of liberty. Pride in one’s nation and willingness to defend it is the very basis of national independence.

The other is aggressive intolerance in its purest form; The strongly held belief that your country/ideals are superior to all others, and therefore those who believe differently must either conform, leave or be forcibly removed outright.

The unfortunate thing is that in this era of ‘Let’s fight extremism with more extremism,’ many modern day ‘patriots’ don’t see the difference. Take for example, these comments posted in response to stories of NFL players who choose not to stand for the anthem:

‘You get paid millions, just stand like a good American and entertain us like you’re supposed to!’


‘If you don’t like it here, then get out! Go to North Korea and see how you like it!’


‘Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!’ (President Donald Trump, Friday, Sept. 23 at a rally in Alabama).


These are nationalist statements. They’re small examples of a much larger, growing problem of divisiveness, hatred and dehumanization toward anyone who’s not a white American male.

This isn’t a matter of Left versus Right. That’s how the media and the government want us to look at it. I know people on both sides who view this both ways. This is a matter of decency versus bigotry.

Freedom versus selective freedom.

Privilege versus oppression.

Our species has a long history, particularly in the 20th century, of nationalists trying to oppress others: Benito Mussolini, Daniel Malan, Juan Alvarado, Getúlio Vargas, Fidel Castro, Adolf Hitler.

And indeed, even today, you can name a few: Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump.

Don’t get me wrong. Nationalism and fascism are not inherently the same. But the roots of fascism are imbedded in nationalism. There cannot be fascism without nationalism. One can easily lead to the other, just as it did with Nazi Germany. And the parallels to today’s society are striking.

I’m a firm believer that history always repeats itself. That’s why we’re in this situation. But if you look back at all of those 20th century examples, what happened to them, to their regimes?

They didn’t last. Because when civility, love, tolerance, justice and cooperation, the very virtues that make us human, are at risk, good people unify to protect them. And love always trumps hate. It may not be soon, and it’s my opinion that we’ve barely scratched the surface of how dark things are going to get for this country, but that’s what inspires action. It’s what inspires change.

I’m lucky. As a white American male, I could turn a blind eye to all of this, as far too many do, and not have to worry about a thing. And that privilege is exactly the reason I can’t; why none of us can.”

The author of that post turned out to be my 20-year-old son. Perhaps there is hope yet for the future.

Don’t let what began as a peaceful protest over the very real issues of racial injustice and police brutality be re-framed as someone else’s warped idea of “patriotism” or a presumed lack thereof.

Patriotism isn’t about making everyone stand and salute the flag. Patriotism is about making this a country where everyone wants to.

— Sarah Low is a reporter for The Beachcomber. Her son, Zach Oriel, is a Vashon High School graduate and programming student at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Seattle.

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