Taking a Knee: the Necessary Evolution of Patriotism - By Greer Clem
Like most political junkies, I am a huge "West Wing" fan. Cliche as it may sound, I felt that patriotic heartbeat when listening to the theme song, watching our flag billowing behind Martin Sheen. One phrase often used on the show resonated with me in particular: "I serve at the pleasure of the President." No matter your political party, that was the standard held by all those who worked in the White House. Until Trump's presidency, I felt that Aaron Sorkin's glorified universe mimicked my own. I was able to reconcile varying political beliefs through the shared bond of patriotism, knowing that if I was ever lucky enough to work in the White House, even under a leader of a different party, I would serve at the pleasure of the president. That would be my honor as an American.
The reason I bring this up is to shed some light on the importance of letting patriotism evolve. While reading a recent piece in the Washington Post by former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson, the following segment stood out to me: "Stop and consider. This is a sobering historical moment. America has a racial demagogue as president. We play hail to this chief. We stand when he enters the room. We continue to honor an office he so often dishonors. It is appropriate but increasingly difficult." Gerson's piece, while beautifully moving and significant in its portrayal of Trump as a demagogue, was less than instructive in terms of patriotism. He ends the piece by saying that maintaining our faith in the Declaration and in American institutions remains the proper response to Trump's divisiveness and the surest way to be true to our nation. While this may be a partial answer, to me it is lacking.
Gerson's prescription is scant, not only because it ignores the rather blatant truth that our institutions have failed large sections of our citizenry, but also because it fails to give guidance as to how to maintain faith in our country. Gerson concedes that our flag is a symbol of a country "with ideals far superior to its practice." I agree with his assessment but would take this a step further. I would urge all Americans to use the momentum of peaceful protest to compel our country to match the ideals we preach. We are on this marry go round where we continuously hail the values laid our by our forefathers, all the while conceding that there is racial injustice. But why haven't we moved past this assessment? Gerson does not lay out an argument, but a commonly heard concession. It is not a prescription for healing, merely a diagnosis, and while his language is significant, we should encourage evolution rather than maintenance.
We need to start by expanding the fabric of our values. Saying that things need to change, that we are not living up to our ideals - in some cases don't even know what they are - is not unpatriotic, merely introspective, and maintaining faith in our declaration certainly doesn't instruct anyone on how to fix broken systems. It has been well discussed that when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem over a year ago, he was not protesting the flag but the injustice black Americans face every day. It was not unpatriotic or disrespectful, merely a public reminder that sometimes our patriotism is blind.
We have entered a new era, but much of the same systemic prejudice that has always plagued many of our citizens remains. I am lucky: I still feel that twinge of pride when I see our flag, still am replenished by the idea that American democracy has been a template for many nations across the world. But I understand if that sentiment is lost among others. Calling on Americans to maintain their faith in our Declaration is fine, even good. But I would also call on Americans to educate themselves on the history of prejudice in our country. Protest is uncomfortable. It makes you look at things you don't want to see, things those of us who have certain privileges often don't have to see. But if we aren't using Trump's divisiveness as a catalyst for introspection, an opportunity to examine those things that make us ashamed and uncomfortable, what will any of this have been for? We are the only ones with the capacity to take this intolerance and use it to create understanding.
Sometimes I ask myself if I would stand when Trump entered a room. I think back to "The West Wing" and to concrete, realistic examples from my own life: the first time I voted in a presidential election for Barack Obama, casting my ballot for the first woman to win the nomination of a major party, standing at a ball game when I was 6 with my hand over my heart as the national anthem played. All of those moments fill me with patriotic pride. But no, I would not stand. Not because I do not respect the office of the president, just the opposite. I value that office to much to stand and say that the man occupying it is worthy of its honor. If you feel you should not stand, don't stand. If you feel you should take a knee, take it. Most importantly, let's talk about why we do these things - even the ugly reasons - so that we can maintain faith in our Declaration not by the imitation of patriotism but making room for evolution. I am pleased to say that this Sorkin-esque optimism has not left me yet, and I hope it has not left you.