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I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. - Evelyn Beatrice Hall*
Colin Kaepernick has the unquestionable right to kneel in protest during the national anthem. It’s a right that’s spreading to a growing number of like-minded protesters.
Kaepernick’s right – everyone’s right – to kneel, I’ll defend it till my voice grows hoarse and my pen runs dry.
But I won’t necessarily like it.
I think it’s un-American.
However, I refuse to confuse un-American with useless.
Kaepernick’s “Right” To Sit (or Kneel): Yes, Un-American
The term “right,” or “freedom” for that matter, shouldn’t magically sanitize a disagreeable act.
Consider the freedom of religion.
Exercising it won’t transform a cult into a church.
Or the freedom of speech.
It can’t rewrite hateful language into unifying words.
Or the freedom of press.
Which lacks the power to turn libel into truth.
In discussing Kaepernick, Ian O'Connor, writing for ESPN, warned that you can knock Kaepernick, but you can’t call him un-American. O'Connor said:
If you don't like what the man did or said, that's your prerogative. But telling him that what he said and did was un-American is to lose sight of what it means to be an American.
In some corners of the globe, Kaepernick might face prison time or worse for publicly "disrespecting" his country. Only the quarterback didn't disrespect the United States. While pointing out its fatal flaws -- socioeconomic and justice systems still tilted against African-Americans after all these years -- Kaepernick unwittingly reminded the world that the U.S. is still a pretty damn good place to live.
America is a “pretty damn good place to live.” This is partly because we, as Americans, have the right to be un-American if we so choose.
But living in a “pretty damn good place” isn’t transformative medicine. It doesn’t automatically change something like flag-burning into a patriotic act. Kaepernick’s right to sit in this “pretty damn good place” is still a statement against America; that is, it’s un-American.
Defiance: Sometimes Good Medicine
But even if Kaepernick’s actions are un-American, they have value. They’re similar to pain. Pain is bad, but without it, you’d never know your nose was broken.
Consider Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Penned April 16th, 1963, it’s equally historic as a civil rights document and as an American document. It also contains what some might brand an “un-American” idea.
King acknowledges the “anxiety over our willingness to break laws,” calling it a “legitimate concern.” At first blush, King’s willingness to break laws presents itself as un-American (similar to Kaepernick’s willingness to break from sacred tradition).
But what about breaking unjust laws?
King’s answer underscores the value of unlawfulness (a/k/a un-Americanism):
Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Our Founding Fathers Were Un....
And long before King, disobedience – i.e., the nucleus of the “un” in un-American - proved its power in sparking change. King noted this when he said:
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. ... In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
No proud American would call the Boston Tea Party or the Colonists or the Founding Fathers “un-American.”
But they were undeniably “un-British” in disobeying authority ... England, Parliament and King George III. In speaking to Parliament, Lord North, Prime Minister during the American Revolution, summed it up this way:
The Americans have tarred and feathered your subjects, burnt your ships, denied obedience to your laws and authority; yet so clement and so forbearing has our conduct been that it is incumbent on us now to take a different course .... They deny our legislative authority, not in all places but there are those who hold and defend that doctrine. If they deny our authority in one instance, it goes to all. We must control them or submit to them.**
Like Kaepernick, but on a much grander and historic scale, our Founding Fathers took a revolutionary stand by being un-British.
And in a similar way, Martin Luther King took a courageous stand by being unlawful.
Me Personally ...
I attend a lot of college football games, stand during a lot of anthems, sing every word out loud. If I’m wearing one, I remove my hat during the anthem, and I expect the same from everyone in a crowd of 60,000 football fans.
Respect during the national anthem, a mere 1 minute and 30 seconds, is non-negotiable.
But that’s for me personally.
It’s different for Kaepernick. For him, 1 minute and 30 seconds of sitting (or kneeling) is a powerful statement.
I think it’s un-American, but disobedience, like Kaepernick’s, has value.
For without disobedience ... without our un-British forefathers ... without Martin Luther King ... the term “American” might not apply justly.
Or it might not apply at all.
And if that was the case, this wouldn’t be a “pretty damn good place to live.”
*Often misattributed to Voltaire.
** Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1995. Print.