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What it means to be a good citizen in the age of Colin Kaepernick

GQ’s recent selection of Colin Kaepernick as a “man of the year,” specifically “citizen of the year,” and recent Veteran’s Day ceremonies have served to re-invigorate the debate over the requirements of a good American citizen.

Rather than debating whether Kaepernick is a good or rotten citizen and whether NFL owners should fire similarly protesting players, we should be debating how to fortify not only American patriotism but also American civicism. 

{mosads}We should stop to consider not only what makes a good citizen, but how to make a good citizen.

I consider Kaepernick and I both staunch patriots. I chose a 21-year career in the Army. He chose a different, less conventional, patriotic path. In August 2016, he challenged a conventional ritual of patriotism by sitting during the national anthem at pre-season games, eventually switching to kneeling. 

We can now see his actions came at considerable personal expense. He argued: “There is police brutality — people of color have been targeted by police.” He criticized the inadequate training police receive. He asserted he was not “going to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” 

The modern concept of citizenship — and what it means to be a good citizen — has roots dating back to ancient Athens and Republican Rome. The word “citizen” stems from the Latin word “civis.”

Citizens had both rights and duties to the political body — the city-state. When the state — facing an emergency — summoned the citizen to military duty, the citizen had to respond, putting his allegiance to the state above allegiance to family, clan, tribe or political faction. 

Aristotle maintained that a human being could reach his full potential only through the city-state. To Pericles, living life aloof from the affairs of state was stupidity. The Greeks called such a person an “idiotes.”

In addition to words for citizen (civis) and citizenship (civitas), the Romans also had the word civilitas, which meant civility/politeness, but could also, as Mary Beard states in “SPQR,” refer to the connectedness between Roman citizens: “we are all citizens together.” 

When I, as an individual citizen thinking of the idea of my country, show devotion and loyalty to it by reciting the pledge of allegiance or standing for the national anthem, I am showing patriotism. When I do this relating more to my fellow citizens, I show not only patriotism but also civicism, a word only rarely seen.

We would be greatly aided in fortifying both patriotism and civicism with a different president. President Trump has yet to show proficiency in uniting us in our common civic project.

The greatest step to fortify civicism would be to institute a program of national service, with the requirement for at least one year of some type of service to the country. In addition to the option of military service, there could be many options outside the military.

The needs of our society are great: the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the recovering and the ravaged by domestic abuse, PTSD or natural disaster. 

If accomplished between the ages of 18-25, these young cohorts would not only fill important needs, but also gain another year of experience to know themselves and decide on their futures, and to experience places and people in different corners of America.

We would have fewer college students repeat the words that one of mine recently said as he shrugged: “Yes, I went to college because it was what you do after high school.” The program could help us build walkways to each other and break down walls of prejudice.

Finally, it could fight the deification of individualism and the multiple tribalisms, which have grown over the past four decades in the age of the internet and from the excesses of American culture.

In his inaugural speech, President John F. Kennedy inspired my generation to: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A program of national service would institutionalize this service to country, and it would fortify our civicism, something we shall need to confront the many challenges of the 21st century.

Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, in Newport, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZilian.

Tags Colin Kaepernick Donald Trump Fred Zilian year of service

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