Kneeling players betray the moral meaning of America

Kneeling players betray the moral meaning of America
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE this week invited the Philadelphia Eagles to the White House to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl win. Most players chose not to attend because they disagree with the president’s policy towards players who refused to stand for the national anthem during games. The president subsequently canceled the event. A day later, the NBA’s Stephen Curry and LeBron James echoed the sentiment of their teammates, saying the Warriors and Cavaliers had no desire to be invited to the White House.

Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49er quarterback who started the silent protest by refusing to stand during the anthem in 2016, said he would not “stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

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What are we morally to make of the players who kneel during the national anthem at NFL games? And what are we to make of those football and basketball players who in 2017 stood for the anthem at all games but now politicize the sport by refusing to accept a president’s invitation to the White House?

 

Their stated motive for not standing to honor the Flag and Star-Spangled Banner is that they are protesting racism and police brutality. In some large sense, they see the president as, at worst, promoting an ethos and policies that enhance racism and divisiveness in our nation and, at best, projecting indifference or insensitivity to oppressed racial minorities.

But why direct such moral outrage toward the Flag and the national anthem, which signify the moral meaning of America? My sense is the kneeling players are not militantly unpatriotic; they are confused about the moral meaning of America. They are cognitively straightjacketed men who have accepted a narrative of America as a closed system. They treat the moral meaning of the United States as if it were fixed, as if its meaning had never progressed over time.

They act as if America is irremediably a fallen nation, as if the sins of the past have left indelible stains that no ameliorative efforts can alter. To refuse to stand in honor of the Flag and national anthem, in the name of protesting against racism and police brutality, is problematic. There are several ways to register a protest against social injustices. To juxtapose one’s protest next to the anthem and Flag is to make symbols that ask us to ponder the moral meaning of America as synonymous with racism, exploitation, oppression and injustice. It is to suggest that America can never move beyond its historical errors.

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which enshrined equality under the law for all Americans, our country has enjoyed periods of unprecedented prosperity and technological advancement. The kneelers enact a narrative repeated by media and activists and strident politicians who depict America as a country riven with racial and ethnic division, where minorities exist in a state of abject poverty worse than slavery, and where whites stand at the top of an unfairly stacked pyramid of privilege.

The moral meaning of America is an interpretive, open-ended system. Once you kneel and state in contempt that you know such a meaning is inimical to, say, the interests of black people, you have established your infallibility and evicted yourself from the realm of philosophical give-and-take, which acts as a corrective against human errors.

The truth is that racism and police brutality existed under President Obama and administrations before his. Where were the kneelers? If they are really concerned with black lives they would address the horrific black-on-black crime and gang warfare desecrating our cities, which account for more killings of black people than the police.

The players have politicized their game by turning their deep dislike of President Trump into a showcase of moral self-righteousness portrayed as concern for the oppressed. Yes, many of them do care for those whom they regard as oppressed, as demonstrated by the extraordinary amounts of dollars they commit to social causes. It is wrong, however, to use stadiums built or remodeled by taxpayers and tax breaks as a passive-aggressive dumping ground for one’s frustration with a sitting president.

And it is small-minded. The moral meaning of a country is not reducible to any president and/or his administration. The Flag and the anthem and what they symbolize transcend the policies or actions of any president; concomitantly, no president has that much metaphysical power to irrevocably establish the moral meaning of a country.   

America always has been predicated on the future. We are a reform society. We self-diagnose, correct our flaws and move on. The kneelers, like all those who resent America, must believe that America is beyond hope and redemption.

If indeed America has fallen so low in their estimation, then it must be a nightmarish hell of a place to live in. Perhaps the president is right. The kneelers might not belong in America and should, perhaps, consider living in another country. This is not because they are fundamentally unpatriotic but rather, for the sake of their mental health. It cannot be good to live in a country that you believe to be intrinsically oppressive and unjust. It must leave one in a state of chronic agitation and mistrust of fellow citizens.

The economist Thomas Sowell once wrote: “People who think they are being exploited should ask themselves whether they would be missed if they left, or whether other people would say, ‘Good riddance.’”

To ponder this challenge requires not kneeling but standing upright, facing the world squarely with grit, honor and resilience. To shape America’s moral meaning requires all of us to stand with pride and move into the world, and fashion a new world so that when we leave it we will be missed.

Jason D. Hill is honors professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. His areas of specialization are ethics, social and political philosophy, cosmopolitanism, philosophical psychology, philosophy of education and race theory. He is the author of several books, including “Becoming a Cosmopolitan.” His forthcoming book, “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People,” will be released in July by Bombardier Books/Simon and Schuster.