I’m a patriot. I’m betting that you are, too. In fact, I suspect that most Americans would describe themselves as patriots, including Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. We’ll come back to Jones in a minute.
Patriotism is complicated. The term “patriot” has always been easier to don than to define. To some citizens patriotism means joining the army immediately after 9/11. To others it means paying their taxes scrupulously and obeying all of our laws.
Other self-described patriots avoid paying taxes whenever possible and have sketchy scruples about holding up their end of the social contract that molds us into a coherent society. Some patriots are in the army; others are in prison. Patriotism is a big tent, with plenty of room for all sorts of people.
In general, a tolerant attitude toward patriotism is a good thing. Americans should not be in the business of making judgments about the quality of another citizen’s love of country. Unfortunately, patriotism can be easily misappropriated. Because it involves passion, it can subvert reason. Furthermore, it can easily be turned into a weapon, a coercive test of other citizens’ loyalty to our nation.
If you doubt this, try remaining seated during the Pledge of Allegiance the next time that rote ritual is performed at your local city council or school board meeting. At various times in our history, the Pledge has served as a test of loyalty. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, who are reluctant to pledge allegiance to any power other than God, have been beaten, killed and fired from their jobs because they declined to recite the pledge.
Which brings us back to Jerry Jones. Last week he made it clear that all of his players will be required to stand for the national anthem before all football games, and any player who remains in the locker room during the anthem, as permitted by proposed NFL policy, will be fined.
“Our policy is that you stand (for) the anthem,” he said. “Toe the line.”
Two things are worth noting here. First, Jones isn’t just saying that his players will no longer be permitted to make a statement in response to their consciences by kneeling during the anthem — though they will not be, despite our American ideal of free speech. He’s going a step further by requiring that all of his players make a positive affirmation of their patriotism or at least give the appearance of doing so. How he thinks he will control what’s in their hearts, I have no idea.
Here’s the second thing: Jones admits that President Donald Trump’s interference in the NFL anthem issue is “problematic,” complicating efforts by the owners and players union to come to an agreement.
So here’s what we have: A president with obvious attractions to autocracy and a questionable relationship with the truth and the rule of law. Although he has plenty of crucial issues on his plate, he’s found time to publicly criticize Americans who are acting in response to their consciences. He’s said that any SOB who won’t stand for the national anthem should be thrown out of the game and, indeed, out of the country.
He’s leaning hard on the NFL owners, some of the richest and most powerful men in the nation, and some of them are, in turn, leaning hard on the players.
Some of the players have heartfelt scruples about standing for the anthem when they have a valuable opportunity to call attention to legitimate injustices in our society. It’s a matter of conscience and principle, and who are we to say that it’s not?
Then there are the millions of Americans who are taken in by Trump’s call to pass judgment on fellow citizens who are doing what they think is right.
Central to autocracy is coerced allegiance to its symbols and the willingness of citizens to ostracize the heretics and to force them to “toe the line.” Indeed, autocracy thrives when citizens are divided and willing to criticize each other rather than the government. Shouldn’t this make us a bit anxious?
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at [email protected].