I haven’t been following the Colin Kaepernick controversy because it involves things about which I don’t particularly care: football and nationalism.
However, recently a friend of mine posted on social media that people should be free to protest, but that they ought not protest at work. I happen to agree with that statement (ethically speaking, of course, not legally), but it made me realize something profoundly odd about the Kaepernick controversy, which is that people have taken the singing of the national anthem as the default. That is, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, if you hear the national anthem, you’re supposed to stop everything, put your hand on your heart, and sing.
This is weird. Catholics don’t even feel this way about the Nicene Creed. This default-to-respect-the-national-anthem mentality is more a profoundly religious behavior than some of the most significant religious convictions out there. The only thing that I can compare it to in my mind is the almost obsessive way some Muslims insist on saying “peace be upon him” any time anyone makes mention of their prophet. Like, you can’t just mention him if you’re a Muslim, you have to immediately also say, “Peace be upon him” or “Alhamdulillah” or something.
I’m not criticizing it, it’s just a fact. The convention is that the prophet is so holy that the mere mention of him requires that we pay a small verbal piece of respect to him. I cite this as a comparison because there is no real equivalent in the West for such behavior. We can mention Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, or anyone else without immediately verbally genuflecting, because that’s our convention, that’s our social norm. We can even say “god” without having to immediately praise him. We in the West have never had anything quite like “PBUH” and similar statements that exist in Islam.
…At least, we haven’t had any such equivalent until now. Now, the US national anthem serves a similar purpose. As soon as you hear it, stop everything and pay your respects! Anything less is either blatant disrespect, or a protest of some kind.
It should go without saying that mindlessly reacting to a patriotic song is not the same thing as being patriotic. That is, a person’s hand over their heart is intended to be an action that merely represents or demonstrates patriotism. It is not patriotism itself. To use a silly example, George Washington was an American patriot long before the national anthem even existed. A person could do many patriot things and dedicate herself to civic duty and patriotic service, and still opt out of standing for the national anthem. Such a person would still be patriotic. It’s not standing for the national anthem that makes one patriotic, it’s expressing patriotism some way or another.
Likewise, many people do absolutely nothing for the country they live in, and yet stand for the national anthem nonetheless. Are they patriots? Not unless the one thing that determines a person’s patriotism is standing for the national anthem.
Ironically, this will probably be very easy for my Muslim readers to understand. They know full well that, for example, putting on a hijab doesn’t make a person modest or dedicated to god. The hijab is just a way to outwardly express what is presumably true within their hearts and minds, as far as dedication to god is concerned. So many people have written criticisms of women who live quite wildly in their youth, and then suddenly decide to put on a hijab when they’re ready to settle down and find a good husband. Are such people “truly modest,” or “truly dedicated” to god? Of course not. They might even be hypocrites. But the point is clear: it’s not the act of wearing a hat that makes you a dedicated Muslim. The hijab is just a hat, really. It’s not the hat that makes the Muslim, it’s the religious conviction. The hat just represents all that.
This implies that the national anthem is just a song. That’s all it is, it’s a song. To be sure, it’s a patriotic song. It’s a song sung on occasions on which we wish to express a devotion to our country. But that’s all it is. Standing and singing a song doesn’t make you a patriot. Nor does sitting during the national anthem make you disrespectful to your country. There is way more to it than that.
As time goes on, though, people are becoming less and less capable of differentiating between symbols and the objects they symbolize. In many Muslim communities, all anyone cares about is the outward demonstration of piety – but real piety doesn’t really matter. As long as a woman is wearing a hijab, the community deems her pious; the rest is ignored. And similarly, as long as Kaepernick was standing for the national anthem, nobody cared. The minute he chose to actually think about the state of his country and make a conscious decision to affect change for the better was the moment everyone deemed him insufficiently patriotic.
It’s just a song!