On Colin Kaepernick and Love of Country

*originally posted on September 15, 2016 but times don't change*

I’d be lying if I said I gave a rat’s ass about football.  I’d also be lying if I said I’d ever heard the name “Colin Kaepernick” before a couple of weeks ago.  I’d be lying yet again if I said I’d paid any particular attention to his continued protest of the national anthem.  What I can honestly say has caught my attention, however, is the enormous backlash his protest has provoked. Saying that the backlash is remarkable is giving it far too much credit.  The chorus of voices crying foul of his actions is predictable, uncritical, lacking in imagination, and often cartoonish in its forced seriousness and disproportionate outrage. It’s actually one reaction in particular is responsible for catching my attention.  It’s not unique to Kaepernick’s situation; in fact it is readily employed in a variety of situations and has been for decades:

If you hate this country so much then go find another one to live in!

This reaction offends me more than the anger, the self-righteousness, or even the racially charged name-calling I see swirling around it.  The implication that to criticize one’s country is equivalent to hating one’s country disgusts me more than I can effectively put into words.  The idea that criticism of one’s country is such blasphemy as to warrant exile is one that I simply cannot wrap my head around. Slurs and overt bigotry are symptoms of a problem but this vehement dismissal of any attempt to draw attention to a potential problem is a disheartening indication that we have no willingness to fix it.

If you hate this country so much then go find another one to live in!

In 1948 James Baldwin accepted that invitation and left his New York City home for Paris, in large part because he’d grown weary of the treatment to which he was routinely subjected in stores, at lunch counters, and everywhere else.  He eventually returned to America, and spent the next forty years working and writing while splitting time between opposite sides of the Atlantic. He eventually died as one of this country’s foremost novelists, essayists, critics, and political activists.  I fall back on James Baldwin’s words far more frequently than perhaps I should. Given his life experience, however, I could not resist the urge to return to his words once again. In 1955, Baldwin wrote the following in his Notes of a Native Son:

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually

This sentiment is somewhat universally instructive. To love something is to constantly work to improve and strengthen its foundation; to work tirelessly to avoid allowing that love to fall into disrepair or irrelevance.  Love of country is no different. Patriotism requires constructive criticism, self-reflection, and introspection. If I am unwilling to question my understanding of my country’s history, grapple with its faults, and empathize with its people then mine is a fragile, shallow patriotism, without foundation.  Love requires reckoning with the whole; not merely the parts I find superficially appealing. If I lack the willingness to recognize faults and work through differences, then mine is not a love of country but rather an infatuation.