This is the eighth essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious since the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform and his accusatory statements against those who will not stand for the national anthem.
As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.
The most significant legacy of the divisive Sixties regarding citizenship and patriotism was the breakdown of the single model of the good, loyal, trusting, American citizen of the postwar era. Large portions of the population believed that a good citizen was no longer just a “red, white, and blue citizen”—“my country, right or wrong.” Now one could be accepted as a “good citizen” by being, let us say, a good “white citizen”—someone who is motivated on pure principle to disagree publicly with the country’s political leaders and policies. One could now be a “good black citizen”—one who is prepared to oppose publicly the country’s policies on minorities. One could now be a “good pink citizen”—one who is prepared to oppose publicly the country’s policies on gender issues. Some would even condone a good “red citizen”—one who is prepared to use violence to change American policies or indeed the American system. After all, it was none other than the writer of the Declaration of Independence who said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The “yellow citizen”—one who protests merely for self-interest—has never gained legitimacy or respect.
In the last five years we have seen, along with organized and informal groups of protesting citizens such as those of the Sixties, individual citizens, empowered by technology and social media, roil the American political and social landscape with their individual actions. These super-empowered, defiant citizens are simply carrying on the traditions established and legitimized by the angry, defiant protestors and counterculture groups of the Sixties, only now they are in some cases acting alone.
Edward Snowden: Leaking Classified Documents for a Better America
In 2013, Edward Snowden, an intelligence contractor for the U.S. government and former CIA employee, copied and leaked thousands of classified documents to several British and American journalists, revealing the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance and data collection programs. Snowden faces charges on two counts under the 1917 Espionage Act and is now living in asylum in Russia. In September, 2016, he was interviewed by the New York Times via internet and said that he believed his revelations had improved privacy for Americans and that “being patriotic doesn’t mean simply agreeing with your government.” He continued: “I would argue that being willing to disagree, particularly in a risky manner, is actually what we need more of today.” He has been called numerous things: a whistleblower, a traitor, and a patriot.
The case of Edward Snowden illustrates the tension between national security, as defined by the U.S. government, and individual privacy. It also forces the questions: When does patriotism require breaking the law? When does a citizen break his/her country’s laws in order to serve a higher good and to improve the country?
Colin Kaepernick: Sitting and Kneeling for a Better America
Unlike the political activists in the Sixties who stood, assembled in great numbers, marched, sang, listened to stirring speeches, shouted, and sometimes damaged and destroyed property and individuals, Kaepernick choose first to sit and then to kneel in silent protest. The biracial, back-up quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers challenged the conventional ritual of patriotism by sitting during the national anthem at pre-season games in August, 2016, eventually switching to kneeling. 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.”
Other football players followed his example of either kneeling or raising a fist: Marcus Peters (Kansas City Chiefs), Brandon Marshall (Denver Broncos), Arian Foster (Miami Dolphins), who was joined by teammates Kenney Stills, Michael Thomas, and Jelani Jenkins. Two New England Patriots and three players from the Tennessee Titans also protested at least once.
Colin Kaepernick was showing his patriotism and exercising his right to free speech. I believe that his goal was selfless, to improve his country, rather than to generate more publicity or money from the sales of his jersey which skyrocketed. He should be grateful to live in a country where this right of free speech is honored, unlike the country where Edward Snowden currently resides. It has also been reported that he did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, saying that “it really didn’t matter …, the system still remains intact that oppresses people of color.” This was surprising for a man who seeks the improvement of the American system.
In the case of Colin Kaepernick, there was no breaking of the law. There is no law requiring that a citizen stand for the national anthem. However, all expectations of a good state or civilization cannot be, and should not be, codified. Good civilizations also have unwritten citizen’s norms and codes of ethics. These help to identify and bind the citizens of the civilization together.
(See Part IX: Citizenship in the Age of Donald Trump.)
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