Building American Civicism

(A version of this essay was published as “What It Means to Be a Good Citizen in the Age of Colin Kaepernick” by, on 11-17-17.)

GQ’s recent selection of Colin Kaepernick as a “man of the year,” specifically “citizen of the year,” and recent Veteran’s Day ceremonies have served to re-invigorate the debate over the requirements of a good American citizen. But the debate is misguided. Rather than debating whether Kaepernick is a good or rotten citizen and whether NFL owners should fire similarly protesting players, we should be debating how to fortify not only American patriotism but also American civicism.

Kaepernick and I have a number of similarities. We both share diverse ancestries. He was born to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father. Only recently through DNA analysis, I have discovered I am not only Italian and German, but also African and British. Despite being separated by two generations, Kaepernick’s life in high school and beyond has had similarities to mine. In high school we both played the same three sports and in football were both quarterbacks. We both played intercollegiate football, although he had a bit more success. I played only freshman year. When I arrived at the U.S. Military Academy, there were 17 other freshmen who also wanted to quarterback Army in vanquishing Navy on national TV.

Thereafter our paths diverged; however, we both became staunch patriots. I chose a 21-year career in the Army; he chose a different, less conventional, patriotic path. In August 2016, he challenged a conventional ritual of patriotism by sitting during the national anthem at pre-season games, eventually switching to kneeling.

We can now see his actions came at considerable personal expense. 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.”

Historians normally date the birth of the modern concept of citizenship from the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic France (1789-1815); however, it has roots in the ancient world. In the Western tradition, the roots of citizenship and the good citizen reach back to ancient Athens and Republican Rome. The word “citizen” stems from the Latin word “civis,” meaning citizen. Citizens had both rights from and duties to the political body — the city-state. When the state — facing an emergency — summoned the citizen to military duty, the citizen had to respond, putting his allegiance to the state above allegiance to family, clan, tribe or political faction.

Aristotle maintained that a human being could reach his full potential only through the city-state. To Pericles, living life aloof from the affairs of state was stupidity. The Greeks called such a person an “idiotes.”

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

In addition to words for citizen (civis) and citizenship (civitas), the Romans also had the word civilitas, which meant civility/politeness, but could also refer, as Mary Beard states in her book, SPQR,” to the connectedness between Roman citizens: “we are all citizens together.” When I, as an individual citizen, thinking of the idea of my country, show devotion and loyalty to it by reciting the pledge of allegiance or standing for the national anthem, I am showing patriotism. When I do this relating more to my fellow citizens, I show not only patriotism but also civicism, a word only rarely seen in our political discussions.

We would be greatly aided in fortifying both patriotism and civicism with a different president. President Trump has yet to show genuine leadership in uniting us in our common civic project. Were it possible with a wave of the wand, we should all increase our opportunities to get to know each other: eat, listen to music, and dance together. As the Germans do, we should consider state subsidization of admission for the common person to the theater and to sporting events, so that people from all levels of American society could sit near each other and enjoy these events. These could have salutary results. We might not only get to know one another, but also fall in love and have children. Over generations, this would go a long way in fighting prejudice. It is very difficult, I can say from experience, to hate one’s grandchild.

The greatest step to fortify civicism would be to institute a program of national service, with the requirement for at least one year of some type of service to the country. In addition to the option of military service, there could be many options outside the military. The needs of our society are great: the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the addicted, and the ravaged by domestic abuse, PTSD or natural disaster. If accomplished between the ages of 18-25, these young cohorts would not only fill important needs, but also gain another year of experience to know themselves and decide on their futures, and to experience places and people in different corners of America.

We would have fewer college students repeat the words that one of mine recently said as he shrugged: “Yes, I went to college because it was what you do after high school.” The program could help us build walkways to each other and break down walls of prejudice. Finally, it could fight our society’s deification of individualism and also the multiple tribalisms, which have grown over the past four decades from the internet, the iphone, and the excesses of American culture.

In his inaugural speech, President John F. Kennedy inspired my generation to: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A program of national service would institutionalize this service to country, and it would fortify our civicism, something we shall need to confront the many challenges of the 21st century, including a rising China and a Russia bent on our self-destruction.

Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, in Newport, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZilian.

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4 Responses to Building American Civicism

  1. Dear Fred,
    I enjoyed your article called “Building American Civicism. I agree in part with your conclusions
    to build “American Civicism.” Yet I find your comparison to Colin Kapernick disappointing.
    I find little similarities with your path to patriotism and his? Let’s look Kapernick’s career and
    yours again.

    You were brought up in an Italian American middle-class family with a stable Mother and Father.
    His Mother was unmarried (White) and his father was an Africian/American. She gave him up for
    adoption as an infant. (His biological Mother was upset with his taking a knee) Yes, you both played
    three sports in High School but Kapernick broke many local and State records and was recruited by
    major NCAA Colleges and Universities. You went to West Point and played ball. Colin was drafted
    by NFL and in 2014 he received a six year $126 million contract with the Forty-Niners. (His current
    net worth is over 22 million dollars) After you graduated West Point you spent 4 years on active
    duty. In 2014 he was investigated for sexual abuse in Miami.

    His NFL career had crested when he decide in August 2016 to take a knee. Because of poor performance
    he was cut from the team. The idea that he had signed a regular NFL contract agreeing not to make any
    political gestures did not stop him from being disrespectful to both our flag and our National Anthem.
    So much for your SPOR augments. SPOR was the combination of “civis” and “civitas” (citizen and citizenship). Kapernicks’ taking the knee was a slap in the face to his citizenship and also his “civility/politeness. Kapernick’s using the Black Lives Matter’s false narrative that White Police Officers
    are racist is bogus. Statistics prove that your chances of getting killed by a White Police Officer or any
    Police Officer is greater if you are White than Black. Black Lives Matter is a group who continue the false narrative that Michael Brown a Black teen was murdered falsely by a White Police officer. Brown was a criminal who recklessly fought with a Police Officer and was killed. This “hands up don’t shoot” scenario like the “Beer Summit” with Obama continues the myth that somehow all White people are
    innately prejudice. (a fantasy of “White privilege theory” promoted by Obama and Company and preached in colleges and universities sociology and history classes.) As BLM protestors march through the streets screaming, “Kill the pigs and fry them like bacon” your Roman ideas of what “good citizens” are evaporates.

    Your attack on President Trump baffles me? You claim he “has yet to show proficiency in uniting us
    in a common civic project?” Because of his leadership he has increased jobs, lowered the National debt, helped the stock market reach 24,000 , advanced our GNP, re-aligned our allies correctly, helped
    negotiate new trade deals favorable to USA, rejected the “false Paris Climate Agreement” which hinder
    USA economic growth while helping India and China, promoting stability in the middle-east by defeating
    ISIS, increasing our military strength and moral after 8 years of Obama’s anti-military policy, and just past a historic Tax reduction Package! (Also with the death of the Obamacare mandates the ACA will
    imploded within a year. (Supporting the mandates would have been found unconstitutional anyways.)
    That is called “uniting us!” President Trump has not been successful in reaching our college students
    because of socialist, Marxists, progressive, globalist college professors preaching the same old failed “utopian” ideologies. But to the millions of “Make America Great Again supporters” he has united us.
    If you look across the Electoral College map of his states it encompasses over 75% of our geography!
    (Only the left coast and the cities of the east support the radical agenda of the progressives). The popular vote advantage of 2 million is a toss-up because of illegal votes and also democratic voter
    fraud. (In New York alone the difference of 2 million votes could be fraudulent…still getting more

    Your use of the German State subsidization of admission for common person to the theatre and to
    sporting events so that people from all levels could enjoy these events is puzzling too? Who will
    pick the plays for the free theatre? Will the plays and games be picked by elite politicians, college
    professors and other powerful government officials trying to advance an agenda? Also what about
    the people who don’t want to attend these events? Will we force them to pay for everyone’s entertainment? Also the idea that maybe if we do this regulated entertainment we might not only
    like the plays and games but fall in love with a person of a different race and have children is patently
    absurd. As if the State needs to interfere in the mating habits of its’ citizens? Hitler tried that already
    with the “Aryan breeding farms.” (Didn’t work)

    I do agree we should have a new draft from 18 to 35. I think it should be two fold
    both combat arms and also non-combat. The combat arms to bolster our professional military and also
    be an oversight. The non-combat service should be technical like nursing, drafting, computer science, engineering, automotive, aircraft maintenance, trucking etc. A two year commitment with the option
    to extend for an additional two years for more education I would prefer.

    In summary, Colin Kapernick is a poster child for “useful idiots” on the left. Kapernicks’ reasons, police
    brutality and White people oppressing Blacks are false. The statistical data does not back up his claims.
    Also “taking a knee on TV” was a slap in the face to the American people including Blacks, Latinos, Orientals, Whites, and other colors and ethnicities? Our flag and anthem are unifying symbols of America. At West Point you pledged your allegiance to our country by standing at attention at reveille
    in the morning and Taps at night. This was not a deification of the individual. It is merely an expression of our uniquely American values. Americans at sporting events love to be united for a game by the flag and the Anthem. Yet after they say, “Play ball!” we each cheer for different teams. That is unity!

  2. JFK quotation is wrong! It is what my country can do for me not the other way around. Our Constitution was founded on the principles of individual rights not socialism.

  3. Fred Zilian says:

    Good to hear from you. I appreciate the thought you put into your comment.
    We have two very clear differences: Trump and the definition of patriotism. We have already covered the first subject, so not much from me on President Trump. I continue to hope he will grow into the position; however, after one year, I do not believe he is changing. He has positive qualities, but I could never consider him a unifier, as you do.
    On patriotism, I did quite a bit of soul-searching, reflection, and history research on this. There is a part of me that hates what Kaepernick. However, in the end I give him the right to do it … and also believe he better be ready to pay the price for his actions.
    I am glad to see we do agree on the need for national service; you seem to want a return to the draft with a non-combat option.
    Point of clarification on German subsidization of the arts. As far as I know, the subsidies lower the ticket prices. That’s it. The government does not control your choices.
    Thanks again for your extensive comment.
    Best for the holidays,

    • Fred,
      I give Kapernick the right to freedom of speech like you. I just don’t like his use of NFL forum to express his anti-anthem and flag protest.
      The “Greatest Generation” , our parents fought and died for all Americans under that flag.
      Also how can our definition of patriotism be different? Historically the Romans and Greeks both used symbols to represent their pride of country.
      I wish we could sit down and debate these points. Because on some level I feel your real opposition to President Trump is more style them substance…He won the Presidency in a landslide electorial college victory.
      The people of America support him “lock, stock and barrel”
      Hope wecan get together in New Year…
      My Best Dan

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