A veteran in uniform, saluting a July Fourth parade. Elementary school students angled toward the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. A line of professional athletes, standing at attention during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But when one of those athletes kneels, it gets complicated.
And on Twitter, many will demonize the players as unpatriotic.
It’s possible to love your country and still, like a parent scolding a wayward child, speak up when you feel like it’s gotten off track. Just like it’s possible to serve in the military and grow disillusioned with the government whose uniform you don.
Patriotism comes in many forms. And in 2017, when anything can and will be politicized, it’s not so easy to define.
Patriotism is passion
Patriotism seems especially fervent among two groups of Americans.
The first, of course, is veterans and their families. For many, patriotism is attendant to military service, and dying in combat is the ultimate sacrifice anyone can make for their country.
Thus, for many military families, showing disrespect for the flag, the National Anthem or other American symbols can come as a slap in the face.
But some wonder whether other groups of Americans should also be afforded the same kind of tributes.
“Wrapping yourself in the flag and honoring the military is something which no one is going to object to. We all respect their sacrifice. We all honor their sacrifice,” sportscaster Bob Costas told CNN this week. “And yet what it has come to mean is that the flag is primarily and only about the military.
“This is no disrespect to the military. It’s a huge part of the narrative. But Martin Luther King was a patriot. Susan B. Anthony was a patriot. Dissidents are patriots. Schoolteachers and social workers are patriots.”
Also often welling with patriotism are immigrants.
Many of these newcomers fled poverty, violence or oppression in their native countries, and so they have special appreciation for the freedoms other Americans might take for granted.
Just go to a naturalization ceremony, where eyes well with tears as oaths of allegiance are sworn by newly minted US citizens.
Patriotism is partisan
It used to be simpler. During World War II, we were all patriots. Decades later, we swelled with national pride when our country somehow landed two men on the moon.
But that spirit waned as our country’s political climate grew more partisan, fueled by echo chambers in the media and on the Internet. And a “patriotism gap” grew between our major political parties.
Last week, President Donald Trump inserted himself into the debate when he said the NFL protests are a “total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”
Patriotism is nuanced
America appears to be moving toward a more nuanced form of patriotism.
Audrey Birnbaum Young is a Green Bay Packers fan, who like thousands of others own shares in the league’s only publicly owned franchise. She has friends who played in the NFL and family members who served in the military.
“There’s a lot of other ways [to protest] without offending the veterans of our country,” she said.
But, she added, “If you ask any one of those players how they feel about the service men and women that have defended our country. I guarantee you not one of them would disrespect our service men and women.”
Patriotism is complicated
Last Sunday in Detroit, retired Army Lt. Col. Leonard Rusher was honored by the Lions, some of whom kneeled during the anthem. During the second half of their game against the Atlanta Falcons. While some Lions kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem, Rusher saluted the flag.
Asked about the protests that have spread throughout the NFL, Rusher, who is black, expressed mixed emotions.
“I’m saddened because the flag means so much, all the opportunities we have and that I’m grateful for,” Rusher said. “But (the players) are expressing what that flag stands for — equal opportunity, equal justice, equal liberty. That’s what they are fighting for.”
Nate Boyer, a former US Army Green Beret who briefly played pro football, wants people to consider both sides of the anthem-protest debate.
Nobody knows how long the expressions of protest at NFL games will go on, or what effect they may ultimately have. Many fans, focused on football, probably wish they would go away.
But as long as they continue, the kneeling and the players’ locked arms offer glimpses of American democracy in all its unruly glory. They sustain a debate. And there may be something patriotic in that.