Patriotism–love of country–can be a noble ideal that promotes informed, educated citizenship and respect for its governing institutions and the people who compose its society. But patriotism without criticism is lazy and toothless; a cheap way of demanding conformity to the status quo. Condescendingly demanding that people must either love this country unconditionally or “leave it” is deeply insulting to the many patriotic Americans both yesterday and today who have fought injustices throughout our country’s history and have argued through the language of protest that this country can and should do better. The late author James Baldwin correctly argued that “I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Democracies and Republics thrive on dissent. Fascist and authoritarian governments thrive on the suppression of dissent.
We Americans are a free people whose country was born of protest. The right to protest is a right codified in law and protected by those who put their lives on the line for us in military service for this country (and who, by the way, do not need to be apologized to before engaging in protest). We can debate all day about correct and incorrect protest methods, but peaceful protesters–whatever the cause–have just as much a right to pursue freedom and liberty for themselves as anyone else, even if their actions and messages are distasteful in our eyes. The National Anthem and our ritual of standing up for it should not be empty gestures done just to be polite or to adhere to forced standards of patriotism, but should be practiced by freedom-loving people who stand on their own free will because they believe in its words and the patriotic spirit they invoke.
In 1943 a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses students in West Virginia refused to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance and were expelled from school. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Chief Justice Robert Jackson stated that:
“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”