I do not go to synagogue but I do consider myself a Jew. I don’t pray because I don’t have much of an opinion on the existence “God.” To me it is irrelevant; because whether or not there is a God is not going to affect how I live my life, how I treat people, or my opinion of myself. And I say the pledge of allegiance and stand for the national anthem out of respect for others around me who value these symbols.
There is a danger in sound-bite patriotism that can blind us to discourse and the truth. Does flying a flag from the bed of your pickup truck, drinking Budweiser (even though it is now foreign-owned) and belting the national anthem make you a patriot? I believe patriotism is about an individual’s actions that support and build-upon common values of — people of a country. In the case of the United States of America those values, perhaps, are things related to democracy, individual freedoms, and taking care of each other.
So who gets to be a “patriot” – do you have to take up arms and fight an adversary? What about fighting for American values in other ways: helping youth with few opportunities like my friends and former NFL players Madieu Williams and Moran Norris who both give much of their time and wealth to improve the lives of others; or serving in the Peace Corps like Darren Miller, Chichi Butler, Ruth Grubesic or Michael Walsh; or helping victims of sex trafficking to heal like Shamere McKenzie and Amy Middleton; or passing a law to protect victims of domestic violence like Teresa Tanzi; or serving as the Mayor of the city you grew up in and clearly love like Michael Cahill; or sitting on the board of a local emergency shelter like Kenny Burke; or donating your plumbing skills to group homes like Glenn Anderson; or leading a faith-based organization committed to social service and systemic change like Sam Collins; or serving as a Commander in the Navy for close to 20 years like Sean Phinney; or standing against injustices? There are many different types of people, pursuing many different actions which they feel are helping to improve our society and our country — and they are all protecting our freedoms by exercising these choices. They are all patriots.
As a white man who grew up solidly in the middle class, I feel grateful, because I truly have taken advantage of the American dream. And I recognize that I will never understand what it is like to be a descendant of slaves, and living in a country where I am still often judged by the color of my skin. Or as a refugee who came to this country with only a plastic bag containing all of my belongings, and a bit of hope, trying to gain access to all the American opportunities I had heard about.
In America — especially in America — is it not up to the individual to define his or her means of displaying patriotism? NFL athletes who “make millions of dollars and should be grateful –” are not protesting — they are making a statement; and not necessarily for themselves. They are responding to actions of a sitting president who called their mothers “bitches” and shit on the core-est of American values — freedom of expression and freedom of speech. They are making a statement because they feel an obligation to other people like them, whose skin is also brown or black or some hue between, and have not been afforded the same access to the American dream. They are using their platform to draw attention to social injustice. There is no better example of patriotism. To belittle the true expression of belief and feeling that athletes and others are displaying at this moment is the opposite of patriotic.