At the start of the NFL’s past season Donald Trump, he of the outsized race-baiting opinions kind, took a blow torch to players who had the temerity to kneel in protest during their game’s national anthem. The player rebellion and the President’s reaction predictably ignited much discussion. Sides were chosen, fans walked out and the malcontent who started it all, Colin Kaepernick, lost a career but became something of a counter-culture rock star. Fur flew.
The pitter-patter, of which I was a sometime participant, revealed something I found disturbing. Many Americans, I daresay most, trade in a sort of mindless groupthink patriotism. A patriotism that’s not fleshed in any meaningful way but only exist simply because it was ordained to exist. It was startling to witness. I had instinctually always felt unease at overt displays of patriotism, even as a child, but the NFL maelstrom seemed to cast these feelings into a cleaner, more defining light.
It could have started in elementary school, with the Pledge of Allegiance. One enduring memory was a question I’d always pondered; who was Richard Stand and why didn’t we learn anything about him since he was quite prominently featured in the pledge? Every weekday morning, right about 8 am, I uttered this character’s name… ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for Richard Stand…’. I mean, he must have been somebody. This went on for years.
The brainwashing starts early. Pledges at school. Anthems at ball games. All designed to propagandize children who are far too immature to comprehend what it is they are saying, let alone formulate anything approaching even a rudimentary opinion. No questions allowed, just do as you’re told and your life will remain penalty free. Conservatives carry on about liberals being sheep, easily herded, but isn’t this hatchling politicizing of our youngest its very definition? It’s the foundation upon which groupthink patriotism is built. It’s an extraordinarily solid base too as evidenced by the fanaticism of the adults it churns out.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest was not an anthem first but in its conceit borders on the Machiavellian. Here we had a millionaire athlete, a true knight of the sporting world, who had a bone to pick and masterfully used a venue, which should be free from politics and odes to the motherland, to confront this tide of one-mindedness Americans so eagerly engage in. Fully aware there would be a price to pay. In this, it’s reminiscent of Dickins’ Twist declaring, ever so naively, “please, sir, I want some more” yet not being completely cognizant of the consequences he’s about to unleash.
What is groupthink anyway? As the name suggest, it’s thinking as a group. More than this, it’s when groups favor harmony over critical analysis. Individuality is suppressed and any disagreement with the consensus gets you strong armed out of the conversation. Conform or else. Patriotism and groupthink are natural bedfellows. What’s so wrong with love of country? On the face of it, nothing. All great nations value cohesion and groupthink patriotism creates this illusion. It’s when that groundswell of love obscures the ability to weigh facts and act with a balanced and open mind that chaos can ensue.
An excellent example of groupthink is the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. The reflexive wave of national pride that swept the country following the horror of 9/11 came to reveal the danger of having everyone singing from the same hymnbook. War chants doubled for debate and any dissenting opinions were immediately dismissed. The outcome is one for the historians.
Apologist will say hindsight is 20/20 and difficult decisions needed to be made but this reading is off the mark. What should have been a difficult decision was not because it was made free from critical analysis or contrarian positions. The decision was made without processing the question. It wasn’t difficult because an answer had already been formed. Groupthink had provided it. All that was needed was a question to frame it.
Those who question blind patriotism are often branded anti-American or heretics. As if the very idea of questioning group authority is blasphemous. Questioning something doesn’t mean your feelings are devoid of love and respect. Quite the contrary. Think family members. This tarring of those who question, again, illustrates groupthink dynamics negatively at play.
Many conflate patriotism with duty. They are not the same. One can have a strong sense of duty, moral or otherwise, without being intoxicated with patriotism. This is a much more reliable barometer for love of country. You cannot command someone to be patriotic, as many seem to think. What does that even mean? Patriotism is a feeling or sentiment. Respect and love serve best when they are earned, not demanded of. Here again I reference Colin Kaepernick. The accusation is he’s being un-patriotic and disrespectful, particularly toward the military, but he appears to have a strong sense of duty. He seems to have been wounded by his country and now seeks an explanation. It’s apparent he has a complex inner world that extends well beyond the X’s and O’s of a football field. I would have no qualms whatsoever marching to battle with such a man.