All the brouhaha about the new Nike ad using Colin Kaepernick’s image has raised again the debate about kneeling during the national anthem. Or, as Donald Trump prefers to frame it, kneeling before the flag. I know this is a mighty big deal in the United States, but I have to say I really don’t get it.
I was born and raised in England where people kneel for all sorts of reasons. They kneel (or curtsey or bow) before the monarch, they kneel in prayer, and they kneel to do the gardening. In all cases, kneeling is respectful. It’s also practical if you are gardening or if you are about to be knighted.
It seems like a really twisted logic for Americans to think that kneeling is in any way disrespectful. Why would it be more respectful to stand for the anthem than it is to kneel? Nobody has explained that to me yet. I know standing for the anthem is customary in most countries, but that doesn’t mean that it is disrespectful to kneel or even to stay seated.
There are all sorts of additional traditions that go along with the anthem, like removing hats and holding your right hand up, palm out, or placing your right hand over your heart. I remember when men used to remove their hats in a church as a sign of respect, but women were supposed to wear hats to cover their heads. Long hair (usually associated with women) was considered by the apostle Paul to be disgraceful because female attributes were not appropriate for spiritual leadership. Hence, no long hair or hats for men. It’s still a bit fuzzy as to why women had to cover up their hair, but it ties into this same notion about disapproving of feminine things. (GotQuestions.org) In any case, I think hat-removal during anthems derives from the same origins.
The current fuss, according to the President, it isn’t about the anthem but about the flag. The flag has taken on all sorts of signifiers above and beyond identifying a particular country. Now it has come to represent the military or those lost in wars, which gives it a dour significance that is hard to challenge. It is waved at all sorts of festivities, at Olympic ceremonies, and in school classrooms. Some American children pledge allegiance to the flag every morning, which is bizarre in and of itself. Obviously, it’s a patriotic gesture, but why not pledge allegiance to the country directly, if you have to pledge allegiance at all?
Canadians have something similar, but it is significantly different, too. The Canadian Oath of Allegiance is to the Crown; not the Queen as a person but to the institutions and concepts the monarch represents. Former Premier of Ontario Mike Harris said in 1993: “The oath to the Queen is fundamental to the administration of the law in this country. It signifies that, here in Canada, justice is done—not in the name of the Prime Minister, or the Mayor, or the Police Chief, as in totalitarian nations—but by the people, in the name of the Queen.” (Wikipedia) The people in Canada who swear to or affirm the oath are politicians, members of the armed forces, new Canadians, and in some provinces, lawyers. None of these are children. Also, we can leave God out of it, if we want to.
I know all our traditions and cultural practices come from a long line of changing ceremonies, all with good intentions, but what we have ended up with is a mishmash of songs, symbols, and behaviours that make no sense to outsiders. Since I am of multiple national allegiances and am living in a multicultural society, I’m happy to go along with whatever the people I am with think is right. If I met the Queen I might curtsey, but I’d have to practice first. I could kneel, but getting up again might not be easy. No matter if I am in the UK, the USA, or Canada, I can happily stand and sing all three national anthems, but I don’t wear a hat except when I am gardening.
So, here’s an idea. What if protesters stood for the anthem but kept their hats on? Or, what if they stood with a raised fist? No, wait. That’s already been done. No matter what protesters choose to do during the anthem at football games, they are in some ways showing a nodding respect to Tommie Smith and John Carlos who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Sadly, its fifty years later and these symbolic gestures are still necessary. And, it’s still not about the flag or the anthem.