It is a distinctively American impulse that has caused some football players to take a knee this fall. That distinctiveness is in part thanks to a Constitution that jealously guards free speech — which is decidedly not the case in much of our illiberal world today.
But the distinctiveness of the protests this fall has other roots as well.
Even if those refusing to stand for the national anthem cannot fully articulate the reasons for their protests, their dissent is in keeping with a long and venerable American tradition of reflexively questioning authority. Sometimes we protest because it feels like the right thing to do.
Such contrariness — as was seen Sept. 9 at Foley Stadium when Doherty football player Michael Oppong knelt during the anthem; he’s been joined by teammates since — has often offered important correctives to a restless nation.
Last week’s Sina-cism: Save Our Sanity — anti-charter school lies and distortion
The quiescent and prosperous 1950s may have seemed a paradise to many, but the decade turned out to have had a large measure of oppression and repression — societal, sexual, racial and religious. The tumultuous 1960s exploded the mythology of the Eisenhower years.
Journey back to late nineteenth-century America, and you find a Gilded Age whose captains of industry built a world power. But that age’s excesses were soon enough exposed by journalists and social reformers.
Students today spend little time on that conflict. The war’s origins are obscure, its battlefields and campaigns mostly forgotten. Militarily, the war was a stalemate. No territory changed hands as a result. The British could not hold any part of these United States; neither could U.S. forces capture any part of British Canada.
To many New Englanders at the time, the war was an outright evil, continuing the economic pain caused by the Jeffersonian embargo on trade.
“… those seaboard communities of New England, which furnished the bulk of her merchant seamen, showed repeatedly by vote and deed their opposition to a war waged ostensibly in their behalf,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison in “The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860.”
“Monroe’s report of 1812, giving over six thousand cases of American seamen impressed into the English navy, was shot full of holes by a committee of the General Court of Massachusetts.”
Massachusetts ship owners, Morison notes, could recall but 12 cases of impressment —one of the alleged causes of the war.
In 1814, New Englanders sent delegates to the Hartford Convention for the purpose of compiling a list of reforms and grievances against the federal government, and potential amendments to the Constitution. They included Worcester native Timothy Bigelow, son of the noted Revolutionary War hero. The younger Bigelow was a noted lawyer, founding member of the American Antiquarian Society, and three-time Speaker of the Massachusetts House. A serious fellow, indeed!
Historians debate how seriously the Hartford Convention contemplated New England’s secession. Attendees kept few records. But it is clear that amendments would have been presented in Washington, D.C., had not word of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans forestalled matters.
With the war over, the New Englanders decided to hold their fire.
What has remained constant is the spirit of skepticism and independence that marked the Hartford Convention, and much else in New England history. A generation later, New Englanders united in opposition to the Mexican War. Not long thereafter, they stood against slavery, and rallied eagerly to the Union cause in the Civil War.
Our region keeps its own counsel to this day. Regional identity and solidarity remain strong, whether the issue is fishing quotas, natural gas pipelines, or sports franchises.
Ironically, the national anthem that some are today protesting was born during the defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.
I don’t suppose that quarterbacks and linebackers kneeling to protest police brutality against blacks and what they see as systemic racism against minorities have much grasp of the finer points of that conflict, or have anything personal against Francis Scott Key. They’re simply upset.
In my view, Colin Kaepernick and his imitators can kneel until arthritis forces them to desist without ever bringing about the change they seek. The real enemy is poverty, broken families, drugs, and guns in violence-ridden communities where victims and perpetrators alike are mostly minorities.
That is a hard truth in desperate need of answers, ones unlikely to come from kneeling.
And yet, as a New Englander, I will reserve judgment on that point. Perhaps the dissent of this season will lead to dialogue, reflection and effective action. It would not be the first time in our New England history. Nor the last.