Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French army was falsely convicted of collusion with a foreign power and sentenced to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island. Years later, when evidence finally came to light that Dreyfus was innocent, the army tried to cover it up to avoid embarrassment. The scandal divided the nation and beyond, and many years were spent by the defenders of Dreyfus, notably Émile Zola, advocating for his exoneration.
In reading about this scandal, I was struck by the ceremony of degradation, an elaborate ritual performed before assembled troops, in which an officer has all the symbols of his status removed and destroyed, most dramatically the breaking of his sword, in a manner expressing the utmost contempt for the convicted officer. During that ceremony, Dreyfus was heard to say, “Innocent, Innocent! Vive la France! Long live the Army.”
That he proclaimed his innocence is not surprising. That he did so while expressing his love for France and admiration for the army is astonishing. One wonders why someone would participate in such a ceremony. At the time, he could not have known or even hoped that he would eventually be exonerated and reinstated. All he knew was that evidence had been trumped up against him, no doubt in part because he was a Jew, and that he would have to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island. He could have shown his contempt for the proceedings by refusing to stand at attention. And could anyone have blamed him had he shouted, “To Hell with France and God damn this army!” At the very least, he could have participated in the ceremony, proclaimed his innocence, and simply not said anything about loving France and honoring the army that had railroaded him.
Needless to say, I recall the Dreyfus Affair because of the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick, a football player who refused to stand during the national anthem as a statement against racial oppression. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained. The two cases are not perfect opposites. The injustice against Dreyfus was against him personally, even though his race played a part in his being unfairly treated, whereas the injustice Kaepernick refers to presumably concerns those of his race, but not so much him personally.
Another element common to these two cases, though not with perfect symmetry, is the military. Unlike Dreyfus, Kaepernick is not in the military, but the subject of the military keeps coming up, as if those who serve or have served in the armed forces are more likely to be offended than are civilians. In speaking of Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem, President Obama said, “When it comes to the flag and the national anthem and the meaning that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us — that is a tough thing for them to get past.” Logically, there is no reason a civilian should be thought of as any less patriotic and thus any less offended by Kaepernick’s actions than a soldier, but it has been ever thus. During times of war, waving the flag is always understood as support for the war, which is why many that opposed the Vietnam War burned the flag rather than wave it. Opposition to a war and even opposition to the government that wages that war are not incompatible with patriotism and love of country. That is why burning one’s draft card, which was merely nonviolent resistance, should be distinguished from burning the flag. But such nice distinctions may be too subtle for the strong emotions that prevail during such times.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on this subject: the one, that respect should be shown for the state, even when it acts unjustly; the other, that contempt for the state is permitted, perhaps even obligatory, when it is guilty of injustice. Perhaps that is another reason for the distinction between the military and the general population. The military is an authoritarian institution, in which people are trained to obey orders, not question them. After many years of military service, it was part of Dreyfus’s constitution to continue to respect authority even after it had betrayed him. Also, people that are by nature authoritarian are more attracted to service in the military in the first place. Of course, I hope it is not necessary for me to say that not all members of the armed services are equally authoritarian in nature. Some even side with Kaepernick. Human nature is too complex to fit into any easy formula.
In some cases, requirement for respect is codified into law, as when a judge finds someone in contempt of court. There have been attempts to pass a flag desecration amendment, but these have failed. But that really is not the issue. When Obama said that Kaepernick was exercising his constitutional right, what he said was correct, though not really to the point, since few had any doubts about that.
Obama went on to suggest that what Kaepernick did was a good thing, though one suspects that Obama would never do such a thing himself: “But I don’t doubt his sincerity. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. If nothing else, he’s generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about.” There it is again, the conversation mantra. That Kaepernick has “generated conversation” cannot be doubted, but the conversation has been less about the issue of injustice against the black race than the act of disrespect shown for his country. As might have been expected, many have had the “Love it or leave it!” reaction, saying, “You don’t know how good you have it here in America,” and asking him, “Why don’t you move to another country if you hate this one so much?” It is such sentiments that lie behind the popularity of the short story “The Man Without a Country” in particular and the punishment of exile in general, in which one who despises his country is deprived of the advantages of being one of its citizens.
One wonders, If Dreyfus had cursed France and refused to stand at attention while the officer stripped him of his insignia and medals, would the animosity that resulted have made him a less sympathetic figure, so that he would have spent the rest of his life in hellish confinement, because fewer people would have risen to his defense? And one must also wonder whether Kaepernick has helped the issue he cares about or harmed it. I referred above to the burning of the American flag during the Vietnam War. It is impossible, of course, to sort out all the causal factors at work during those years, but I always thought that this only made things worse, that it hardened the hearts of those who supported the war. Any sympathy they may have had for anti-war protesters and their cause was ruined by the latter’s unpatriotic actions. By the same token, associating the cries for racial justice with contempt for one’s country is more likely to engender ill will on the part of many that might otherwise have had sympathy for this movement.