The U.S.'s Critics Can Also Be Its Most Helpful Friends

Pointing out the country's present failings is a lot more constructive than condemning it for past sins.

A patriot, actually.

Photographer: Harry How/Getty images

In the grand scheme of things, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in a few preseason National Football League games isn't that important. He’s just one man, and it’s his right to express as much or as little patriotism as he sees fit. The media explosion over Kaepernick’s action is an overhyped story that will soon be rightly forgotten.

But the bigger issues behind the Kaepernick controversy could be very important for the future of the nation. They raise the question of how to restore the legitimacy of U.S. institutions.

Americans, by and large, don’t trust their institutions as much as in the past. Gallup reports that confidence in most institutions is at a low ebb:

Lack of Faith

Percent of people expressing "quite a lot" or a "great deal" of confidence

Source: Gallup

Most economists and other researchers would agree that institutions are very important for any country. They make a huge difference in the economy and in people’s daily quality of life. The question is: Do institutions become less effective if people stop believing in them? It seems likely that they do. For the police to do their job, people have to rely on them and cooperate with them. For Congress to function well, people have to care enough to vote.

A related question is how does patriotism -- or nationalism, as it’s sometimes called -- affect trust in these institutions? Do attitudes like Kaepernick’s hurt people’s confidence in their country, or help?

There is certainly an argument to be made that in the long run, criticizing one’s country can increase trust and a feeling of inclusion, by bringing about positive reforms. According to Kaepernick, he refused to stand for the national anthem in order to protest police brutality against African-Americans. In an interview last December, he offered his thoughts on what could be done about these problems:

Police are put in place by the government. So that’s something that this country has to change. There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable. There’s a lot of things that need to change, a lot of different issues that need to be addressed.

To me, this seems reasonable. If a country is obviously failing at providing fair and equitable criminal justice, the country should be held accountable by its citizenry. Over the long term, a good country will reform its institutions. That will increase trust in the system. Investigations into police departments suspected of severe abuses are a start, but much more could be done.

In the case of police brutality and bias, it seems undeniable that many African-Americans, as well as others, have very low levels of trust in the police and courts. Building up that trust in the long term will require major reforms on the part of the U.S. government. So if the protests of Kaepernick and others, like the Black Lives Matter movement, are heeded by the authorities, the net long-term effect will be to increase our belief that the system is on our side.

However, I believe there is also a danger posed by a different kind of critique of American institutions. While Kaepernick focused on positive changes that could rectify current problems, a few observers have been more unconditional in their condemnation of the U.S. For example, Jon Schwarz, writing at the Intercept, declared that the national anthem itself “literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans,” and calls the song “an intellectual and moral atrocity.” The reason? Because the U.S. allowed slavery in 1812, during the war that inspired the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while its enemy, the U.K., had already banned the slave trade.

This is representative of an attitude, increasingly common in some parts of the American left, that the U.S. is indelibly and fundamentally tainted by its history. Xeni Jardin, a co-editor of the website BoingBoing, recently tweeted that “America is built on 2 great traditions. Genocide and slavery. They're alive today.” To these thinkers, it is not the U.S.'s efforts to correct its own past injustices -- the Civil War, or the civil rights movement -- that defines its fundamental character, but the fact that those injustices happened in the first place.

This is tantamount to nihilism -- blanket condemnation of everything associated with the U.S. as a nation-state. It isn't clear what the country could do to atone for past wrongs in the minds of critics like Schwarz and Jardin. The country can become more just, free and fair -- and it often does. But the facts of history will always remain.

So if we criticize the U.S. not for its current shortcomings but for its tainted history, I think it will ultimately erode trust in the nation’s institutions. If the U.S. is seen not as a work in progress -- as Kaepernick sees it -- but as forever corrupted by original sin, the long-term impact of anti-patriotism will almost certainly be negative. Confidence in national institutions will fall, and the actual quality of those institutions will probably follow. That will be bad for everyone, but far worse for minorities and the poor, who rely on those institutions the most.

So I think there’s a constructive and a destructive way to criticize U.S. We should demand that the system change and improve, instead of vilifying it for a checkered past that can never change.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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