Henry David Thoreau is well known as the author of “Walden,” a story about immersing oneself in nature that resulted from spending a little more than two years at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts.
This year marks Thoreau’s bicentennial birthday. An accounting of Thoreau’s works in a recent New York Review of Books was titled “The True American.” In it, Robert Pogue Harrison offers a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s funeral eulogy of May 9, 1862:
“No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.”
Every American wants to be a “true American,” one would think, but what that means can be elusive. Ours is not a country of a single culture, but of many; not a nation of one religion, but a nation that accommodates all, at least as an ideal. We’re united by an agreement about principles.
It isn’t easy, and it’s full of contradictions, perhaps inevitable for a nation founded on a document declaring all being created equal, signed by slave owners.
Outsiders are often impressed by American patriotism, and sometimes dumfounded by our attachment to symbols and other national staples: the flag, the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance.
This, not surprisingly, can be exploited for political gain.
In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush used the pledge in a rhetorical attack on his opponent Michael S. Dukakis, who had vetoed a 1977 bill requiring teachers to lead classes with the pledge.
‘’What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?’’ said Bush at a rally.
Exactly. How could you vote for somebody like that?
Such flag-waving sentimentality was nothing new in 1988, and we’ve certainly seen our fair share of it since. Republicans, in particular, have proven adept at tapping into that aspect of American pride. But being an American is more than standing for the anthem or saluting the flag.
This helps explain the controversy, debate, and raw emotions over the NFL’s “take a knee” protests.
“To me, this is bigger than football,” said Colin Kaepernick, who on his own started the protest a year ago. The quarterback was not willing to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
That single protest has now expanded to many players and many games this season. And so has the hostility, including that from President Donald Trump, who uses Twitter as a bully pulpit to berate the players, the owners and the league, and from Vice President Mike Pence, who walked out of a game.
You can agree with a lot of sides here. You can agree with the veteran who bristles at the perceived disrespect; you can agree with the veteran who acknowledges that the right to protest is what he or she was fighting for.
Thoreau was also author of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” an 1849 essay that starts: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least.’” The work had an influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
Thoreau was writing about slavery and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and his focus was the relationship between individuals and government. I take from it the recognition that there’s a duty not to blindly follow government authority. America has its roots in such a concept, obviously.
“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly,” says Thoreau near the end of his essay.
Are the NFL players in their protest acting as “true” Americans? I think they are.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @jefferykurz.