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Among the many things that the American women’s soccer team got right over the last month was its approach to patriotism.
The players have strongly held views about injustices in the United States, and they didn’t hesitate to express those views. Team members spoke up about sexism, L.G.B.T. issues and President Trump. They never made the mistake of equating patriotism with nationalist jingoism. They understood that free speech is itself patriotic.
But the team — and especially its biggest star, Megan Rapinoe — also did something else. They didn’t make the mistake of conspicuously rejecting American symbols during the World Cup. Rapinoe, who had previously knelt during the national anthem, stood for it during the World Cup. (In part, she was responding to pressure from team management, but I still think it was the right move for her own sake.)
When progressive protesters reject American symbols, I think they’re making a tactical mistake. For one thing, they take attention away from their specific causes and turn attention toward the question of their patriotism. For another thing, protesting the anthem or the flag needlessly alienates people who otherwise who could be won over by substantive arguments.
Many civil rights leaders of the 1960s understood this dynamic. They knew that their critics were going to call them all sorts of insults no matter what — “un-American” and “communist,” as well as racist slurs. But they also recognized that they could help their chances of winning over persuadable Americans by aligning their cause with the country’s stated values, like justice and freedom.
They said, in effect: We are the true patriots, because we want to help America live up to its ideals and create a more perfect union.
In its own way, the women’s soccer team accomplished this same balancing act. “I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American,” Rapinoe said during the tournament. “If we want to talk about the ideals we stand for, the song and the anthem and what we are founded on, I think I am extremely American. For the detractors, I would have them look hard into what I am actually saying, the actions I am doing. Maybe you don’t agree with every single way I do it, and that can be discussed. I know I am not perfect.”
And at yesterday’s parade in New York to celebrate the team’s championship, the crowd offered a tweak to the usual “U.S.A, U.S.A.!” chant: “U.S.A! Equal pay!”
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On this week’s episode of “The Argument” podcast, I argued that Nike got this balance wrong by deciding not to sell a sneaker that featured an 18th-century American flag. Ross Douthat agreed with me and Michelle Goldberg disagreed, saying the cancellation of the shoe — led by Colin Kaepernick — was the right move. We also talked about the tension between Nancy Pelosi and the new progressives in the House.
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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt • Facebook
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