Many Americans are histrionic about the virulent spread of not COVID, but rather kneeling as protest. It started in 2016 with Patient zero, Colin Kaepernick. Today, this affliction has spread to the Yankees, the NFL and even hit that liberal bastion that is NASCAR in the deep South.
However, the physical act of kneeling is morally neutral. Only with a historical and cultural context can we understand the significance of a knee to the ground.
History, Religion & the Crown
It is an act of submission, to an authority or elder, as a sign of respect or reverence. Catholics kneel -- quite often -- at church services. Muslims kneel daily on prayer mats and in mosques. Though rare, Jews kneel in synagogues.
In the Middle Ages a squire knelt before the crown when being knighted. Today, Elton John, Colin Powell and Stephen Hawking kneel. Well OK, not Stephen Hawking. True romantics kneel when proposing marriage to their love. These are all voluntary acts of reverence and submission.
A Physical Continuum of Deference
There is a continuum of similar physical acts of deference. We bow our head in prayer, as a greeting, an affirmation or acknowledgment. Japanese bow their torsos in greeting. Women can curtsy, one foot behind the other, knee bent, head nodded. Not quite Cirque de Solei, but takes some practice. Real men don’t curtsy, but that’s another story.
Then there is genuflection (half a kneel), followed by fully kneeling. Then enter the less common kowtow aka Japanese Dogeza (kneeling plus bowing, hands and forehead on ground); and then upward-facing dog, hips on floor... no wait. No yoga here.
The highest form of submission is prostration (full body on ground, face down, arms stretched). Can’t get any lower here.
All acts of reverence, respect and deference. There are no known instances, at any time, in any place where kneeling is considered an act of disrespect – until Kaepernick took one for the team.
In contrast, real acts of disrespect include sitting when everyone stands for a judge or superior officer (ie, a passive act to ignore someone). Not advisable to attempt either. An active act of disrespect would be turning a back on someone. Flag burning is tres disrespectful, yet this is constitutionally-protected free speech.
Civil Disobedience, Speech & Freedoms
Constitution? Free speech? Political speech? Yes. Freedom of expression is a core American value. We’ve all a deep respect for our flag, but we must pledge our allegiance to the deeper American values the stars and stripes represent.
Kneeling always has been and continues to be a sign of respect. Today it is also protest and civil disobedience. Though federal law requires all to stand, one Henry David Thoreau most definitely would disobey and take a knee.
Neo-McCarthyism: The Cancer Returns in 2020
As fellow Americans take to their knees or the streets in protest for redress of racial injustice, we must all guard against a knee-jerk, pernicious reaction: questioning their patriotism, their loyalties. There is a creeping Neo-McCathyism that fears disruption, chaos and anarchy. McCarthyism metastasized in the 1940s before it was eradicated by reason in 1954. Is a mutated McCarthyism visiting America, the world?
"I’m more patriotic because I’m standing!” “No I am.” Let’s hope the adults prevail in 2020.
America remains a beacon for freedom. When we don’t get it right, America remains aspirational. We’ve political and judicial systems to redress and improve. Kneeling protesters are not sick, they are true patriots.
Original appeared in The Monitor (Aug. 14, 2020).