I find that I get in trouble whenever I say anything that differentiates me from a doormat. Today? No exception.
Disclaimer: I’m not a football fan. Other than watching football while my dad took naps on our couch on the weekends, I haven’t followed the game. I went to high school in Tennessee so I know how the game is played; my kids are in the band now, so I sometimes will explain calls or rules to the band moms around me. But it’s not something I’ve ever really paid attention to or spent much time on.
Still. You’d about have to be living under a rock not to know about the players who take a knee during the National Anthem. And while I’m sometimes in my own little world, I am paying attention to the world.
One of the reasons I write this blog is to explain American history and culture to people who don’t appear to understand that this country has either. Seriously, sometimes I wake up and read the news and the first question I have is this:
“How did you get a high school diploma?”
In New Mexico, in Massachusetts, in Tennessee, in pretty much every school system with which I have been involved, there are many opportunities to learn American history and government. In fifth grade the curriculum is American History; you get that again in eighth grade (though it is sometimes called U.S. History from this point on); you take it again in tenth or eleventh grade. You also get state history, either in seventh grade or ninth grade and sometimes again in tenth grade. And most schools require a semester or a full year of a U.S. Government credit.
I taught U.S. History and U.S. Government. I was trained to teach AP U.S. Government. And I’m starting to think that hardly anyone was paying attention.
So with that in mind, instead of writing about the Watergate break-in today as planned, I thought we could explore something much more basic to an understanding of America.
The consent of the governed.
Everybody knows what consent means, right?
Well, you would think so. But, no.
The short answer to what consent means: compliance or agreement to do something.
The long answer: Consent implies approval. It’s more than passively going along with something; it’s an agreement. It means that you’ve thought it over and you agree that yes, this is the best course of action. More than that, it’s voluntary agreement. You can’t be coerced or under duress. You have to have the mental capacity and you have to be mature enough to make the decision. You have a responsibility to educate yourself about whatever it is you are being asked to do.
Maybe you even think about it in terms of what’s best for a group: your organization, your family, your community, your state…
Which leads me to the second part of the phrase: “the governed.”
Who are the governed?
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? It means the people who are citizens. But…what about the people who live in a place who aren’t citizens? Guest workers, people who are on vacation, what about people who don’t have the right to vote? People who’ve been convicted of felonies?
See? More difficult.
In America, “the governed” has been read to mean the free, equal citizens of the country. So in a weird way, America wasn’t really a democracy (and maybe still isn’t). Women couldn’t vote until 1920. In some states, felons can’t vote. Children can’t vote. And in my opinion right now we are seeing a concerted effort to disenfranchise African-American voters and another effort to get young voters to self-disenfranchise. (Don’t believe me? Google the phrase, “millennials are losers” and take a look at the right wing newspapers writing about this.)
In any case, the phrase “consent of the governed” is one of the bedrocks of American government. It’s generally used in contrast to the divine right of kings, which holds that the ruler of a country has been chosen by God and so has special rights, including that to make decisions for the whole country based on his own self-interest. Like Henry VIII, for instance; tearing his country apart, not once but repeatedly, over the question of what religion the king and therefore the whole country should practice. Henry executed thousands of people during his rule over this question. It’s one of the reasons Americans have enjoyed freedom of religion–which includes freedom from religion, too, or this right is rendered completely meaningless.
The baggage of “consent of the governed” is heavy. It means more than “this is the guy we voted for.” It’s supposed to mean that the person we voted for considers all the people of the country when making decisions. Not just the rich people, the educated people, the white people, the male people, the Christian people, but all the people.
The government derives its powers not from God, not from Christianity, not from any particular philosophy or from money. The government’s power comes from the people. And what do the people get in return?
Well, in 1579, Theodore Beza wrote about this very question. Since he was writing in Latin, which I don’t speak and can’t translate, here is the paraphrase from a 1939 book by George Sabine:
“The people lay down the conditions which the king is bound to fulfill. Hence they are bound to obedience only conditionally, namely, upon receiving the protection of just and lawful government…the power of the ruler is delegated by the people and continues only with their consent.”
In America, we not only protect the rights of the people to protest. We encourage the people to protest.
The players of the NFL who are taking a knee rather than standing with their hands over their hearts are paying homage to an idea older than America itself: the idea that the governed must consent, must be protected by a just and lawful government, or it is no government at all.
Growing up, I didn’t put my hand over my heart for the anthem. I was taught that this was reserved for the Pledge of Allegiance, and that the idea of the anthem was that you sang it together. It was less formal than the Pledge; it was being part of a community. And if you feel like the community is not only throwing you out but throwing away your life, what is more appropriate than taking a knee instead of participating?
It’s America. Nobody has to declare fealty to the President or to any symbol.
And I will stand up to defend the rights of the governed to take a knee.