Like many I know, I’ve been loosely following the detention and trial of Brittney Griner.
As an international scholar, I’m interested in the political ramifications and the displays of power among major international players, especially against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As a diplomat, I’m interested in the negotiations and the details of a US citizen unlawfully detained abroad. As a feminist, I’m concerned about factors leading up to the arrest (i.e., the massive inequity in pay among male and female athletes). As an Intersectional Feminist scholar and soft power advocate, I’m most concerned about the circulating narratives surrounding her detention, many of which highlight a troubling trend in how my fellow citizens think about protest and patriotism. Namely, the idea that because Griner joined in nationwide protests against systematic racism, policing, and other government institutions, she is less or completely undeserving of US government efforts to secure her release.
This type of twisted logic is not only inherently racist, it is completely ignorant of international relations and promotes behavior that threatens the national security of our nation.
CITIZEN RIGHTS AND SOFT POWER
The price to become a US citizen varies. For most of us, those born in the states or abroad to US citizen parents, it was a price paid by our ancestors. For those who have naturalized, it’s a much longer and more expensive process. However, regardless of how we become citizens, it’s a lifetime membership. Aside from voluntary renunciations/relinquishments or, in extremely rare cases, a US citizen remains so for the entirety of their lives. In other words, there is no maintenance fee for US citizenship, monetary or otherwise.
Those who are arguing to deny Griner the full protections and commitment of the US government as a punishment for her protesting systemic racism are forgetting that freedom of speech provides and protects the right to dissent.
The protections and privileges resulting from that citizenship, especially those enjoyed while abroad, are likewise immutable. These protections include support from US embassies and consulates abroad and the full weight of the US government when necessary, no matter your political affiliations or history of dissent.
Freedom of speech means one can express themselves without punishment from the state. In other words, freedom of speech means freedom from imprisonment or other punishment from the government. Those who are arguing to deny Griner the full protections and commitment of the US government as a punishment for her protesting systemic racism are forgetting that freedom of speech provides and protects the right to dissent. Furthermore, denying her protection would mean that freedom of speech does not exist in the United States. Above all, not only is this unconstitutional and a violation of our foundational values, but it’s a move that would render the nation less powerful in the international community.
It comes down to soft power — or the appeal of the United States to not only foreign governments but foreign populations. The impacts and utility of soft power are being discussed at length, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent and undeniable that soft power yields economic, political, military, and diplomatic results. Soft power has been a critical component of our historic climb to global hegemony and should remain a cornerstone of our national security strategy.
During the Cold War, for example, the United States fought communism with all our foreign power instruments, including our culture, which is a key resource of soft power. Through cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union, the United States sent students, writers, and artists abroad as informal ambassadors tasked with exporting US culture and values. In some cases, these ambassadors were not only renowned artists but also famous activists. For example, musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong toured both proxy nations and behind the Iron Curtain while simultaneously demanding their country advance civil rights at home. This Jazz Diplomacy sent a clear message to Soviet citizens and sympathizers: Not only was the US the birthplace of jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll but home a free and open society that not only allowed their dissenters to speak out against their government but sent them abroad as their representatives.
Now we’re faced with a similar situation in which a US citizen with a history of vocally criticizing her government is reliant on that same government to provide her with the protections and services afforded to her as a US citizen. I have no doubt that the public servants at the State Department and the entire administration are working hard to get Griner released. While the details are unclear, the recent announcement of a deal will hopefully secure freedom for Griner and fellow jailed citizen Paul Whelan.
WHAT’S REALLY AT STAKE
What I’m concerned about is the future. What if, in a similar situation, the executive branch is outfitted by folks who don’t understand the nuances of power? Who don’t believe in the constitutional principle of freedom of speech? And who don’t find a sacred duty in our obligation to protect US citizens abroad? I’m concerned with the growing idea that patriotism means slapping a US flag on your back window and never questioning or criticizing the government behind it, at least not if you’re a woman or person of color. I’m concerned that many have been swayed to propagate the notion that “love of country” requires us to turn away when that nation fails to uphold their values and promises for progress, folks who think that the symbol of freedom is more sacred than freedom itself.
Information is a powerful weapon, and those who control the narrative enjoy a great deal of power. As the US government works tirelessly to secure the freedom of Griner and other US citizens unlawfully detained abroad, here at home we must continue to support those who speak out against the failures of that same government and US society as a whole.
Bringing Griner home tells the world, and ourselves, that free speech is truly free and that US citizenship comes with rights and privileges enjoyed nowhere else in the world. Moreover, it reaffirms that our constitutional principles, our core values of free speech and protest, are not only worth exporting but also worth defending and promoting right here at home.
Maggie Seymour is a mother, Marine veteran, and writer. She currently splits her time between Montreal, Canada, and Beaufort, SC where she runs a blog www.motherfeminist.com, which can be found on Twitter here.