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Editorials Globe editorial: Trump, the anthem and your right to not take a stand

In a totalitarian society, everything is political. Your life is not yours, and neither is your conscience. Everything you say or do, along with everything you decline to say or do, is either an act of support for the regime, or an act of defiance against it. There is no middle ground, no private life, and no space for people not to get involved, to remain silent and to be left alone.

In a totalitarian society, you are either with the powers that be, or you are against them. Every act involves that choice, and there are no other choices. In a totalitarian society, everything is political, and nothing is private and personal.

The United States is not a totalitarian state. Not by a long shot. But Donald Trump and some of his most committed and least thoughtful opponents are bit by bit taking America to a place where the space for privacy and agnosticism is receding, and where more and more previously personal matters are being turned by both sides into political choices – marking you as with "us" or with "them."

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That way lies the end of a liberal society.

A liberal society is built on two kinds of freedom, which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called positive liberty and negative liberty, or "freedom to" and "freedom from." The first involves the democratic right to choose your government, to have your voice heard, to vote, organize and run for office. But the second species of liberty is the opposite: the freedom to stand apart from all that, in conscience and privacy, able to live your life free from the excessive impositions of government and public opinion.

The first type of liberty is the right to take part in politics; the second is the right to not take part in politics – and to not have politics involuntarily and excessively involve itself with you.

The totalitarian societies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, did not recognize the second kind of liberty. Citizens had little privacy or liberty of conscience, and authorities treated attempts to exercise such rights as taking sides against the state. In contrast, the democracies of the Anglo-American tradition, including Canada and the U.S., built these liberties into their foundations.

Which bring us to the strange, contrived standoff between President Trump and the professional athletes he hopes to goad into protesting against him, or make look weak if they don't. He says that if an athlete kneels in silent protest against racism during the U.S. national anthem, then they're disrespecting America. Many of his enthusiastic critics, rising to the bait, reacted by embracing the opposite position: that if an athlete or anyone else isn't standing up to Mr. Trump, they're effectively siding with him.

The other day, the Pittsburgh Penguins, last year's Stanley Cup champions, were invited to the White House. Every year, regardless of which party is in power, the winners of major sports championships are invited to the offices of America's head of state. Attending is not an endorsement of the President, or an indication of support for his policies or his party. The athletes in question may have voted for him or they may have voted against him; in the case of a National Hockey League Team, most players likely did neither, because most NHL players aren't even American.

Back in 2012, when Barack Obama was president and the Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins were invited to the White House, goalie Tim Thomas refused to show up, saying that he was "exercising my right as a free citizen" to protest a government "threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people." Mr. Thomas, one of only two Americans on the Bruins, was roundly criticized, and deserved to be. He was being asked to take part in a team ceremony with the head of state, not to endorse Mr. Obama.

But five years later, when the Penguins agreed to go to the White House, all hell broke loose on social and traditional media. Abuse rained down on Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' captain, after, polite Canadian that he is, he called the invitation "a great honour."

In a normal world, pre-Trump, that was the appropriate answer to an invitation to the home of the President of the United States, no matter your politics. But for saying they would go to the White House, like every team before them, the Penguins were characterized by many on Twitter and Facebook and in the media as having taken Mr. Trump's side against fellow athletes. Their attempt to not take sides was also taken as having failed to to stand up against racism.

This is nuts. There has to be room in a liberal society to not be forced to choose sides. And in the great Canadian tradition of loyal opposition, there also has to be an ability to oppose a party in power, while recognizing its legitimacy.

Are members of the Democratic Party not allowed to go to a White House event? How about the Prime Minister?

There also has to be a willingness on the part of Mr. Trump's opponents to not simply embrace the opposite of whatever he wants. The opposite of a bad idea is sometimes just a different bad idea.

If some on the right are burning tickets to teams with protesting athletes, should people on the left burn tickets to teams with few or no protesting players?

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Colin Kaepernick started the protest movement last year. He said he was making a public gesture against police abuse of black Americans, but he later expanded it into something bigger, more vague and honestly debatable when he said that, "I am not going to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour."

He has every right to believe that, to advocate it and to practise it. But it does not mean that if you oppose Donald Trump, who opposes Mr. Kaepernick, or if you are a human being who sensibly decries racism, then you must now sign your name on the dotted line as a member of Team Kaepernick. Your choices are not limited to kneeling against racism, or standing for Trump. It's not "with us or against us."

Don't take Mr. Trump's bait. Or the other side's.

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