You’ve no doubt heard that former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been on the receiving end of a great deal of bile because of his kneeling protest of racism during the pregame playing of the national anthem — a ritual that now has been taken up by many other professional and school athletes as well. You’ve no doubt heard many people say that these actions are, somehow or other, disrespectful toward the nation, the flag, and veterans.
Fans have turned on Kaepernick and burned his jersey in protest against his protest, and even boycotted NFL games. They’re willing to accept wife beaters and girlfriend beaters and animal abusers and DUI drivers and druggies and even killers. But silent protesters for civil rights? Not so much.
One little trick that we’ve witnessed quite a bit is comparing Colin Kaepernick and company to Tim Tebow, who was criticized for kneeling in prayer before a football game. Which is another glaring false equivalence such as you might expect in these situations. There are at least 5 reasons why Colin Kaepernick is not Tim Tebow.
- Tebow made a public display of his religiosity. Kaepernick made a public display of his commitment to justice.
- Tebow acted on his own behalf. Kaepernick acted on behalf of millions of disadvantaged.
- Tebow did something he could have done literally almost anywhere else. Kaepernick did something he could have done only in a very limited number of situations.
- Tebow received criticism. Kaepernick received hate mail, death threats and vicious attacks from sleazy politicians and media figures.
- Tebow’s action was ultimately good PR that probably boosted his career. Kaepernick may have sacrificed his career in order to make a statement.
The reactions to the NFL protests have followed essentially 3 lines of (very erroneous) thought, concerning the following topics:
A. The National Anthem Itself
The impression the jingoists would give you is that the song we now call the national anthem was handed down by God Herself, notated on stone tablets. While “The Star -Spangled Banner” is an old song, its status as national anthem dates back only to 1931, at least officially. (It had been the unofficial anthem for a good half-century before that). Francis Scott Key wrote the words in 1815, long after the Republic was established. And those words were set to the melody of an old drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven”. A British drinking song, no less.
B. The Tradition of Standing
Nor is the tradition of standing while this little ditty is performed rooted in antiquity. The practice goes back only to about 1891, and was established not so much as a display of patriotism, but as a way of alerting people that the song was being performed.
C. The Tradition of Standing Before Football Games
This also isn’t nearly as timeless or as engraved in stone as some would have you believe. NFL players have always had the option of being on the field for the national anthem, but it has never been required — at least not until 2009, when it became a requirement for televised games only.
The (over)reactions from some sectors of the American public to these protests has been disturbing for many reasons. And it has laid bare some some sobering facts about American society, some problems that urgently need to be addressed. Here are eight of the main ones:
1. There has been far more reaction than reflection.
People who respond with anger or hate toward individuals like Colin Kaepernick seem to be on autopilot. They react in a way that they’ve been programmed to react. And that programming is not accidental. It’s been systematically hammered into them for years by a highly lucrative outrage industry. One might say (though it’s a bit of an oversimplification) that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who reflect and those who react. And there is absolutely no doubt that the reactors are currently controlling American society. The prevailing mode of discourse, if you can call it that, is to react first and do research never.
2. The events have been seized as an opportunity for polarization.
If you follow just about any online discussion of the protests, it’s a good bet that sooner rather than later, you’ll hear someone lament about how them librulz are destroying America with these protests. Reactionaries have been desperate to (inaccurately) portray these acts of civil disobedience as a politically motivated campaign generated exclusively by, and for the benefit of, the Left.
Right-wing punditocrat Dinesh D’Souza took it the tactic to its most boneheaded extremes thus:
The Democratic Left, symbolized by Kaepernick, seeks to portray themselves in resistance to oppression. In this view, Trump represents the party of oppression (bad America) and they represent the party of liberation (good America). Kneeling at games is intended to convey a refusal to go along with American racism and oppression.
Yet historically, this gets things upside down. Who is the actual party of racism and oppression? The Democrats. Who is the actual party that resisted oppression? The Republicans.
Aside from the presumption that Kaepernick somehow “symbolizes the Democratic Left”, D’Souza performs a clever little bait-and-switch here, beginning with “historically” and then slyly switching to “is”. As anyone who did not sleep through ninth-grade civics class knows, the Republican and Democratic parties of today are quite different from what they were “historically” — and a huge part of that difference concerns race relations.
3. The Simplistic View of Patriotism
Reactionaries tend to view patriotism as a matter of displaying all the right symbols and symbolic actions: flying a flag in your yard, wearing a flag lapel pin, and having flag decals (both U.S. and Confederate) on your truck. Thus, if you don’t engage in all the requisite rituals, like standing during the anthem, holding your hand over your heart and thinking heavenly thoughts, you may be branded as anti-American. True patriotism, however, entails a commitment to candidly addressing the nation’s problems, including racial injustice.
And how ironic that this level-headed lesson on patriotism should come from a country where, not so long ago, patriotism was defined by goose-stepping and swastikas and a disturbing salute.
4. The confusion of personal preference with universal directive
Many people have felt it appropriate to respond to the protests by pointing out that by god, they always stand for the national anthem. “I stand” has become a popular meme, as if letting people know that you prefer to stand somehow resolves the whole discussion and negates the reasons for staging the protest. But the protest was never about anyone else’s right to stand during the anthem. And there is a vast difference between preferring to stand yourself and believing that everyone else should stand; and a really huge difference between believing that everyone should stand, and believing that everyone should be compelled to stand. That difference is the distinction between a supposedly democratic society like the United States Of America and an authoritarian society like North Korea.
Yet in America in recent years, this mindset has been increasingly manifest. We have a coalition of “values voters” who believe not only that they are the only ones who have values, but that everyone else should be forced to live by their values. Among other things, this has spawned the perennial and staggeringly stupid War On Christmas myth, cooked up because some people take offense at other people having the audacity to be of good cheer in a non-approved manner.
5. The discourse has been dominated and exploited by demagogues.
Reactionaries and hucksters and reactionary hucksters, all the way up the food chain to the White House (“fire the son of a bitch”), scored a touchdown with their audiences. They have been uniformly nasty against not only professional athletes who protest, but also high school and even elementary school students for exercising a constitutional right. (There’s nothing that spells patriotism like trashing a bunch of 8-year-olds, eh?) The opportunistic idiocy of the punditcracy was perhaps best encapsulated by Graham Ledger at OAN (aka the Moonie Network):
these uneducated, partisan, racialist football players are somehow righteous for promoting violent anti-American fascist groups, for turning their backs on the country that gave them their lifestyles, and are displaying so much contempt for we the people… The message is disrespect for this nation, which is making these spoiled babies rich. The message is, the owners in the NFL care more about their petty little politics than they care about us, we, the people. It’s not the anthem or the flag that’s being disrespected here, it’s you. It’s me.
It’s an especially nice touch to re-brand protesters against fascism as fascists themselves.
6. Straw men and red herrings galore
Those who don’t want to hear the protesters’ message have tried to bury them beneath an avalanche of straw men and red herrings, proclaiming that Kaepernick and company are “being disrespectful” , “displaying contempt” and “biting the hand that feeds them”, etc. In other words, they offer the bizarre claim that protesting against racism is tantamount to protesting against America. And the very fact that so many people accept this absurd false equation is a protruding indication of the real problem: racism has become so deeply and subtly embedded in the fabric of American society that people tacitly accept it as a normal component of America.
It’s also trendy to point out that these athletes are highly paid; and this is often followed by the suggestion that their salaries automatically make them rich brats; and in exchange for this bounty they should just look the other way and keep their mouths shut about injustice. You’ll get no argument from me on the point of athletes being overpaid; but that’s utterly irrelevant here, since rich Americans are just as entitled to exercise the First Amendment as are poor Americans. And contrary to what the reactionaries would have you believe, these football players are not “whining about how they are being treated”. I have never heard a single one of them claim that he himself has been unfairly targeted by police. Instead, they are speaking up on behalf of more anonymous, ordinary American citizens who have been thus targeted. It’s the famous putting their careers on the line to defend the voiceless; this is what the reactionaries consider being “whiny rich babies”.
And some people have gleefully mentioned that blacks kill other blacks and also that blacks kill whites. None of which negates the core complaint about police disproportionately targeting blacks. And the fact that so many white people are so desperately seeking a way to negate it is a further indicator of the problem.
7. False narratives
Not content merely to put a false spin on the facts, reactionaries also have no problem with simply making up facts. One of them is that Black Lives Matter promotes violence. Utterly untrue. Another is that BLM and other anti-racism activists “don’t care about” blacks committing crimes against other blacks. Also not true. In fact, the very concept of “black on black” crime is more rhetorical than realistic. But the fact that something is untrue doesn’t keep a lot of people from believing it. And repeating it. Over and over again. Alas.
The fact that “black on black crime” is even an issue, while the equally prevalent “white on white crime” is not, is yet another indication of the real problem.
8. The passionate pursuit of absurdity
Veterans are a frequent pawn of reactionaries, who love playing the “I love veterans more than you do” game. Naturally, then, they have used veterans and military personnel as props to support their rage and hatred directed toward NFL protesters. In doing so, they completely ignore the fact that a great many veterans resent being used as pawns and props, particularly for something like this.
In fact, a group of 35 veterans posted an open letter in support of Colin Kaepernick — a letter to which many other veterans have added their concurrence — which says, in part:
Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech.
But the objectors still claim to know better, even though they’ve never quite explained the logic behind the belief that the protest is “disrespectful”. The best they can do is reiterate that veterans have “sacrificed themselves for our freedom”. What they are suggesting, then, is that because veterans have sacrificed themselves for our freedom, we should honor that sacrifice by coercing other people into behaving the way we want them to.
Unfortunately, this type of absurd and self-contradicting premise is all too common in contemporary American discourse. In fact, it seems that the more passionate the argument, the more absurd the premise. And that’s a very dangerous situation. It’s the kind of zeitgeist that might lead to… oh, the election of a president who is a figurehead for neo-Nazism.
A positive note
But let’s end on a positive note. An incident occurred recently that illustrates how possible it is to bridge the gap on even a heated conflict such as this. And it occurred in the unlikeliest of locations: a rally in support of the current White House occupant.
A group of representatives from Black Lives Matter showed up to counter-protest. Predictably, they were met with hostility, and with all the standard pre-programmed soundbites: “All lives matter”; “You hate cops”; “You don’t care about blacks killing blacks”. “If you don’t like America, get out”. Etc., etc.
But then something unexpected happened. For whatever reason, the speaker at the rally invited someone from BLM to take the stage and address the crowd for two whole minutes. Maybe he figured that the BLM speaker would make a fool of himself. But that’s not what happened. The BLM speaker was absolutely masterful, and actually managed to make friends of some of the T—p supporters. It was a stunning achievement that should serve as a sign of hope for us all.