If you’ve been hoping I could make sense of the passing scene, lo these many weeks, your long wait is over. At last, events have crystallized and I can now take on the most important issue confronting the nation (as President Nixon, Watergate raging, famously said to his Cabinet about inflation three days before he resigned) — namely, taking a knee while the national anthem swells through football stadiums across the country.
You think I’m kidding. (Well, I’m sure some of you do, unaware that I am always straitlaced.) But I’m not — kidding, that is. As trivial and contrived as this fleeting bit of drama may appear, the counter-reaction to the protests is actually a showcase of the American psyche. Read on.
The scenario by now is well known. (If I know about it, you do too.) In August 2016, during preseason play, Colin Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, took to his knee (i.e., kneeled) during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and persisted in doing so through the fall (this was, recall, mostly before the election). Kaepernick said he was taking a knee to protest racial inequality and police brutality against African-Americans. Kaepernick was instantly reviled for being unpatriotic. Though his game did not appear to suffer during the 2016 season, no NFL team has signed him this year. But the practice spread. Still, the conversation was mostly contained to sports circles: fans, players, and owners chimed in, but it was not part of the national political conversation (perhaps too polite a euphemism for political discourse these days) until about three weeks ago.
Then, agitated by looming political and policy difficulties — Puerto Rico, flattened by Hurricane Maria, was calling for major assistance that the White House seemed to be dilatory in delivering; one last attempt to repeal Obamacare was looming in the Senate; and North Korea was engaging in a vituperative shoutfest that many still fear could lead to nuclear war —, the President in his role as Distractor-in-Chief lashed out against players who did not stand at rapt attention for the national anthem. At a political rally in Alabama on Sept. 22, he protested the protesters: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now.’”
For days thereafter Mr. Trump gnawed on the patriotism bone. Anyone who stoops during the anthem should be fired, he thundered. He urged fans not to stand for not standing, exhorting spectators to empty the stadiums. He succeeded, as always, in igniting his “base”: Fans have booed players and team owners (though apparently only Vice President Pence has staged a walkout). A late September Ipsos/Reuters poll showed that 43% of the respondents “strongly” believe that players should be required to stand for the anthem, and another 15% “somewhat agree” that they should be made to do so. (Most of these respondents otherwise claim to be apostles of liberty.)
But as we are also coming to expect, the President’s remarks set off a counter-reaction. The knee-taking has spread to other sports, and some team owners, even conservative ones, have joined their players, though how long their solidarity will last remains to be seen; none has had the moxie to bring Kaepernick back to the field. For what it’s worth, 57% of the respondents in the same Ipsos/Reuters poll disagreed that the NFL should fire the kneelers.
Mostly lost in the spectacle of players on their knees and the fevered fury of the self-proclaimed patriotic class: The entire debate begs the question. Encouraged by the presidential prod, the players’ irate detractors assert that to kneel is to disrespect the flag and the anthem, and by extension our men and women in uniform — indeed, our very country. But why does kneeling constitute disrespect? And why to the flag? Who says so? Well, all right, lots of people say so, but what makes it so?
Standing for the anthem is a matter of etiquette, not rule, regulation, or law. Nevertheless, there’s much to be said for sentiment and etiquette. I would be disturbed, as I suspect you would be too, to be surrounded by people swilling beer, tapping at cell phones, and talking during our rousing (if unsingable) national anthem. But the players did none of that. Theirs is as respectful (and respectable) a protest as one could wish. It’s silent, still, and not even slightly disorderly. It’s not rowdy but peaceful, much more so than what you’d likely spot if the television cameras panned slowly across the masses in the stands. So why is it bad and evil and vile? Because it goes against the social norm that politics be left out of sporting events?
According to the second Senator John Kennedy (this one is John Neely Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana), yes. Quoted in Time in what is perhaps the biggest howler of the debate, he put it this way: “I wouldn’t have said it the way he said it, but President Trump is saying what a lot of Americans are thinking. Does there have to be politics to everything? I mean, do you really have to inject politics into a football game?”
What? Is the national anthem some sort of campfire ditty devoid of political meaning? And if your answer is that it is a few moments of song that unite us as a people, why is it necessary to do that at a football game? And why has the Defense Department shelled out nearly $7 million to various sports leagues for “paid patriotism” events like military color guards strutting their stuff? When you go to the movies, or a concert, or a play on Broadway or in any theater anywhere in the United States, or, you name the event, you don’t expect to hear the national anthem, nor do you hear it.
Moreover, and more to the point, what is it that we celebrate and get misty-eyed and solemn about when we thrill to the rockets’ red glare? Perhaps to some people the anthem is just a reminder that we’re a nation that has endured. But if that were all, would we celebrate in those last few words the “land of the free” in a land where freedom was too shriveled to endure a mild and silent protest during the anthem? And if you felt unfree, threatened, demeaned (or if you felt that some of your fellow countrymen were), might you suppose you were honoring the flag just by shutting up for a couple of minutes? The flag that promises the constitutional rights we profess to be willing to fight to the death for (well, not most of us, you know, but the folks who serve for us in the military over there somewhere)? Is it wholly unreasonable to suppose that you might do a little more? That you might exercise your freedom by signaling your reproach while people are actually aware of it? And to do so in a quiet, respectful way? Unless all the singing, hand on heart, and head bowing is just ritual incantation, this is the very flag that reminds us of American values and exhorts us to do better. Oh, and home of the brave: Who’s the brave one here, Mr. Trump captured by his base and unwilling to risk political capital or Mr. Kaepernick, willing to endure the taunts of the complacent?
In all the current uproar, those who profess to be offended are following a very old American playbook. It is a script that tells us to accuse as wrongdoer the fellow who points out the bothersome reality that someone has caused actual harm. It’s insulting to accuse us. Label the protest as offensive and brand offensiveness as the greatest sin, so that we can ignore the thing that’s the focus of the protest. In particular, take to task anyone who dresses a protest in the flag.
Legislatures, as well as solitary demagogues, have long sought to punish the merely offensive, often more severely than they would the commission of real harms. Here, from Zechariah Chafee’s great book Free Speech in the United States, this reminder, remarking on the enforcement nearly a century ago of a World War I sedition law:
Montana imposed a penalty of twenty years in prison for various insults to the Constitution, the uniform, and the flag, which were considered too trivial to be federal crimes, until Congress in 1918 inserted the whole Montana law into the middle of the Espionage Act. Nothing could show better the way state war legislation works than the fate of Starr of Montana, as described by a United States judge. “He was in the hands of one of those too common mobs, bent upon vindicating its peculiar standard of patriotism and its odd concept of respect for the flag by compelling him to kiss the latter. In the excitement of resisting their efforts, Starr said: ‘What is this thing anyway? Nothing but a piece of cotton with a little paint on it and some other marks in the corner there. I will not kiss that thing. It might be covered with microbes.’ The state authorities did nothing to the mob, but they had Starr convicted under the Montana Sedition Act for using language ‘calculated to bring the flag into contempt and disrepute,’ and sentenced him to the penitentiary for not less than ten nor more than twenty years at hard labor.”
Don’t tread on me by landing on your knee. Or look cross-eyed at my flag. Or assail my ears or my eyes or scorn the etiquette that keeps me safe (else be fired, banished, or jailed). So say the patriots. As for the actual assaults on you or your countrymen, well, we’ll get to it some other time.