It seems like I’m writing about jocks a lot of late, but what’s a guy to do? Colin Kaepernick, the once beloved, now beleaguered quarterback from the San Francisco 49ers, hit the news with a big old bang by sitting out the national anthem before his premier appearance in a pre-season NFL game last night. When the expected, foaming-mouthed outcries exploded across the inter-webs, Kaepernick doubled down with a now-removed tweet, that read “The fact that you really believe that there is difference in these flags means that your [sic] ignoring history.”
Oh, Colin. I hope you know what you’re doing.
from people who don’t really get what liberty and free speech means, he’s also getting a tremendous amount of support for the personal risk he’s taken in speaking his mind. The blathering choruses of “if he doesn’t like America, he should leave” along with various threats and, most interestingly, the declarations that because of his own, hard-won successes he doesn’t deserve to speak out on social issues are almost as bemusing—and certainly as predictable—as they are disappointing.
I was pleased and surprised to see any support after all the overwrought reaction to Gabby Douglas’s distracted forgetting to place her hand on her heart during her Olympic medal ceremony. Douglas made a mistake, but Kaepernick made a political statement, and frankly I expected that Twitter would be burning up with demands for his literal crucifixion. I did see some burning effigies, wild accusations of Muslim extremism (because everything bad in America is related to Islam, somehow, it seems), but mostly just tired calls to shut up and get out.
I realized that this isn’t really about Kaepernick at all—it’s about people using him as an excuse to exhibit their own, superior nationalist fervor. Indeed, it’s like there’s a contest for people to compete against each other to prove who’s the most awesomest best damn American ever.
We are officially a nation of Eighth Graders.
What Kaepernick did is not something that I would do, even though I passionately and aggressively support the right of anyone to express dissent. I must admit to considerable ambivalence about the sanctity of the national anthem. Don’t get me wrong, I like the anthem—at least the first two verses of it. That bit in the third stanza, No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave… that curses runaway slaves to death is a little iffy, but put me in a stadium with just the first, common verse and I like hearing it, I respect the tradition, and I respect those for whom the ritual holds great reverence. I participate in it even though I hate the sheep-like feeling of everyone standing up and fawning over a symbol-whether that symbol is a flag or a song. But I’m not fond of mass oaths and that sort of stuff in general. In church, growing up, the droning Lord’s Prayer and the responsive readings made me uncomfortable. I’ve just never been much of a joiner.
But do we want to live in a country where standing up and saluting the symbols of the motherland is compulsory? We’ve seen that sort of thing before and it never works out real well.
“But do we want to live in a country where standing up and saluting the symbols of the motherland is compulsory? We’ve seen that sort of thing before and it never works out real well.”
Interestingly, at least to me, when I sat down to write this, I had it in my mind that I wanted to talk about the futility of controversial statements and actions and the tendency of those things to do little more than stir up knee-jerk reactionaries who tend to equate dissatisfaction with the state and subsequent expressions of free speech as disrespect for God, Jesus, and the sacrifices of our brave veterans. I’ve covered this ground previously, in regard to flag-burning, which I’ve always considered a wasteful and counter-productive act because the right to burn a flag means that in destroying it one actually enforces the ideals behind it. Like Jesus forgiving from the cross, or Obi-Wan Kenobi saying “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can imagine.” And that’s a beautiful thing.
As I wrote, I lost just about any impulse to condemn the San Francisco quarterback, mostly in response to Mr. Kaepernick’s explanation of his position. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game against Green Bay. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
It seems a little crass to suggest that Kaepernick is a bad person whose wealth disqualifies him from speaking about what he sees. I would be remiss if I failed to point out that we’re in the middle of an ugly Presidential election in which one candidate’s entire platform is based on the fact that America sucks. Every day, his ads tell us we’re not great, we’re awful, we’re losers. Every word that oozes out of his thin, gelatinous lips tells us how awful and low we are, how terrible the country is, and yet he is beloved by legions of flag-waving yahoos who brag about wanting to lynch black men by their penises. (Yes, apparently that is a thing.) Here’s a rich guy running for President who actually called our military “a disaster” and who jokingly compared what soldiers endured in Viet Nam to his fight not to catch a venereal disease while sitting out due to one of his four deferments. On a personal note, I didn’t know my father until I was three years old because Appalachian farm boys didn’t get deferments for bone spurs so they could stay home, play squash and baseball in the day, and fight desperately against the scourge of gonorrhea by night.
“Here’s a rich guy running for President who actually called our military “a disaster” and who jokingly compared what soldiers endured in Viet Nam to his fight not to catch a venereal disease while sitting out due to one of his four deferments”
Should Trump keep his mouth shut because America has been good to him? Is he too rich to have the right to stick his foot in his mouth? I wish, but the answer is no. Indeed, I’m a working class white guy–nobody is oppressing me–does that mean I don’t have the right to speak out about perceived injustices? Because I haven’t experienced them personally? Does Mr. Kaepernick’s wealth negate his right to free expression any more of less than Mr. Trump’s?
So, what would I say to Mr. Kaepernick, if I had the chance? Well, I disagree with the idea that the confederate battle flag and the American Flag are no different from each other—but let’s take into account that, as a mature white guy, the America I experience on a daily basis is very different from the world even my most educated, articulate, and prosperous black friends experience. My pretty blonde wife got pulled over for a burned out tail-light the other day. She never worried about whether that traffic stop would end her life, and the officer didn’t even run her license. “I just wanted to let you know to get that fixed as soon as you can. Have a nice day.”
From where I stand the rebel flag is an overt assertion that both glorifies and threatens oppression, racial supremacy, and exploitation. It is also the flag of traitors. The American flag, in my mind, does not symbolize our failures–of which there are so very many–as a nation and a society so much as it does the higher ideals and possibilities to which we should and often do aspire. Equating the American flag with the southern hate rag means surrendering to cynicism and abandoning hope, two things I refuse to do, however tempted I might be from time to time. The stars and stripes represent the dream of what we could be, at our best. That doesn’t mean that I don’t admire Mr. Kaepernick for the personal risk he is taking in speaking up for what is right. Perhaps my entitlement has allowed me just enough hope that I’m either unwilling to surrender the American flag to the blathering simpletons of the Redneck Right, which is what I’d feel like I was doing.
In trying to understand Mr. Kaepernick’s perspective, something his critics have clearly not bothered to do, it is vital to remember that he’s a kid, still ingrained with the idealism I mentioned above, and probably more than a little feisty in the way most exceptional athletes are—confident and inclined towards action.
Who can’t remember being angry at unfairness—a complaint every kid makes. It’s not fair. I can clearly remember becoming furiously angry upon learning that were “wrong” and “unjust,” specifically because I was raised in a devoutly patriotic family where a big deal was made about all the veterans in our line, going back to the French and Indian war. I took it all in, and then I grew up and I learned about slavery and the labor movement and it was the 1980s and we were manipulating governments in south and central America and I was outraged. Outraged! I wanted to argue all the time and protest and speak up and, you know, fix stuff. Did I hate America? No, I hated that America hadn’t lived up to the higher standards to which I held it—and to which I still hold it.
“Kaepernick is a jock… what can he do? He runs fast, but he can’t stop a single speeding bullet, let alone hundreds upon hundreds of them. So, he makes a gesture…”
It’s easy to look at at kid like Kaepernick, who has so much, and be dismissive. He was adopted by a great family, got a super education, and seized opportunities to experience fame, success and wealth. Why shouldn’t he just shut up and count his blessings? Is it a bad thing that when he looks around himself, from his position of comfort, and sees that it is still a terrifying thing for young black men to live in America, he follows the urge to speak up? I know there are plenty of folks who are think that the thousands–thousands!–of dead kids are fully culpable for their own deaths. They shouldn’t have run. They should have raised their hands. They shouldn’t be carrying guns even if they’ve got permits. They shouldn’t be in that neighborhood. On that street. On that corner. Its probably right to assume that some of those dead kids brought it on themselves. Alternately, just as most cops are good, enough of them are not that we’ve got an epidemic. It’s not all racism, the transition to dominance-based policing over community policing has created a militaristic law enforcement paradigm that is rooted in aggression.
But Kaepernick is a jock—he’s not a sociologist, or social critic, or even some guy with a blog who’d rather write all night than sleep. He turns on the news, like so many people of all colors, and sees dead black guys weekly, sometimes daily, and he gets angry, but what can he do? He runs fast, but he can’t stop a single speeding bullet, let alone hundreds upon hundreds of them. So, he makes a gesture, probably thinking “I’m sick of this shit.” (He must be, because I am). He sits down and decides not to sing the national anthem, which rings so hollow in his ears. Then someone sticks a microphone in his face, and the next thing we all know he is the vehicle through which every Trump-grubbing Yahoo in America is trying to earn his ‘Murican flag lapel pin.
Personally, I think it was an ill-considered move on his part–but I’m old and cynical, far removed from the kid who refused to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag his entire senior year in high school because 1) I read in a civics book that it wasn’t a law, just a red scare thing, and they couldn’t make me, 2) It’s kind of creepy, making public pledges, everyone droning the same words at the same time feels cultish to me still, and 3) It pissed off my homeroom teacher, and I liked that.
Well, Mrs. Chronoski had the good sense to sit quietly and not encourage me. Perhaps she even smiled to herself and remembered what it was like to be young and idealist. It’s a pity so many of us haven’t a similar capacity for restraint.