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Colin Kaepernick and the Death of American Democracy

Mike Morbeck - CC BY-SA 4.0

Mike Morbeck – CC BY-SA 4.0

The frog of American democracy is no longer boiling, it’s dead.   How do I know?  By observing the public response to the actions undertaken during the last week by San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.

That a certain sector of our country gets upset at the slightest criticism of policemen and/or the military is nothing new.  Uniform worship has a long history in this country, especially in the years since World War II when our government decided to dispense with any pretense of preferring democratic republicanism to empire, and as an integral part of that transformation, launched a consensus-management program designed to normalize and exalt the virtues of ceding individual prerogative to the always “responsible” and “benevolent” men in blue and green.

But even during the darkest moments of this post-war period, there was almost always been a sizable group of people, on both the left and the right, who resisted the hierarchical logic of this uniform-worship because they understood that it is, and always will be, absolutely incompatible with both the day-to-day dignity of the citizenry and that same citizenry’s pursuit of real democracy.

But this no longer seems to be the case. Sure, there have been numerous people who have voiced support for Kaepernick’s right to do what he has done and right to say what he has said.

But almost every one the defenses I have heard or read in the mainstream media has been accompanied by long qualifications designed to insure that no one ever be able to question the Kaepernick defender’s deep and abiding respect and veneration for all that our “heroes in uniform” do on our behalf.

It is, like so many—sadly, mostly liberal—position-takings in our time, a weaselly pose.  It is designed to let the would-be defender of the athlete appear principled without having to confront the structural issues posed to our civic culture by the presence of a heavily-armed caste of uniformed people who, if we are to judge by the statement’s made by their official spokespeople, clearly believe that they live in a very separate ethical and moral universe than the rest of us.

Take, for example, the recent letter from San Francisco Police Officers Association leader, Martin Halloran to San Francisco 49ers President, Jed York,  and NFL commissioner,  Roger Goodell,  demanding that they apologize to the many police officers Kaepernick has “disrespected”.

Mr. Halloran and the people and the people he represents are, as they have ceaselessly reminded us over the last 15 years, public servants. This means that they work for us, and are, in the final analysis, subject to our discipline, and if we view it as warranted, our censure, as often as we care to dish it out.

Mr. Halloran, no doubt emboldened by the concerted post 9-11 propaganda effort to glorify all thing having to do with the military and the police, has turned this core democratic logic on its head.  Like a medieval lord, convinced of his superior status before God, he demands that the non-gun-toting subjects of his realm kneel before him in praise, and should one of these minions ever slip up and voice criticism of the always impollute actions of the lord and his chosen vassals, that this reprobate rapidly demand forgiveness from the masters.

This is bullying, pure and simple.

The big problem is not that it exists. To paraphrase the great teacher from Galilee, “the bullies, you will always have with you”. What ultimately matters is how the great mass of the population, especially its more secure and comfortable sectors, chooses to respond to the outrageous antics of such people.

The results so far are not encouraging. We have a probable majority of the country in favor of punishing and/or silencing Kaepernick. Beside them, is a smaller but sill sizable group that supports his technical right to speak out, but either feel he probably should not have criticized the blue lords so directly, or, worse yet, support his criticism, but are afraid to say this in a forthright and unambiguous manner.

The great Italian essayist Indro Montanelli once said that to have a functioning democracy, you must first have democrats. Being a small-d democrat implies many things. Perhaps the most basic of these is to understand, and to firmly believe, that no person or group of persons, especially those working explicitly in the public trust, are fundamentally more worthy than others.

Be it as a result of fear, or our government-media complex’s long campaign of pro-authoritarian propaganda, it seems, sadly, that only a small minority of Americans still understand this fundamental trait of the democratic mind.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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