Kaepernick, Patriotism, and the Perversion of Protest

Art by Evan McCarthy | CC BY 2.0

In the opening pages of his Symbolic Uses of Politics, sociologist Murray Edelman writes, “Political forms thus come to symbolize what large masses of men need to believe about the state to reassure themselves.” Edelman argues that political forms and the symbols that represent them are infused with different meanings by different observers, and those meanings often disguise “…wide gulfs between our solemnly taught, common sense assumptions about what political institutions do and what they actually do.” These political symbols thus sustain people in their belief systems, shielding us from more tenebrous truths we’d rather not face.

For example, the plurality of citizens appear to believe we live in a democratic society, a view undermined by the enduring political power of money, and more recently by the deliberate marginalization of progressive candidates, the concession by the DNC that it need not observe voter choice and the handcuffing of third-party candidates to chairs in hidden basements during televised presidential debates. But the symbols of democracy—the donkeys and elephants, the mesmerizing digital counters, the brightly hued electoral maps, , the rigid stars and floating confetti, and decorous rhetoric by winners and losers alike—all sustain the myth of self-determination, a mass delusion of great value to the minority of elites that effectively determine the destiny of the masses.

And so, on crisp, luminous afternoons in the fall, in parks across the country, football fans rise to their feet for a ritual that blends supposedly masculine virtues of patriotic courage with the warrior codes of professional football in a symphony of valor. Since 9/11, these two principles have become nearly indistinguishable, and it is partly why the Pentagon pays the NFL and other leagues millions of dollars to produce the pre-game spectacles we’re so familiar with. The scintillating air force flyovers, a full-throated national anthem, bright flags held aloft by the dazzling color guard, and our armored heroes standing at attention along the sidelines, giants with grim faces, peering across a gridiron at their enemies–all of it cohering in a singular expression of faith. A kind of secular religion, infused in flags and shields, sanctified by the group dynamic. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that such symbols are the talismans that “bind individuals into moral communities”.

Taking One for the Team

This is also the religious ritual that former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested. An African-American, he stood up, by kneeling, for black Americans being abused by police. It was a brave gesture. He leveraged one of the most visible stages in the country to protest the often invisible practice of institutional racism. He instantly became a target of abuse. He has been pilloried and rendered jobless as a result of his actions, mostly by furious whites for whom this virtue-signaling ritual is sacrosanct. Mostly because he dared defy a ceremony that, for his community, felt all-too hollow. What did Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens say? “Ceremony was but first devised to set a gloss on faint deeds.” (1.2.17)

Kaepernick was confronting the faint deeds of a government that talks results, but usually just delivers more talk. But that fact, the systemic brutality against African-Americans and the woeful state of blacks in relation to their white peers, is to be set aside by disgruntled minorities when they are summoned to stand for the national anthem and face the flag. We are meant to stand, shoulder to shoulder, and affirm the essential goodness of America. It was this call that Kaepernick refused. Coming from a black community that has suffered first slavery, then Jim Crow, and now the New Jim Crow, it is no surprise that it was an African-American that finally stood up for justice, while the rest of us bowed our heads in supplication before a flag that is for many blacks a blood-drenched symbol of white supremacy. And it isn’t simply a sign of affliction for African-Americans. There are many other groups, within our borders and especially without, that have seen that flag fly over the wreckage of their lives, an exclamation point to punctuate their subjection to an imperial state. Why, then, didn’t we kneel for those causes? Why didn’t we protest those brutalities? Largely because we weren’t members of the devastated community.

Americans didn’t kneel when we slaughtered a million people in Iraq. Americans didn’t link arms when liberal idol Barack Obama maintained simultaneous wars in seven countries. American didn’t kneel when Obama launched the largest terrorist assassination program in the world–conducted by faceless robots. Americans didn’t sit when we armed al-Qaeda and tried to destroy a stable socialist republic in Syria. Americans didn’t kneel when we annihilated the state of Libya, wrecking the lives of millions and enabling racist purges, rape, murder, and terror. Did we kneel to question the offshoring of millions of blue-collar jobs just to prime the white-collar stock market? Did we kneel to recognize the genocide of Native Americans? Did we kneel to recognize that the country was built on the backs of African slaves? (As historian Eric Foner says, America’s official stance regarding slavery is amnesia.) No, we didn’t. We stood, and still stand, entranced by the spectacle, a mass mind gazing at a waving semaphore while our lips rehearse a familiar lyric.

Stand and Deliver

It is undoubtedly true that for some the flag represents one or more of the positive achievements of the American people: the breaking of the shackles of British monarchy, the enshrinement of free speech and individual liberties in the Bill of Rights, the abolition of formal slavery, the war to defeat the specter of the Third Reich, the Civil Rights Movement, the New Deal, the creation of the national parks system, the GI Bill and the Long Boom of prosperity that bettered the lives of millions, and the Great Society initiatives, among other accomplishments.

But as Edelman surmised, symbols mean different things to different people. It is especially ironic that for many the sight of the flag is a reminder of a fallen relative, shipped home in a body bag, interred with the flag folded by servicemen and handed to a grieving spouse. These people have a particularly personal relationship to the flag. For them, the personally relevant events outweigh the mass effect of the others—for one a brother or sister KIA, for another a legacy of chains. Others see in the flag the balance of the country’s actions, so that for some, the war in which that relative died represents not a personal tragedy but a bloody imperialist conquest, of a nation in which slavery, genocide, and imperialism outweigh the rest of its behavior. Those who see a larger indictment of American history seem particularly invested in the personal tragedies of others, upon whom the curse of colonial aggression was visited without the slightest justification.

By Haidt’s logic, Kaepernick openly divested himself from one moral community, that of the nation, and declared himself for another, an oppressed black community. Or at least declared one higher in his personal hierarchy than the other. People should not be punished for such expressions of freethinking. Those who rail at Kaepernick are often insisting we all see the stars and stripes the same way. Demanding uniformity of perception is to demand uniformity of thought, a negation of the very freedom on which the Bill of Rights stands.

For most, judging from the reaction to Kaepernick, the flag and anthem are still symbols of freedom and exceptionalism. But it those who proclaim their patriotism the loudest that like to shout that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, and in fact the greatest in history. They revile anyone who says otherwise. This kind of phenomenally obtuse hyper-patriotism must grate on young blacks. Especially when, even now, if a black man kneels in protest, he is exiled from his profession by 32 white billionaire owners, who then appropriate his protest to kneel themselves in sham solidarity. It is a bromide of history that the establishment will kill the rebel and then sanctify his rebellion, once it has been safely absorbed into the machinery of exploitation. Think of how little real danger one senses when looking at a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. The radical spirit of the man has been anesthetized and amputated from the body politic. We are left with the kindly demeanor of the saint, whose nonviolent path to civic justice is palatable and benign. Where’s the fire? It seems as though the great man is becoming another black face whitewashed by a racist culture. Yet when King was called an extremist, he wrote that, “..the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

By Any Means Necessary (But Not Really)

The same thing that happened to King is now happening in real-time to Kaepernick’s protest. Now Kaepernick’s extreme courage has been co-opted by anti-Trump liberals, whose obsession with this crude incarnation of heedless greed eclipses all other issues within the American system. Where Kaepernick aimed his protest at a state, the anti-Trumpists aim theirs at a person. And that singular and myopic fury will be the failure of their “resistance.” On top of that distortion, NFL teams have now attempted to shift the protest from a declaration of division into a vacuous show of unity. We are unified how? In denying genocide? In mindlessly support imperial slaughter? In protesting police brutality? How? It’s as facile a notion as “support the troops” is.

As long as this amplified protest becomes more about signaling empty unity or protesting the noxious taunts of Donald Trump than it is about protesting racist police brutality, it will have little lasting effect. As long as players and owners link arms in banality, and protesters march with clever slogans against Trump’s coddling of white supremacists, but neither stand against the larger white supremacy of the American state, it will come to naught. Until they see Barack Obama as little more than a politically correct version of Trump himself, their anger will soon be defused.

Why? Because protesters continue to launder their dissent through the binary lens of the two-party system, from which it emerges fresh and clean, posing no threat to the profits system. Why? Because it is forever Democrats versus Republicans, even though these two imposters exchange barbs onstage and golf clubs on weekends. Why? Because come 2020 all those principled protesters will enthusiastically stump for the next Democratic candidate, likely female or a person of color, who will coolly assure them that all Americans are equal and that every variety of human expression should be respected. A few measured platitudes should suffice. Then those once-determined protestors will cheer and vote him or her into office without a second thought, before a raft of rainbow flags and diversity placards. And as long as that candidate continues to profess the precepts of identitarian liberals, he will be free to continue to eviscerate social welfare, increase corporate welfare, launch capitalist wars of aggression that maim and murder millions, enact sanctions that ruin foreign economies, and—most ironically—to nourish the class war that creates enormous social and economic disparities between minorities and whites, and between elite capital and the forgotten 99 percent of society. He will be free to do all this without comment or critique.

Without addressing the underlying pathology, the larger dynamics of class division will unfold in media silence. The professional class will be bought off by the ruling class, while too large a portion of the working class will continue to recede into a shell of misplaced resentments, looking for answers from a fake democracy and a system of economic exploitation that long ago commoditized the human spirit. A system both pitiless and inhumane. It extorts what it can from human commodities, then discards them into the rubbish heap of unprofitable investments to be written off come tax time. In much the same way that slaves were once discarded when unproductive. Make no mistake, that’s how capitalism, which leads directly to imperialism, views us all. But we will go on penning clever slogans on poster board, hoping our hashtags go viral, tweeting hot takes, writing mic-drop poetry on The Daily Beast, virtue-signaling on Facebook, and signing digital petitions that chastise senators for serving their true masters. None of this will have the desired effect of radical change until we awaken to the radical reality that our economic system itself thrives upon violence, upon conquest, upon racism, and upon the commoditization of the self. For things to change, we will have to wake up, however uncomfortably, to the fact that the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism are inseparably yoked to the system of capitalism itself, and it is this meta-construct that must be comprehensively defied if any of its constituent parts are to be effectively met.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.