If the conscientious kneelers of the NFL care as much about social justice in this country as they say they do, they will stop trying to play football – at least the political football that comes from making the gridiron (or baseball diamond or basketball court or NASCAR track) the backdrop for pronouncements about police brutality, free speech, and whatever else may attach itself to the national crisis over the national anthem.
The real game the #TakeAKnee contingent needs to be playing is Capture the Flag – or rather, Recapture the Flag, from the race-baiting jackass who has stolen it.
Of course, the need for this is ridiculous.
Of course, it is painfully ironic that a draft-dodging, Putin-coddling, tax-return-withholding shyster should score political points by questioning the patriotism of anyone.
Of course, it is ridiculous – not to mention notably counter to the erstwhile free-enterprise values of the Republican party -- for the president to pressure private-sector business owners to forbid their employees to do something with which the owners themselves proclaim they have no problem.
Of course, it is galling to take the “let-them-have-free-speech-on-their-own-time” guff from tissue-white Trumpsters. Watching Steve Mnuchin spout that line on This Week was a retina-flaying flashback to the bad old days, when talented blacks were specimens, not citizens, who were supposed to dazzle, not matter; strictly to be marveled at while performing on field, court or stage, not listened to when speaking in the public square.
Of course, it is absurd to attach such national import to a mild pre-game ritual that the NFL didn’t even adopt until 2009.
But of course, if one feels any urgency about the need to stem the Trumpist tide, none of that counts.
Whether one takes one’s national anthem kneeling down, standing up, zoning out or flipping over, what counts is this:
In pulling this latest stunt, President Trump is not trying to divide the country into blacks and whites, or racists and non-racists. He is trying to divide the country into people who respect America’s most sacred national symbols and people who don’t. In our national politics, there is absolutely nothing to be gained – and a great deal to be lost -- by becoming the people who don’t.
What is lost has nothing to do with the votes, hearts or minds of the kinds of folks who cheered Trump’s “sons of bitches” crack at last Friday’s Alabama rally, thus adding leaping flame to Colin Kaepernick’s theretofore-modest fire. Those votes, hearts, minds and marbles are long gone.
What’s lost does, however, have something to do with the votes, hearts and minds of the kinds of folks who may find Trump rallies off-putting, even repulsive -- but aren’t too thrilled at the sight of Old Glory being dissed, either.
Now, here is where my fellow liberals are apt to do exactly what the president wants them to do, and get into the myriad facts of the matter: Kaepernick and company aren’t dissing the flag, the anthem or the country; they just want the country to live up to the flag and the anthem; they have the right to free speech; what about Trump's sympathy for union-bashing Confederate symbols and the thugs who revere them, and so on. Intellectually, these are valid points. But if the rise and resilience of Donald Trump can be attributed to any one phenomenon, it is his knack for separating the emotional power of an issue from the intellectual components of it, and then deploying the former against the latter. Time after time after frustrating, forehead-slapping time, Trump gets away with this because he knows that 9.99 times out of ten, emotion wins.
Interestingly, it may be that knowing this is the only trait that Trump has in common with all great political figures. They don’t, after all, achieve big things by convincing millions of people to favor sound factual analysis over their deepest, strongest feelings. They achieve big things by fitting sound factual analysis snugly into millions of people’s deepest, strongest feelings. Unfortunately, Trump skips the factual-analysis part. But where his opponents downplay or denigrate the emotional part, he wins anyway.
This is extremely well worth bearing in mind when considering the current flag/anthem spectacle, which is, for most Americans, an almost one hundred per cent emotion-only issue.
In fact, I’m one of those Americans. For me, as for millions of others, there’s just something….wrong….with disrespecting, or seeming to disrespect, cornerstone American symbols and institutions per se at any time, for any reason. Unlike the president and his minions, I don’t dispute anyone’s right to do it, and I often sympathize with the impulses behind its being done. But in my bones, I almost always wish it weren't happening.
I brought that little inner conflict to my initial view of Kaepernick’s first kneel-down, which I intellectually understood but emotionally disliked. Similarly, when the president invited-and-disinvited the Golden State Warriors to the White House, I felt (for the millionth time) that he had behaved like a bum. And yet, it somehow bothered me that LeBron James addressed him as such in that tweet. (And yes, I realize that in this post alone, I myself have called the president a jackass and a shyster. See? It's not logical.)
All that said, “sons of bitches” has me on the brink of ordering Kaepernick jerseys for the whole family. But if all this red-white-and-blue business stirs so much ambivalence in an anti-Trump, Black Lives Matter-ish liberal like myself, it might not be the worst idea in the world for "the resistance" to think about how it is playing out in the minds of true swing voters.
Even swing votes, though, are not the most precious things lost when Trump claims the flag and the anthem. Those would be...the flag and the anthem! True, the flag is just a symbol and the anthem just a song. But what a powerful symbol. What a resonant song.
Of all the disgust stirred in me by the president’s antics over the NFL, what rankles most is the idea that Donald Trump just might succeed in appropriating the American flag and the national anthem as stand-ins for himself. I feel queasy with apprehension that protestors might start to see kneeling down before the flag as a way of standing up to him. Or that thoughtful, well-meaning Americans may start to see more of a discrepancy than a consistency between standing for the values that the flag represents, and standing for the flag itself. I shudder to imagine a division opening up between those who salute and those who speak out.
If that kind of thinking starts to set in among those who oppose the Trump administration, then let’s all chip in to send the White House a giant Fraser fir right now, because Christmas will be coming early for the president, along with a very harsh winter for the American ideal.
Trump and his crowd of crazy Confederates would like nothing more than for their opponents, from Colin Kaepernick to yours truly, to spit on the American flag. That’s precisely our cue to seize it.
Thankfully, something like this process has already started. Already this past weekend, the country fairly burst with examples of Americans finding their own ways to embrace the nation while acknowledging its failings. There were the two performers who went ahead and sang the national anthem, then knelt down at the very end. The baseball rookie and military son who knelt, cap on heart, through the anthem, then rose to accept a hug from his white teammate. The numerous military veterans who tweeted that they fought for exactly the rights being exercised by the players on their knees. The sports veterans, too: almost everybody on Sunday’s Fox Sports panel came out swinging against Trump on this, but it was doughy, twangy Terry Bradshaw you could practically see reaching into the corn-chip bowl and the conscience of every old white guy watching.
That’s all great, but it’s not enough. Nor is it enough to assert, as many have, that seeking social justice can go hand in hand with patriotism. An effective message has to communicate that seeking social justice is patriotism. That message has to be delivered in every bit as visceral and vivid a style as any “Build That Wall” or “Lock Her Up!” that Trump has ever come out with.
If professional athletes really want to promote equality for black Americans, they are much better off finding a way to do so in the context of revering, not rejecting, the flag of all Americans.
This is not an easy needle to thread. Fortunately, the NFL is not new to branding, and its employees are not new to competition. These guys know how to win.
They’ve just got to start playing the right game.
Like a bowl of Lay’s potato chips, Steve Bannon’s 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose was so full of attacks, you can’t stop at just one. Bannon attacked the Catholic church. He attacked Hillary Clinton. He attacked “establishment” Republicans and Democrats and their donors and their “idiot” national-security apparatus. He attacked people who helped get Trump elected, such as Chris Christie, and people who are trying to help Trump govern, such as Gary Cohn.
So it is only in the spirit of starting on a relatively-unsung note that I begin with Bannon’s attack on American history.
It comes pretty early in the interview. Not surprisingly, it’s wrapped in an attack on immigration.
Charlie tees it up in that winding-road, thinking-cap way of his.
"America was, in the eyes of so many people -- and it’s what people respect America for – it’s that people have been able to come here, find a place, contribute to the economy,” he poses. “And you seem to want to turn it around and stop it.”
“You couldn’t be more dead wrong,” Bannon retorts.
For a split second right there, I actually think Bannon is going to go good immigrant/bad immigrant, and say that what Rose has wrong is the impression that Bannon wants to curtail the economic benefits of immigration, rather than address its costs. But no: he means to pretend that, even historically, there have been no economic benefits at all.
“America was built on her citizens,” he states, with dead, sky-is-blue certainty.
Unlike me, Charlie is able to keep from slumping over with his mouth hanging open.
“We are all immigrants,” he gently essays, “… except the native Americans – "
“Don't -- don't -- don't get...This is the thing of the left,” Bannon sputters, waving off the remark as if it is a fly getting too close to a sandwich. “Charlie, that’s beneath you.”
Wow: The massive, multi-century reality of immigration as a basic, foundational feature of American ascendancy in the world is a “thing of the left”? A thing that is “beneath” the dignity of a television interviewer to mention?
Only here comes the really scary part, though, because to the millions of people who undoubtedly slept through this unit in middle-school social studies, Bannon actually sounds kind of learned.
“Look at the 19th century,” Bannon urges. “What built America is called the ‘American System', from Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts...a system of protection of our manufacturers, a financial system that lends to manufacturing, ok? And control of our borders. Economic nationalism. It’s what this country was built on!”
Now, if it so happens that you stayed awake through middle-school social studies, that little riff alone is full of fun little ironies, such as American System godfather Clay’s eminently un-Breitbart nickname (“the great compromiser”) and his mortal enmity with Bannon/Trump hero Andrew Jackson, whose virulent opposition thwarted key elements of the System. But that’s all beside the point, which is that if you look for five seconds at American economic development in the 19th century, you will see Bannon’s portrayal of it as the very picture of fantasy.
Let’s take just three quick, gigantic examples.
In 1804-06, was it an American citizen who crucially enabled – and more than once saved from fatal catastrophe -- the great, national-economy-forerunning expedition of Lewis and Clark? Or was it a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, ably aided in the translation department by her French-Canadian husband-owner Toussaint Charbonneau?
During the glorious “Canal Age” that brought the American System to life with its commerce-linking waterways, was it primarily U.S. citizens who did all that digging, dumping and draining? Or was it badly paid German and Irish immigrants -- the Catholics among whom, in a foreshadowing of the drubbing later to be taken by Muslims, were widely denigrated as papist plotters?
Decades on and further west, was it U.S. citizens who built the transcontinental railroad? Or was it overwhelmingly Chinese laborers who blasted tunnels through mountains and had themselves lowered over cliffs in baskets so as to chisel the rock by hand? Not only were these people non-citizens at the time that they performed this death-defying, economy-establishing work. They were affirmatively barred from becoming citizens for many decades thereafter.
Bonus question: By 1900, some three-quarters of the exploding U.S. urban population was comprised of immigrants. Were they mostly lying around, snacking on schnitzel? Or were they putting their backs, shoulders, arms, legs, hands, feet and eyeballs into maximizing the newfound industrial potential of “our” manufacturing?
None of this is to suggest that all immigration has been good, wonderful immigration – far from it-- or that fine people can’t disagree on how to control immigration today. But that’s a hard problem, and it’s not going to be solved by folks who dispute the indisputable, starting with: if the building of America had been left to American citizens, America as we know it would not exist.
Of course, it’s not just the building of America that Bannon has got so wrong. It’s the being. From Squanto to Lafayette to Roebling to Schwarzenegger to the dreamers now having nightmares, the United States has never, ever been the tightly-sealed Ziploc storage bag of a country that the Breitbart set seem to idealize. No matter what inanities they speak or cruelties they clamor to inflict, it’s never, ever going to become that, either.
How pathetically sad to have to state such an obvious fact. How singularly repulsive to do so in response to such a highly-placed figure’s so boldly and breezily denying it. How gravely distressing to know that he dares to do so on behalf of the resident of a White House that was built by African slaves, the most egregiously exploited non-citizens of all.