This seems respectful, even sane. The real problem is not the kneel.
Many Americans — too many, in my opinion, because one is too many — are up in arms about NFL players taking a knee during the pre-game National Anthem. They argue that this is about not showing proper respect for the flag and everything for which it stands.
Nevertheless, this is not about the flag. Not at all. It is a red herring.
As often happens, the issue of the flag has become a counter protest and these counter protests are not without irony, but there is something more going on here.
Let’s say I am really ticked off about something the government does or doesn’t do. Perhaps I am really hot about my taxes. If I turned my back or sat down when a color guard passes in a parade, would anyone care? Maybe. People might find my protest offensive. But, really, would people care?
Probably not that much. And there is a lot here to explain why.
First, and most importantly, the NFL protests are about minority rights and respect. People unhappy with these protests don’t see it that way. They see the flag as something unassailable. But even if you agree with this, that does not change the fact that this protest is NOT about the flag! And there is more. When Trump and his minions say the players are disrespecting the flag and then by association the military, they are pitting protesting football players (overwhelmingly black football players) against military servicemen and servicewomen.
At best this is tone deaf, but I think it is deliberate. Making this argument deflects the protest’s target. (It also distracts from other important floundering issues for the president like health care, North Korea, tax reform.) The focus shifts from race to one about respect for the country and patriotism. To make that point clear, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — yep, the treasury secretary — when representing the official line from the White House specifically says Trump’s opposition to NFL protesters is not about race. And that’s a notable slip.
The white White House can argue it isn’t about race, but in saying so they betray the truth. It is absolutely about race by the very fact that black NFL football players (and now many of their non-black teammates) are protesting racism, that very fact makes this about race and racism. Choosing to say it is not about racism is more than evading the issue, it confirms the issue. Mnuchin should have strictly stuck to the flag worship canard.
Indeed the counter-argument made by Trump that this is simply about respect for the flag is a deflection, turning the flag into a sacred totem. In this way the flag becomes a shield against which criticism can be deflected and the issues of the protest barely mentioned let alone addressed. The protest is not valid, therefore, — indeed, not even heard — because the protesters don’t respect the flag. It is a dilemma constructed to silence the protester, to undercut his agency.
Like so much in political discourse today, the rationale for political counter-argument is misleading, often deliberately so. Consider the latest effort at health care reform repeal, purportedly necessary because health care reform is failing, despite facts that show otherwise. In the most recent repeal effort, it is all couched in platitudes to freedom and sacred federalism, neither of which have much to do with healthcare if you cannot see a doctor.
The flag is an easy diversion. Who wouldn’t at least feign offence to someone disrespecting the flag, right? And protesting the military and first responders (that’s the police, paramedics, and firefighters…excludes teachers, public works employees, and judges, hence the more descriptive “first responders”) is on par with treason today. No one would do that! Rather than addressing the subject of protest — racism, police profiling, racial justice — we instead are caught up in a debate about who loves the flag most properly and in the process undercut the legitimacy of those deemed to love it less.
Republican Jason Lewis
On CNN today, Rep Jason Lewis, a Republican from Minnesota, went further to expose the real issue. He pointed out that football players are paid millions — Colin Kaepernick had a contract of $124 million, he reminded us — and he’s pretty sure NFL players are “comfortable.” So what’s the fuss, right?
What, exactly, does the income of black NFL football players have to do with racism in the United States? What does it have to do with the right to protest? It is an argument we’ve heard before. Black players are paid well. They should be grateful and shut up. Seriously. Maybe Jason Lewis will march in a parade holding a sign proclaiming “Poor Black Lives Matter”, is that right?
I am not going to raise the parallels with fascist and totalitarian nationalism that exist in flag worship. However, it is difficult not to notice them. A citizen — a patriot — can respect and honor symbols of his nation without conflating those symbols with infallibility. When that happens these things — flags, in this case — become totems. They become ideological weapons as much as symbols of national identity, wielded to maintain a hegemonic order and silence dissent. This is exactly what is happening when people like Trump, Steven Mnuchin and Jason Lewis complain about protesters and challenge the protesters’ fidelity to the flag.
When we get caught up in the symbols and rhetoric of nationalism we create a hostile environment for debate, protest, and dissent. That’s what is happening. You can see no better example of this sort of discursive trap being set anywhere in the world today than at a Donald Trump rally. It is this sort of deceptive, exclusionary approach to politicking that got Trump elected, a method set in motion on the right long before Trump. But now Trump has tripped the trap, made it part of the presidency, and I can think of nothing in our history so far as disturbing as that.