Kaepernick’s Protest Goes Right to the Heart of American Nationalism

At first glance, meaning a week of media uproar, I dismissed Colin Kaepernick’s mild protest of standing up for the singing of the national anthem as unimportant. The patriotic among us would denounce his disrespect of the flag, the agitators and progressive among us would back him up for his right to protest, and the whole thing would blow over. It may well eventually do just that, but the issue had a stickiness to it that lingered on longer than I had expected. Perhaps I am just to close to the center of the discussion in the California Bay Area, perhaps the mainstream media was attracted to a heated debate about a patriotic symbol (the patriotic symbol?) during the lead up to the 2016 election, perhaps forcing the talking heads of the sports commentators to make a statement on the issue fueled the fire for longer (considering how much football Americans watch), but perhaps this simple refusal to stand was a brilliant move to catalyze a movement to change America to its core. Just maybe this simple act of of protest cuts through the sort of media hype that seizes on a hot-button issue like a pack of ravenous wolves and has nestled its way into the heart of the national consciousness.

After a blithe facebook post in which I do as I usually do and point out bias in the mainstream media and try to convince my friends to stop paying attention (and we do pay for our attention with ads, lost etiquette in our personal arguments, etc.), I was surprised to find replies from people I know that suggested that they had taken deep offense. How could the simple non-gesture of remaining seated provoke such outrage? It shouldn’t have been so shocking though, and I had a bit of an epiphany followed by a face-palm because I had just gotten through a book on Nationalism by Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities.

When you publicly disrespect the flag, a great number of people are going to react angrily because nations are the basic unit of the people in powerful… nations around the world. I find it difficult to type without conflating the nation of America and the people of the USA. After all, the preamble to the constitution of the United States of America begins with “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…”, with the assignees claiming to literally be the people. They signed as the people not yet formed until that act of constitutional adoption passed, which they authored. Their authority to speak as the people and at once form the people is a kind of simultaneous enactment that typifies the logic of nationalism: the people and the nation are one, a unity. The people of America are the nation and they are represented by the government, just as any other nations claim to represent their people in sometimes different, non-republican ways (I could also say countries but who makes a clear distinction between the two anymore?).

Regardless of whether the reader is a devout nationalist or not, the nation has become the organizational unit of politics and we are all subjects of the nation. The force of its symbols and rhetoric are the dominant forces on the planet. The ideological spectrum is largely set within the national discussion and that discussion is a rather singular one that situates the beliefs of its subjects within that spectrum; even if one attempts to take one’s beliefs outside of that spectrum, they will find a place for it and slap an ‘-ism’ on it. In law one has certain rights and privileges as a ‘national citizen’ and to become a stateless person is to understand the gravity of these commitments. As a mark of attachment and as a mode of self-identification, the nation and its citizens reigns supreme.

A nation has a number of defining characteristics and clearly differs from the feudal states of the medieval period, but the flag its single is most unifying symbol. These simply designed rectangles that wave in the wind hold a symbolic power: the power and respect of the nation. To disrespect that symbol is to bring down a disgrace upon the nation in the eyes of a great deal of nationals because that symbol is equated with the nation as a whole. The flag of a nation signifies the most basic belief of a contemporary body politic. That belief has been understood and deployed as a method of mass persuasion in a number of ways and at various key junctures in history. Most people stand and give respect to the symbols of the nation as a force of habit, with a few loudly defending their sanctity and a few others willing to burn them in disgust – the zealous outliers. One way or another, national symbols are an entry point into a conversation that has the farthest reaches and to maneuver oneself in relation to those symbols in word and deed produces some of the greatest impact. That there is a “national discussion” so easily referred to and which so many public figures feel compelled to speak within indicates the influence such words and deeds have. It is one of the hallmarks of nations that there be newsprint conducted in a single language that people can potentially follow and participate in: a current national discussion.

When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the singing of the national anthem, the response from the patriots was that he should not disrespect the flag and all that it stands for. Without yet going into the content of what the flag stands for (i.e. enumerating what a nation is and is not) it is worth pointing out that the flag is revered sanctified by what it represents not for the bare symbol waving all by itself. The flag is the supreme national symbol, it is the medium through which we know that other people who we cannot quite see or know in their personal distinction, people we will probably never talk to, will still feel unified with us and we them. The flag is the device that bridges the gulf of anonymity between people who still have the same political status as a citizen, a shared connection to the territory and the institutions therein. By showing disrespect during the star-spangled banner, Kaepernick can be seen as severing that bond of national attachment by sitting while almost everyone else is standing – a decision with such small physical stakes yet provoking such a strong reaction that it attests to the power of the symbol. The public perception is that everyone else is watching the same flag, having the same feelings, posing in the same fashion, and generally united in thought and action regarding the national symbol.

The sentiments evoked by participants with this scene can be quite overwhelming, and it is no accident that national symbols accompany mass events with the numbers of people present reaching heights vastly exceeding in everyday life. The power and force of a massive crowd is immediately apparent to anyone within one, with an individual’s sense of physical and mental autonomy challenged by the common sights, sounds, smells, arrangement of the locale, and often collective movements that sweep one up into them. All of these forces come into play in the instilling of a national consciousness through national symbols and ceremony that, if conducted properly, can reinforce the beliefs that come along with it. The belief in the nation are what the individual carries along with them after the event is over and reenter the stream of daily life; the power of nationalism is most visibly and affectively pronounced in the symbolic crowd control of these mass events. Taking on that stage and publicly breaking the norm of the crowd is actually one of the most potent forms of protest and so is a rather brilliant. Add to that the historical high of professional sports watching, media involvement with social media apps, and a chatty commentator class that loves an angry debate and you’ve got a perfect storm.

Once you see (if only for a moment) that national symbols are a kind of crowd control writ large and internalized by a critical threshold of people, withdrawing one’s involvement in its ritual of allegiance has a way of forcing people on a very wide spectrum to ask some fundamental questions. If the flag is thought to be unconditionally respected and never questioned, as some will inevitably be led to believe, then the content of the nation and the condition of the people of the nation is irrelevant. The people could suffer to the point of utter destitution and total exhaustion, the infrastructure could be in collapse, and the constitution could be blatantly ignored by those wielding the most power but the flag and would still demand respect. This is of course absurd. In a nation that contradicts its own fundamental tenets and does not allow its people to make decisions of any political significance, allegiance to the flag would take on the form of a totalitarian rule that would maintain the obedience of the masses while shoring up the power of the rulers. The content that the flag stands in for would become irrelevant and the symbol itself would be reduced an empty shell of dogmatic adherence. This is a logical extreme but the arguments coming out against Kaepernick’s protest have nothing to do with the content of his grievances, nor does anyone try to maintain a position that he shouldn’t be allowed to protest peacefully (freedom of speech being the single most important bit of content in the nation); the very persistent, loud, and often angry criticism is directed at his method, the effect it has on the political landscape/national psyche, and respect. Nobody would say that he doesn’t have the right to protest or that there aren’t legitimate concerns that he is voicing, the debate is about form, respect, and etiquette. In other words, people’s feelings are hurt and they don’t want the distress and injustice wrought within the nation to spread to its form in the flag. The image of the flag demands to be clean and virtuous, even when the real people are suffering or the nation’s ideals are not being realized.

It is within this dark gap between the content and the form, between the real situation people are living through and the image of the nation’s symbols, that Kaepernick’s protest tactic shines out. Nobody can deny that his tactic is unsound or illegitimate but he is denounced anyway, nobody can deny that he is expressing grievances adequately but he is denounced anyway, nobody can get him to stop and go back to conformity with ceremonial behavior but he is denounced anyway. The reactive patriots are caught in a bind. As a symbolic protest, it is a perfect place to occupy because it reveals the content-less and purely emotional arguments coming from the other side. He is inducing everyone to either react in a blind rage for witnessing such disrespect or reflect on whether the nation’s ideals are actually being met when looking at the symbol. If the symbol is never to be disrespected, then there is nothing to stop the slippery slope down to totalitarianism. If the symbol is open to criticism, then American symbols will now at least partially invoke the injustice and lack of freedom it tries to cover up – with all of those crowd sentiments and increased media activity coming along for the ride.

On the other hand, it became easy to understand why people were shocked and worried by the action when it began to spread. When the national symbol is openly flaunted, with more and more people choosing to not participate in the ceremony or do so in a dissenting manner, the feeling of unification dies down – the spell is broken. That fall-back level of collective belief and those tingly feelings one gets in a unified crowd (especially as a child) suddenly feel under attack. Aside from the individual affects that are threatened, the level of commitment and confidence people have in the nation to exert its influence on other nations diminishes. When one’s house is not in order, in becomes vulnerable to external threat. The planet being governed largely by nations as the basic subjects of action and international bodies composed of them, to see a tear in the fabric of the nation and those bonds loosened will project a weakening nation. So Kaepernick’s protest has ripple effects that are predictable and he feels that those effects are worth risking for the sake of his grievances within the nation.

The whole episode has the makings of a tragic-comedy, where the actions of the dissenting commentators are only making matters worse. The more the issue is discussed, the more Kaepernick and protesters who feel his way will gain, due to the purely emotional nature of the reaction. It is the American love an on-screen feud that keeps this thing going; the more the public hears about Colin Kaepernick not standing up for the national anthem, the more patriotism will take a hit. Should the division create a clean split and set even more people on the path of reactionary patriotism, it would be another case of the mainstream media fomenting reactionary nationalism on empty ideological grounds. One need only mention the billions of dollars worth of free advertising space that the large corporate media stations gave to Donald Trump in the presidential primary races to see how that works. They determine the spectrum of ideological positions to be had within the nation and guard the boundaries of what counts for mainstream positions, reaching the broad national audience that they do. If they would stop talking about it, then it would stop riling-up people into unquestioning patriotism. The sooner staged conversation rooms in front of the camera stop talking about Colin Kaepernick, the less angry people will become about him – regardless of what anyone believes about the rightness of his actions.

But the statement that Kaepernick is making is consciously striking for a division within the nation for his own reasons. The reaction on the extreme patriotic side is predictable, his gesture is relatively small, and the media is stoking the flames – yes, these are all factors in the episode. But his reasons for protesting are justifiable and the national divisions which he supposedly kicked-off are already latent. Athletes have been coming up with ways to support Black Lives Matter activists and actions against unpunished police murders for a few years now and have done so with some success. Nothing strikes a cord like disrespecting the premier national symbol in a very large crowd as a star-athlete (he is a star athlete and shouldn’t be on the bench right now, but I’ll save that rant for the end. I am a 49ers fan after all) though: he is on the “national stage.”

When policemen are repeatedly shown on video to kill black men without any good reason and are allowed to go free, something is wrong on a national level. When policemen get paid leave after using their firearms to kill the citizens they are supposedly protecting and one factors in the long and thick history of racism in America, one is left feeling like justice is two-tiered. And it isn’t even solely a racial issue when you broaden the scope: the financial sector routinely gets away with crime and reaps huge salary rewards for it, broke cities have local governments fleecing their citizens with all sorts of fees to stay afloat, and Kaepernick’s own words are good enough for the presidential election:

“I think the two presidential candidates that we currently have also represent the issues that we have in this country right now. You have Hillary who’s called black teens or black kids super predators. You have Donald Trump who is openly racist. We have a presidential candidate who deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me. Because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison. So what is this country really standing for?”

So what we have is a nation that is already fractured between its rich and its poor, between the people thrown out of their houses to pay for the mistakes that mega-banks brought down the economy with, between a poor people desperately in need of jobs and investment getting gunned-down by officers standing above the law they themselves enforce, between an unpredictable demagogue-bigot and a missile-firing oligarch who is also above the law. What we have is a nation already divided. In this kind of situation the way has already been left open for riots, extreme nationalism relying purely on emotional attachment to empty symbols, and a mainstream media that happily shows it all to us to boost their ratings.  To stop this undesirable outcome, the principles invoked by the flag and other symbols need to be reflected in the realities of the nation.

With this in mind, we should thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the alarm bells and forcing viewers of some of the most watched television programming in football to reconsider just how much the ideals of American society are reflected in its present form. A two-tiered law system, predatory banking system, and a permanent, invasive surveillance system are precisely the things that the founders of the American nation tried to prevent. A cool, calm, and collected explanation for why he is exercising his right of free speech and a basic understanding of what the national symbols represent (vs. their sanctity) would do everyone a favor right now.

Some of the best commentary on the issue has come from military veterans in the #VeteransForKaepernick hashtag: [The Intercept: VeteransForKaepernick]

And for some fun lite reading on the media farce like only a local beat writer can do, read Ray Ratto: [Kaepernick Controversy: America Reaches New Levels of Insanity]

Now for what I’ve been waiting for all along:

Colin Kaepernick is easily the best choice for the starting 49ers quarterback in 2016. He has already proved that he is a Superbowl caliber quarterback who can a lead a team deep into the playoffs, as he did back in 2012 and 2013. He electrified the league when he came in with his ridiculous speed and strong arm. He has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in the league, right up their with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. He continued to get better with his accuracy and pocket-presence throughout his career and deserves none of the blame for the team troubles of 2014 and 2015. In the former they lost some games that were very close and very winnable but still went 8 and 8 – sometimes a playoff worthy record but not that year. That year was also a franchise record-setting year for sacks, which are largely the fault of the offensive line, so he had to play under immense stress. Here is a run down of why they underperformed: [What Went Wrong for the San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 Season]. It’s hard for a QB to play well when a) all the players around you don’t care, let in pass rushers, and drop balls b) the offensive coordinator simplifies the offense and c) the coaches limit your running abilities and don’t design plays that complement your talent. Also, the league came down heavy on the 49ers defense and threw penalty flag after penalty flag for offenses that were went unpunished in previous years; the NFL had an image problem and it sent a message that year that it would be protecting its players health more now. I felt the 49ers took the brunt of this policy change, but I’m also biased.

After that year, 2015 was a throw away year in which everyone and their mother knew that head coach Jim Tomsula was a one-year fill-in for the next long term head coach the 49ers would acquire later. The team was a total mess, with a huge chunk of its personnel leaving or retiring to get away from the front office disaster that resulted from the falling-out of the widely successful and popular head coach Jim Harbaugh and team owner Jed York. Everyone in San Francisco, most of the Bay Area and a good deal of American football fans knows that Jed York is the spoiled brat of a team owner and is responsible for the teams plummet to the bottom of the league. None of this is Kaep’s fault.

This year they are starting Blaine Gabbert, an unsuccessful quarterback who had bad years with a bad team in Jacksonville. He came in last year mid-season and was sub-par, but the team wanted to give him a chance during a throw-away year and Kaepernick also eventually got injured. Kaep is now healthy and has a far greater history of success in the league. Those read-option sweeps that the 49ers have been running to get first downs and extend drives (until the opponent’s defense makes the adjustment and forces Gabbert to try and throw the ball down field, which he can’t do reliably enough) would be far better suited for Kaepernick’s abilities. He runs way faster and has far more agility for those and other types of plays coming out of Chip Kelly’s “hurry-up offense”. He also has a stronger, more accurate arm to trump Gabbert’s ground balls he kept throwing in games 1-3. Gabbert is a competent game manager and can beat bad teams, but the 49ers want to get into the playoffs and maybe even win some of those games.

The only way they are going to do that is with Colin Kaepernick as their starting QB. This means his protest will continue gaining media attention, especially when he is inserted into a game early on or starts. Ditto for if he becomes successful or fails, because everyone in the nation will be either with or against him. The 49ers might just keep him sitting to avoid paying any more of his contract next year, but that would be another move that would paint Jed York as a team saboteur for those paying attention. The local media and the team must necessarily stand behind their starter, but the constant stories about it is only a sign that the conversation about Gabbert’s replacement is being had.

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