By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
One of the sadder ironies of Americana is how fervently so many citizens of this country defend its symbols without ever really considering what exactly those symbols entail.
Take “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The song actually stinks — its tune is bad even for antiquated pieces, and it’s infamously difficult to perform. Most who revere it don’t know what the hell a rampart is or know that we only play one verse of what is a four-stanza poem. We don’t pay attention to the words and instead just drone them from rote because authority figures told us to as kids. It’s not unlike the McCarthian requirements of school-children saying the Pledge of Allegiance (written by a socialist minister, originally recited at the installment of a holiday for a genocidist and for decades sans “under God” until religious Americans found the jingoistic practice to be too Soviet).
And how often do any of us hear our national anthem played anywhere but prior to a sporting event? What does that say about the hollowness of our patriotism and what we really value most? What tangible thing would be lost if we got rid of it before games (and the worse use of “God Bless America” in the middle of baseball games)?
Notice, too, those last lines of the verse proper are a question, but we sing it as a declaration. If the latter is true, our national anthem is a lie.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick proves that. After choosing to not stand for the anthem in three straight preseason games in social protest, he told NFL.com: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick spoke further on Sunday:
Kaepernick said he will sit for the anthem until things change. Asked specifically what would be a success, he said it's hard to say.
Kaepernick said he will sit for the anthem until things change. Asked specifically what would be a success, he said it's hard to say.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) August 28, 2016
Kaepernick: "This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it's not happening for all right now."
Kaepernick: "This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it's not happening for all right now."— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) August 28, 2016
The response was swift and typical, with the loudest being the usual worst. How dare he disrespect America, the flag, troops, your grandma’s apple pie and the odd gravitas we place on positioning bodies a certain specific way before songs and inanimate objects. This football man shouldn’t be putting social issues over football, nor should he be make us conscious of those issues the status quo tries so hard to ignore.
The CBS family wasn’t immune to spontaneously combusting in fire takes.
Now we understand Colin Kaepernick! The country that lets you make tens of millions of dollars to be a wasted talent is your problem Colin?
Now we understand Colin Kaepernick! The country that lets you make tens of millions of dollars to be a wasted talent is your problem Colin?— Hub Arkush (@Hub_Arkush) August 27, 2016
The takes over someone like Josh Brown, NFL domestic abuser du jour, have been spread much thinner than the outrage over Kaepernick, but, again, that just speaks to what we consider most important. Perceived disrespect to Old Glory is a much worse cultural offense than putting hands on a woman against her will. At least, it is in one of the two Americas that exist.
The stars and stripes fly over one of those Americas, the kind of America that exists inside a vacuum that is a stadium. Because a flag is a symbol, and symbols only have as much power as people give them. We’re also talking about having oodles of respect for an inanimate object and a poem that wasn’t supposed to be set to music in the first place.
Ask yourself what really bothers you about someone not standing at attention for the anthem? Even if you say you don’t agree with what he’s doing but believe he should still be allowed to do it (a common hedging out there), what about it is disagreeable? It’s not about men and women fighting and dying for his right to protest, no matter how much you lean on that convenient crutch. It’s not about him dividing us further (see: making racists angrier). Why does this non-criminal behavior bother you? Your answer speaks way more about your darkest scruples than anything about a protester.
The flag and song are only allowed to hold power if the interpreter gives them that power. For someone like Kaepernick, the flag and its song don’t contain a power to be revered. Intellectually, this shouldn’t be all that challenging.
The American flag’s particular power is given by people for whom their version of America is idyllic to the point of fairy tale (or Dream, if you will). The syllogism goes like this: Your life is overall pretty darn good. You live in America; therefore, America is good as are its given representative symbols. A variation involves concluding the one’s life is good because of America. The flaw in the equation is that it usually doesn’t consider why someone’s life is pretty good in the first place and/or that such isn’t true for a lot of people in this country.
Kaepernick put that flaw up to eye level for a lot of now-uncomfortable people. That freedom, liberty and justice for all that one America enjoys is “not happening for all right now.” This isn’t debatable.
It’s not exactly happening for Kaepernick either. Sure, he’s exercising his First Amendment right and would never face any documented governmental repercussions for his stance, but the First Amendment doesn’t protect someone’s job. As Kaepernick was already in a flimsy state of employment in San Francisco going into this season, his protest is absolutely the type of move the NFL of all places loathes, not matter what neutral statements by the league or team get released. This may hurt his employability with the 49ers or elsewhere, which is a whole other discussion.
But Kaepernick knows all this. He’s clearly thought this through and has said he’s aware of the ramifications. He’s fully aware that what he’s doing may negatively affect his fragile status on an NFL roster is even more noble. Substitute the status of football player and the object of flag/anthem, and he’d embody that revolutionary spirit we champion in the Founding Fathers. In one of the Americas.
That America is one that whitewashes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into safe, docile historical figure and recently celebrated the civil disobedience of Muhammad Ali because in death he’s no longer a threat to the establishment.
Kaepernick isn’t declaring himself Ali, but he’s doing the very thing we praised Ali for a few months ago in memoriam but not when he protested (like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Carlos Delgado as well). It’s as though the figures who angered our parents or grandparents are now cool and idol-worthy, but the ones who parallel the same social conscience today and are an affront to the superficial BS we today hold dear have it all wrong.
It’s those two Americas right there. Protest in the past is fine because “I Have a Dream” takes on a dream-like quality for those who don’t need to really be affected by it. Those are people who believe in the American Dream. And because Kaepernick has supposedly reached it, he need not fight more battles.
That he’s eschewing the comfort afforded to him by his wealth in order to make his statements is even more important. We want wealthy people to speak on so many topics — endorse products, support the troops, retweet pictures of our kids in jerseys — except that which makes us personally uncomfortable. And those who think Kaepernick’s money disqualifies him from speaking up for oppressed people are the worst of hypocrites and ones who are willfully ignorant of oppressed people as voiceless and then vilified when they try to protest. That’s the two Americas, though. As though once you’ve “made it” — whether by benefits of birth or hard work — you’re supposed to ignore those who haven’t.
A subset of this bad logic is proclaiming that America allowed for Kaepernick to be a millionaire playing a game, thus he can’t bite the red, white and blue hand that has fed him. There’s that loaded word “allowed.” Saying that implies there are those not allowed to fulfill the (myth of the) American Dream, and maybe those are the very people Kaepernick is sticking up for. But they’re in that other America.
The same one that in criticizing Kaepernick reproves the Gabby Douglas paternalism. Douglas made no protest yet still felt the brunt of blind patriotism because she suddenly was properly representing one of the Americas. Kaepernick is exercising a First Amendment right that many anti-PC folk who are flapping their hands over this usually champion … in one of the Americas. For all the mocking of “safe spaces” people of the ilk bothered by flag demonstrations make, they sure do construct their own, be they the politically impermeable bubble of sports or a fantasy country where systematic injustice is perpetually a thing of the past (if it ever existed at all).
Fox Sports 1’s Clay Travis likes to use “safe space” as a pejorative to dismiss his critics while in the process mocking victims of trauma whom Travis can’t empathize with. He penned a column and generally missed the point entirely, as he’s wont to do.
Travis is representative of a sports talk culture that subtly shows which America it often speaks for. Khaled Beydoun — law professor, critical race theorist and columnist (so, like, someone way more versed in the baggage of this issue than you or me), in observing sports radio (but might as well be TV punditry and internet media sports talk, too) — notes four commonalities that exist among the denouncers of Kaepernick:
1) White men telling a Black man how to go about protesting the mistreatment of Black people;
2) Millionaire athletes should ‘keep politics out of sports,’ e.g., remain docile, dumb and “shut up and play;”
3) Playing a professional sport is a ‘privilege’ made possible by our wars abroad – not a supremely competitive job earned through world-class talent, hard work, and sacrifice; and
4) That Black Lives (mostly) Matter when entertaining fans through sport – not when victims, or political beings with ‘critical politics.’
Instead of assessing the merits of his free speech rights, these ‘sports experts’ infused their own political worldview to condemn Kaepernick’s. In short, they freely exercised the very right they unwaveringly denied him.
Such rights exist perfectly in one America, not so much in the other. One of those Americas went from a black guy with tattoos not being football CEO-worthy in 2012 to the same guy needing to acquiesce to the butt-headed binary demand of “love it or leave it” in 2016.
“O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.