- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Taking a Knee in the Culture War

Earlier this year, the writer Lara Prendergast asked a vital question [1]: Why must we have opinions on absolutely everything? “People increasingly seem to expect me to have firm convictions on almost every story in the news,” she observed, “then get upset not because I voice strong opinions, but precisely because I don’t.” Part of that, she admitted, is because she’s an editor at the UK Spectator (full disclosure: I’ve contributed there myself), but even for a pundit this constant pressure to opine on command has become exhausting. It’s time, Prendergast declared, to reclaim one of our most precious freedoms, “the right to say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know.’”

I understand where she’s coming from, even if I myself have done the stand-up fulminating act from time to time. At risk of coming off as a boor (or a bore), I’ve got plenty of opinions. The corporate tax? Much too high. The Iraq war? A worse foreign-policy blunder than Vietnam. The role of concurrency in consigning the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to years of Pentagon development hell that resulted in massive cost overruns? An outrage of nigh-unfathomable proportions. Yet on the news story that’s hogged the headlines for much of the autumn, the decision by Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players to kneel during the national anthem, I find myself a man without a sound bite. I’m taking a knee in the latest culture war—not in solidarity with the athletes: the other football definition, the one where I decline to play.

It’s not that I don’t have an opinion on the Kaepernick kerfuffle; it’s that I have a dense tangle of opinions that wind up ensnaring me every time I try to hack my way through. The athletes are just advocating for victims of police brutality. Their method, demurring during the anthem, has distracted from their cause. The backlash against their perceived lack of patriotism is understandable. Kaepernick’s demonstrations began in good faith; Kaepernick’s later sartorial choices of a Fidel Castro T-shirt [2] and pig socks [3] were abhorrent. We should be grateful for the opportunities this country affords; we should be mindful of its lingering inequities. Football shouldn’t be political; football will inevitably become political. Parsing through these layers, I find only two certainties: Donald Trump shouldn’t be gainsaying what happens on the gridiron and Roger Goodell is motivated solely by money. In this culture war, all the generals are sub-McClellan.

Beyond that, I’m taking a pass. My decision to be the Switzerland of the NFL controversy isn’t a claim of superiority. Kudos to those who mull this over and land squarely on one side or the other. But it seems to me that the issues embedded in the NFL flap are so numerous and variegated—race, patriotism, police brutality, leisure, the role of sports in everyday life, presidential power—as to make drawing easy conclusions almost impossible. Consideration and space are needed. Even Twitter’s whopping new 280-character limit may not be enough. But social media exerts its demands, so we split into camps and bludgeon the other side into a distorted simulacrum of its original argument, with the players rendered as ungrateful America haters and the fans cast as racists, dishonest yet far more digestible. And then the tweets fly like Stingers and the smell of exhaust overpowers any memory of what the casus belli initially was.

Defining our discourse further down is the fact that everyone with a public platform—which these days is all of us—feels the need to use them in service of causes larger than themselves. That means a lot of impassioned (though not necessarily informed) people, and since every issue is lately approached with an urgency more befitting the Siege of Constantinople than America’s Game of the Week, you need only add water to have a mob. It’s exactly what happened following the violence in Charlottesville. Should Confederate statues be removed from public places? That those monuments were erected in the first place seemed like a historical detail worth preserving, but certainly those wishing to demystify Robert E. Lee had a point. And then mobs formed both cyber and actual, memorials were vandalized, slanders were hurled, Vice ran a piece arguing Mount Rushmore should be blown up [4], and whatever window for persuasion the anti-statue side had was slammed shut.

How to extract ourselves from these raucous scrums? The seductive way out is to call for an end to the culture wars altogether—or better yet to declare that their end is inevitable thanks to the quasi-eschatological pull of modernization. The death of social issues in favor of economic ones: that’s the forecast of many on the right, from leave-me-alone types eager to roll back Obamacare to reform conservatives cooking up another tax credit whose very presence on IRS forms will send the middle class stampeding back into the GOP. But politics is not so simple. Very often it is not the economy, stupid. Voters don’t run on transactional algorithms: increase their gross incomes and they still might not support you. They have ideas, too, values that they like to see reflected in candidates, visions of what America as a nation should be—intangibles that sometimes even lead them to vote against what some clutch of technocrats determines to be their economic interest.

Sovereignty versus globalism, law and order versus radical action, church versus state—call them social issues if you like, but they have visceral appeal. They’re the reason British voters opted to leave the European Union despite the telephone-psychic claims by David Cameron’s government that departing would cost every household £4,300 per year [5]. They’re the rather simple answer to Thomas Frank’s ineradicable question “what’s the matter with Kansas?” And they’re why many do get agitated about kneeling athletes and Confederate statues despite the lack of threat to GDP posed by either. These things matter. Donald Trump grasps that better than anyone. His role has been that of maestro, conducting the “1812 Overture” while cultural chaos rages in the background. The fury he gins up are a consequence not only of his reckless politicking but of complacent elites who thought social issues were settled and countenanced plenty of their own mobs to keep them that way.

So these clashes aren’t going away anytime soon. And while I might remain fastidiously neutral on the NFL controversy, long-term, to paraphrase Trotsky, culture war is surely interested in me. The solution, then, isn’t to wish away these flash points but to change the way we address them, to whittle our prejudices against the perspectives of those different from us, to stop shrinking complex issues into simple totems, to develop opinions gradually rather than spontaneously while allowing ourselves pause and even apathy when needed. It remains to be seen whether we can do this in the era of social media, but certainly a first step is to not be afraid of passing on a hot take. Besides, have you heard some of the punditry on Colin Kaepernick? Tomi Lahren [6]: “Let me go ahead and eviscerate this mouth diarrhea for you SENTENCE BY SENTENCE!!” Hard pass, thanks.

As for the NFL culture war, a ceasefire was recently violated. Last week, league commissioner Roger Goodell—who regularly oscillates between cravenness and weird shows of power—announced in a memo [7] that players should stand during the national anthem. Then on Wednesday Goodell said he wouldn’t stop players from kneeling after all and in fact the league would seek to further their political activism [8]. That elicited another Twitter volley from Trump [9]. Meanwhile, Kaepernick announced he’s suing the NFL [10] for alleged conspiracy to prevent him from playing football. On and on goes the clamor. How sad that the players’ initial causes, remembering horridly killed men like Alton Sterling and Walter Scott and countering police brutality, have been all but drowned out.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Taking a Knee in the Culture War"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 19, 2017 @ 3:19 am

People confuse social media with reality, feel compelled to immediately respond to all input with their two cents, and know that outrage scores points. And for many, opinions must be polarised political views to be heard.

It won’t stop, but unless we refuse to perpetuate the escalation, it will get worse. I humbly suggest that people try my experiment: Decline to participate in anything loud, forceful, not calmly reasoned and respectful, and notice what happens. So far, I usually attract scorn from ALL sides for not matching their emotion [more than for not agreeing with their opinion].

#2 Comment By Geoff Arnold On October 19, 2017 @ 7:05 am

Capturing the zeitgeist….

#3 Comment By Sean On October 19, 2017 @ 8:14 am

If it’s abhorrent to wear a Fidel Castro t-shirt it’s despicable to fly, display, or venerate the flag of the armed forces’ enemy…the Confederate flag.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On October 19, 2017 @ 8:50 am

I read somewhere that, coincidentally or not, this kneeling controversy started when Kaepernick started dating that “activist” DJ (the suggestion being that he was being spoon fed this stuff). On the other hand, in general though, count me in as among those who doesn’t know what to think about the Kaepernick Kerfuffle one way or the other.

#5 Comment By Colonel Bogey On October 19, 2017 @ 10:55 am

“If it’s abhorrent to wear a Fidel Castro t-shirt it’s despicable to fly, display, or venerate the flag of the armed forces’ enemy. . . the Confederate flag.”

Oh yeah? Then it’s despicable for any British Union Jack to be displayed, or the flag of the Mexican Republic, the kingdom of Spain, or the German Empire, all of which were flags of ‘the enemy of the armed forces’. The armed forces, unfortunately, can be mobilized against any ‘enemy’ chosen by a Commander-in-Chief who chooses to trash the U. S. Constitution, as was done in 1865.

#6 Comment By Will Harrington On October 19, 2017 @ 11:19 am

Meh. never saw the appeal of watching other people get paid exorbitant amounts of money to have my fun for me. I couldn’t possibly care less about the opinions these exorbitantly paid con men or the people who hand over their money to them have. My life is at peace except for the threat that my wife’s team, the Chiefs could end up facing the only people’s team, the Pack from God’s own missing piece of heaven, Wisconsin, in the Superbowl. That would be rough in our house if it ever happens.

#7 Comment By Kent On October 19, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

Add me to the just don’t care club.

Prayer in school: send your kids to private school.
Gay marriage: Don’t marry someone who’s gay if you’re not.
Football players taking a knee: I only watch college football.
Abortion: Don’t have one if you can help it.
RE Lee statues: Majority ruled to put ’em up, majority can rule to take ’em down.
Gun control: Don’t let psychos buy guns and mass murder people, and no one will care about your guns.

Call me when you want to discuss why a tylenol has to cost $500 on your hospital bill.

#8 Comment By Sean On October 19, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

Colonel Bogey, do U.S. citizens fly those flags?

A republic should have one flag. The Confederate flag represents slavery.

#9 Comment By JonF On October 19, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

Re: The armed forces, unfortunately, can be mobilized against any ‘enemy’ chosen by a Commander-in-Chief who chooses to trash the U. S. Constitution, as was done in 1865.

Huh? The significant events of 1865 in the US were:

1. the CSA admitted defeat
2. Lincoln was assassinated
3. The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was approved.

Which of those do you think “trashed the Constitution”?

#10 Comment By MajorTom On October 19, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

Police brutality – check your stats. More whites are killed by cops than blacks. As for the overpaid, over-indulged, over-preening athletes, I suggest you bring a few dozen families from the projects/ghettos to live with you in your palatial estates. In other words, put your money where your mouth is.

#11 Comment By Kent On October 19, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

@MajorTom,

“Police brutality – check your stats. More whites are killed by cops than blacks.”

They aren’t protesting the fact that black people are being killed by cops. They’re protesting UNARMED black people WHO HAVE COMMITTED NO CRIME being killed by cops.

White folks should care about that as well. And about cops killing unarmed white people (really anybody) who have committed no crimes.

#12 Comment By Colonel Bogey On October 19, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

JonF: Sorry to confuse you; I was thinking about the War itself, and I really do know its dates. Because I don’t think it was legally a civil war, I tend to think of it as the War of 1861-65, and I got to typing in a hurry and just wrote ‘1865’.

Sean: Yes, U. S. citizens do fly all those flags, whether in military re-enactments, international food fairs, or historical commemorations. As far as a republic having only one flag, this one has 51, or even more than that, since many cities within the republic have their own flags. The Confederate flag is a great symbol of freedom–the crowds watching the fall of the Berlin Wall waved quite a few of them to help the celebration.

#13 Comment By mrscracker On October 19, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

Just one word: Etiquette.
If we can’t practice it together in front of our flag or national anthem, we’re in bad shape as a nation.

#14 Comment By mrscracker On October 19, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

Colonel Bogey ,
The flag most often used these days to represent the Confederacy was a battle flag.
The first official flag of the Confederacy is usually not recognized by most people.
I used to be a National Parks volunteer at a Confederate fort which had been captured by the Yankees. On alternating days we flew the Confederate & Union flags over the fort & almost no one knew what the Confederate flag was. They thought it was an early American flag.

#15 Comment By Seanb On October 19, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

Colonel, the Confederate flag is the slaver’s flag. Old Glory is the nation’s flag. Don’t fly the slaver flag…it disrespects the nation’s flag.

#16 Comment By writeinclay On October 19, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

I truly don’t understand how this has become such a muddied issue although I understand why some might be offended. Is there something here I’m missing?

1) The Constitution protects what the flag symbolizes which is freedom and justice for all. A part of that freedom is the right to peacefully protest. It also includes the right to be offended by both proper causes and poor optics.

2)NFL policy does not explicitly disallow peaceful protest. It states or has stated that the players should stand for the anthem, with the operative word being “should.” As of this writing there is no league requirement for standing during the national anthem.

3) There is a non-equivalence between a 9/11 stickered helmet and taking a knee. To wear a politically affiliated sticker on a helmet is to carry politics onto the literal field during the duration of an actual game. To kneel in protest during the anthem ends with the closing note and the feature competition carries on unabated by either politics or opinion. To allow stickers on helmets during the game for a particular cause would set the precedent for any cause to be expressed in a similar manner and likely has ramifications for the placement of ads on uniforms which the NFL currently disallows.

4) There’s a lengthy history of sports being a political platform for Black athletes. Football has never really been apolitical, perhaps only from the vantage point of the viewership.

If there is some dimension here being overlooked I would really find it helpful to know.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 20, 2017 @ 3:51 am

“The Confederate flag is a great symbol of freedom–the crowds watching the fall of the Berlin Wall waved quite a few of them to help the celebration.”

I m not going to mish mash about confederate flags —

But the suggestion here that Berliners have a clue what it represents is a canyon to too far to imagine.

I don’t think the message was

“Ich bin auch ein südlicher Demokrat, der um mein freies Recht kämpft, Sklaven zu besitzen”

#18 Comment By Frank Tisdale On October 20, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

“”Seanb says:
October 19, 2017 at 5:44 pm
Colonel, the Confederate flag is the slaver’s flag. Old Glory is the nation’s flag. Don’t fly the slaver flag…it disrespects the nation’s flag.””

Clearly flags are extremely important to you.

Its almost like you missed the point of the article entirely. Either that, or you’re trolling.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 20, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

” . . . the crowds watching the fall of the Berlin Wall waved quite a few of them to help the celebration.”

I hate to be a stickler. But I was curious about the image or German in Berlin or elsewhere waving the confederate flag. So I have spent about twelve minutes watching video of the moment — I saw very few flags, but the ones I did see were those of East Germany and West Germany (mostly). Needless to say, the East German flag was in need of relief, it seems that East Germans thought the flag a symbol that needed a shredding.

I think an artifact of Berliner flying the confederate flag would be great for a rhetorical analysis.
_________________

“Colonel, the Confederate flag is the slaver’s flag. Old Glory is the nation’s flag. Don’t fly the slaver flag…it disrespects the nation’s flag.”

As for national symbolism to meaning —

I am loathe to point out that the slaver’ flag , the official slaver’s flag in fact Ol’ Glory.

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Binding slavery as legal under rule by the US.

[11]

is but one case and while slavery was finally ended, Jim Crow and ll of it antecedent across the country north, south east and west, all exited under Ol Glory’s watch.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 20, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

On kneeling,

I thins comment addresses the issue head on . . .

“2)NFL policy does not explicitly disallow peaceful protest. It states or has stated that the players should stand for the anthem, with the operative word being “should.” As of this writing there is no league requirement for standing during the national anthem.”

#21 Comment By Mike Schilling On October 23, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

“Roger Goodell is motivated solely by money.”

Also, 2 + 2 = 4.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 24, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

Until yesterday, I had no idea that some coaches were in agreement with their players so a to take a knee. It seems odd that the complaint is soley against the players.