Taking a Knee in the Culture War
Earlier this year, the writer Lara Prendergast asked a vital question: 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 and pig socks 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, 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. 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: “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 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. That elicited another Twitter volley from Trump. Meanwhile, Kaepernick announced he’s suing the NFL 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.