You Must Bend The Knee
The conservative movement must learn to speak the language of power dynamics
You must participate in the sacraments of liberalism.
At least, that’s what Cricket South Africa effectively told players on the South African cricket team when it mandated players must take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement hours prior to playing a T20 World Cup game. One player, a wicketkeeper-batsman by the name of Quinton de Kock, refused to play in the team’s Tuesday game against the West Indies in protest of the national cricket board’s directive. Each of the South African players on the field took a knee before the contest—some of whom had never protested on the field before—and managed to secure a victory against the West Indies without one of their stars.
Before Cricket South Africa forced its athletes to kneel at the altar of anti-racism, it gave players the option to protest in their own way. At the start of previous matches, some players kneeled or stood with their fists raised, while others, de Kock among them, stood in silence with their heads down and hands to the side or behind their back out of respect. However, people who think themselves as the progressive muttawa found de Kock and other players’ observance of this performative ritual insufficiently venerated black lives.
In the past, de Kock had declined to comment on why he didn’t take a knee, but decided to issue a response after sitting out of the game against the West Indies.
“I felt like my rights were taken away when I was told what we had to do in the way that we were told,” de Kock expalined. He believes other players who did not sit out and took a knee also felt uncomfortable with the mandate.
“I did not, in any way, mean to disrespect anyone by not playing against West Indies, especially the West Indian team themselves,” de Kock added. “Maybe some people don’t understand that we were just hit with this on Tuesday morning, on the way to a game.”
The South African cricket star also responded to accusations of racism stemming from his refusal to kneel. “For me, Black lives have mattered since I was born. Not just because there was an international movement,” de Kock said, explaining that he has a mixed-race family—his step-mother is black and half-siblings are mixed-race. “I didn’t understand why I had to prove it with a gesture, when I live and learn and love people from all walks of life every day. When you are told what to do, with no discussion, I felt like it takes away the meaning.”
“If I was racist, I could easily have taken the knee and lied, which is wrong and doesn’t build a better society,” de Kock went on to say. “I’ve been called a lot of things as a cricketer … Stupid. Selfish. Immature. But those didn’t hurt. Being called a racist because of a misunderstanding hurts me deeply. It hurts my family. It hurts my pregnant wife.”
Ultimately, Kock apologized “for all the hurt, confusion and anger that I have caused,” and said he would take a knee moving forward “if me taking a knee helps to educate others, and make the lives of others better.”
Sure, the Black Lives Matter movement takes on a much different context in South Africa than the United States, given South Africa’s system of apartheid lasted into the 1990s and has been embroiled in racial unrest for some time now—but don’t expect the enforcers of anti-racism and its kindred ideologies to spare America on account of South Africa’s sins. Regardless of where and in what contexts these forces operate, they often employ similar strategies to tilt the political landscape in their favor, and the right needs to get to work unraveling those strategies.
So, no, I don’t blame de Kock for bending the knee. I blame the right for allowing a culture that forced de Kock into kneeling in the first place. At the end of the day. de Kock and his family’s livelihood depends on being able to play cricket. When de Kock started playing cricket, this condition on his employment wasn’t in place, and as ludicrous as it was for Cricket South Africa to create this barrier to entry, it now exists and has effectively changed the bargain between worker and employer.
Conservatives, and Americans more broadly, aren’t accustomed to thinking that athletes are workers given their celebrity status and the oodles of money they’re paid. It’s true, they’re not the same as your everyday nine-to-fiver. Nevertheless, de Kock can serve as a stand in for any worker. Like typical laborers, de Kock is subjected to power structures readily abused by its overlords. In de Kock’s case, it’s Cricket South Africa, but it could have just as easily been a corporation’s human resources department forcing him to attend a mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training where he must reject his white privilege or face termination had de Kock become an accountant or something of the sort.
Standing alone, de Kock, despite his wealth and fame, never had much of a chance, which is why de Kock’s story illustrates why the conservative movement, if it wants to be successful (sometimes I have my doubts), must learn to speak the language of power dynamics. The libertarian ethos that causes some conservatives to say “just change jobs” or “pick up and move” are wholly incompatible with our present political moment, and will only result in defeat. If this is all the resistance a famous athlete can muster when powerful institutions decide to project their power in abusive, ridiculous ways, imagine how hopeless and voiceless millions of workers in the U.S. and abroad must feel.