Friday, September 30, 2016

Clanging Symbols

Yesterday the local newspaper printed responses from readers to the Colin Kaepernick controversy.  The results were about what you'd expect, ranging from hate-filled fury to 100% support.  A recurring theme that intrigued me was the complaint that if Kaepernick really cared about people being killed by the police, he shouldn't indulge in symbolic action but do something about it.  While this is not an entirely unfair suggestion, the context made it clear that these people didn't really care about police killings, they were just reaching for a reason why Kaepernick should shut up.

In this they were like President Obama, who on the same day defended Kaepernick's right to protest, but couldn't refrain from some fake balance while he was about it:
“Sometimes out of these controversies, we start getting into a conversation, and I want everybody to listen to each other,” Obama said. “So I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing.”
The president added, however: “I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
As the Politico article I just quoted pointed out, Kaepernick had already done what Obama advocated:
There are signs that Kaepernick is sensitive to the feelings of military families. The football player initially sat during the national anthem, but, according to media reports, switched to taking a knee in part to show some respect for military families.
Kaepernick told the media that he switched to kneeling after "a long conversation with Nate Boyer, who is a military vet," so he effectively anticipated Obama's suggestion.  Most of the solidarity with Kaepernick now seems to be expressed by "taking a knee" rather than sitting, which is a reminder that he fully supports US wars, and that doesn't speak well for him.  But as usual, Obama took the middle path of yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

My initial reaction to the claim that Kaepernick should 'do something' besides symbolic gestures was that he's already done that too, by pledging to donate money to charity from his jersey sales, which apparently have increased notably since he began his protest.  (Which indicates, if it's true, that his stance isn't as unpopular among football fans as his attackers like to imagine.)  Gee, I hope he'll be able to scrape by on the rest of the money he's making!

But then I remembered that playing the national anthem before athletic events, and standing while it's played, is itself a purely symbolic gesture that does nothing to help American veterans either.  It's a way to make your own breast swell with pride at being an American, where at least you know you're free, while you vote for politicians who block benefits for veterans, first responders, and other holy people.  As always, the holy is too sacred to actually engage -- you'd tarnish it by offering money, educational benefits, and other gross material items -- but it makes people feel good while they stroke themselves, boldly taking a stand for patriotism while surrounded by thousands of like-minded free thinkers.  And it shouldn't be forgotten that if Kaepernick did actually move to activism of some kind, the same people would still attack him.