Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Nobody Sits

President Josiah Bartlet enters an event room of the White House for an appearance. The crowd respectfully rises to their feet with the exception of ultraconservative journalist Dr. Jenna Jacobs, who has been highly critical of the President. Bartlet notices this, halts his advance across the room and approaches her. Some preliminary dialogue occurs between them, leading to the following exchange:

President Josiah Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

President Josiah Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.

President Josiah Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.
          - From ‘The West Wing.’ Episode: ‘The Midterms’ (2000). Source: IMDB.com.


I love this quote, taken from what is quite arguably the best television show ever created (still on Netflix, last time I checked). I could spend this entire post talking about the perils of rigid orthodoxy over rational interpretation (and I may, on a future occasion) but today, I’m here to talk about that last line and how it relates to the ‘Take a Knee’ phenomena started by professional football player Colin Kaepernick that has spread to other professional, college, and even high school sports teams.

Before I get going here, I want to convey that I understand that this is a very charged matter. Though I have strong feelings about it, I believe zealotry in any form about virtually any issue is dangerous. Consequently, I consider myself to be deeply patriotic but not nationalistic. I love my country. For all its problems, I believe it provides us with rights, freedoms, and opportunities you can’t get anywhere else in the world. On occasions when I criticize it, it’s BECAUSE I love it, because I see what it can be. Any criticism I have is driven by exasperation, not hate. My goal here, as it is with most any topic I elect to explore in this blog, is to provide a nuanced perspective on this issue. In short, stick with me, despite my initial statement, which is this:

On the surface, I find ‘Take a Knee’ to be juvenile, ungrateful, and disrespectful.

President Bartlet is 100% right. Nobody sits.

As strongly as I feel that our current President is corrupt, incompetent, and unstable, if I were present at an event at which he appeared, I would stand because that’s what the OFFICE deserves, even if the guy holding it doesn’t.

The national anthem deserves the same respect.

If Colin Kaepernick had started wearing an American flag with a big “No” symbol across it, he would have taken a LOT more heat than he has. Why is the anthem any different? Why is it okay to use it as a weapon of protest but it’s not okay to use the flag for such purposes or to sit when the President stands?

We’re going to get to the NFL in a minute but let me state initially that I think they were cowards with regard to Kaepernick. As far as I’m concerned, they should have fined him and every other professional athlete that ‘took a knee’ $5,000.00 a day until they stopped disrespecting the national anthem.

There’s an inherent hypocrisy in a multi-million dollar athlete protesting a core symbol of the very country that allowed him to be on that field in the first place and make an annual salary that surpasses what most of us will make in our entire lives. On that front, he should be ashamed of himself. I don’t feel you can compartmentalize or isolate using the anthem or the flag as a weapon of protest to a single issue. I understand that that may have been Kaepernick’s intent, but that’s not good enough. With issues like this, you have to consider how the truth is likely to be perceived, not just the truth itself. Kneeling, sitting, or staying off the field during the national anthem is divisive in a nonproductive way. When you think about it, ‘Take a Knee’ has probably done more to leech credibility from the core motivation for doing it than it has done to support it.

On a related side-note, it’s likewise ignorant and divisive of others to cast aspersions against those who share my initially critical perspective by saying things like, “So, you’re okay with police brutalizing African Americans but you’re mad at Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem?”

Despite some rather prominent progressive opinions to the contrary, I truly believe this is a matter of patriotism and respect for our nation and its icons. It is NOT a repudiation or dismissal of the very real and profound challenges we face with regard to racial inequality, police brutality, and other such issues, or the right to draw attention to those issues through civil acts of protest. Indeed, the right to protest is endemic to our ideals as Americans. Where would we be as a nation if not for ‘rabble-rousers’ like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having the courage to stand up and declare, “This is not acceptable.”?

Respect for the national anthem and the moral imperative to draw attention to society’s ills are not mutually exclusive. Do we as citizens of this country have the right to deface the American flag or metaphorically deface the national anthem? Yes, we do. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not technically a crime to burn or otherwise deface the American flag and the matter of ‘defacing’ the national anthem has never been considered in a court of law so far as I know. Therefore, the question is not “Can we?” It’s “Should we?”

I cannot think of a single issue facing our society that would make me okay with personally defacing or destroying an American flag as an action of protest, so my take is “No, we shouldn’t.” My take is that there are other ways to facilitate change and overcome our national and cultural challenges.

But...

Of course, it’s complicated. Shockingly, there’s a lot more to most issues we contend with as a society than can be conveyed in a 15 second sound byte or 280 character tweet (don’t get me started on how I feel about Twitter, even outside of Trump’s maladjusted abuse of it).

Let’s look at the flip side.

We’ll start with the NFL. I’m using them rather than the NBA, NHL, MLB, or any other pro sports governing body because the NFL is ground zero for ‘Take a Knee.’

I’m not a sports guy. On very rare occasions, if a basketball, football, or baseball game happens to be on, I’ll watch for a while, But I don’t care how “my team” is doing. I don’t care about the World Series or the Super Bowl (though I have to say, last year’s SB was nothing short of spectacular). I don’t know any stats, I don’t know the players, I don’t own any sports logo-bearing products. I don’t schedule time to watch games and I don’t check the scores online. The closest I come to being a “sports fan” is the Olympics. I love the competitive spirit, national pride, and aspirations of excellence associated with them.

Anyway, the fact that I’m not a sports guy does not make me inherently critical of those who are or of the organizations that govern the teams. That said, I can’t deny I’m skeptical of any large corporation. They tend to drift into the sociopath spectrum of behavior in terms of how they do things and how they make their money, and it’s never enough.

I read recently that the NFL is fairly militant about keeping the game and the players free of political statements or any other ‘buzzkill’ commentary constituting individual expression. To a good extent, I understand that. Most viewers and attendees pretty much just want to turn their brains off and watch the game. They don’t look to the NFL as a political arena.

Consequently, my understanding is that NFL players are not permitted to alter their uniforms in any way or do anything in the context of a game to draw attention to themselves outside of their physical performance. I again understand this to a degree in that each player is part of a team and it doesn’t look right or feel right to have everyone on that team wearing different color jerseys or each bearing a unique message. If a player is having contraction negotiation issues with management, they can’t break out their Sharpies and write, “Will play for food” across their backs. In fact, I don’t think they can so much as wear a black armband to voice a message of condolence or solidarity.

That’s where Colin Kaepernick got into trouble. He’s obviously a passionate guy who cares about the problems and challenges African Americans and other people of color face in our society. I think he sees that it’s not just a ‘brown people’ problem. It’s an American society problem and he cares enough about it to want to use the stage he performs on to bring more attention to it.

So, how does a guy with a conscience make his statement to the world when the environment he works in doesn’t give him the latitude to do it?

He uses something that isn’t explicitly covered by his employer’s restrictions.

I doubt the NFL’s standards of conduct include a bullet point comprehensively specifying that all players are required to be present and standing at field-side during the national anthem. Even if they do, there probably isn’t a conclusive explanation of what the repercussions are of defying such an edict. If they don’t specifically address this issue, I think they should, but it’s become such an explosive issue, there would be a lot of blow-back about it that has nothing to do with the core intent of such a policy, which is to respect our national icons.

I understand why Kaepernick chose the gesture of kneeling. When he first decided to make his statement, he had no way of knowing how far-reaching the effects of his individual protest would have. He needed something simple but dramatic that he could do on his own. The problem is that he didn’t realize how offensive kneeling would be in that context to so many people. Once other sports figures started replicating the gesture, he became the focal point of a hurricane of controversy. Instead of a guy with a message, he was painted as a malcontent who hated America. His career has been fundamentally damaged by this inaccurate portrait and I think we should give him a break. I believe his heart is in the right place and that he should be respected for his efforts to use the platform of his celebrity to draw attention to authentically profound issues in our society.

About a year ago, in response to the nationwide controversy regarding ‘Take a Knee’, something very interesting happened. The players started doing something different. Instead of kneeling, they started linking arms during the national anthem. You could almost hear the ‘click’ of ideological tumblers falling into place, unlocking the door to delivering the message that ‘Take a Knee’ was intended to convey.  Even the misanthropic Trump expressed support of this revised gesture, and on that point, I absolutely agree with him. Maybe we should start calling it ‘The Linked Movement.’

Think about the message linking arms sends. It is a simple but incontrovertible declaration of solidarity. It does not disrespect the thematic message and meaning of the national anthem or the nation it represents. It enhances them. It draws attention to what really matters. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re white, brown, yellow, red, or for that matter, an orange-skinned Oompa-Loompa. We’re all in this together. We have far more commonalities than differences. Following the Golden Rule is a recipe for peaceful coexistence between individuals, communities, and nations. Conversely, victimization of one facet of humanity ultimately harms us all. We stand or fall as one.

And that, my friends, is what America is all about.

Thank you for reading.

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