Colin Kaepernick takes a knee in America’s culture war

American football is rugby played badly but they seem insistent on it.

Place kicks and end-runs are as bound up in American identity as mom, apple pie and the flag. As such, NFL games are occasions for overt displays of patriotism that are probably benign but nonetheless unsettling to British audiences. The most ostentatious of which is the customary singing of the national anthem at the beginning of a game. To ponder the connection between the Revolutionary War and tossing cowhide around for an hour is to miss the point, toothless Limey. George Washington overthrew a tyrannical monarch to secure self-government, just taxation and Monday night highlights.

Colin Kaepernick has changed all that. Last year, fans started to notice that then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Kaepernick would sit or kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner. The 29-year-old told reporters he refused ‘to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour’. Since then Kaepernick has found himself a free agent, inexplicably and yet very explicably unsigned for the 2017 season, but he has also inspired athletes in professional, college and high school sports to copy his protest. It is known as ‘taking a knee’ and is the latest campaign in America’s long-running culture war.

Donald Trump barrelled into this racial tinderbox with an armful of lit fireworks. At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, he denounced kneeling footballers for ‘disrespect[ing] our heritage’ and said he wanted NFL owners to say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired.’ Until they did, Trump proposed, whipping his crowd to fever pitch, Americans ought to boycott the national game. It was an acrid, angry speech. Perhaps if the players had sported swastikas and Confederate flags, Trump could have found more room for equivocation. This is his presidential style. He campaigned in hashtags and governs in ALLCAPS.

Trump is an authoritarian, his critics say, abusing his position to target public figures whose politics he doesn’t like. He is and here, unlike in many other cases, there is justification to raise the dread F-word. Sport as celebration of national glory and masculine braun was intrinsic to Mussolini’s vision of fascism. As Il Duce philosophised: ‘Sporting achievements enhance the nation’s prestige and they also prepare men for combat in the open field and in that way they testify to both the physical well being and moral vigour of the people.’ Football is a locus of working class energy and identity, a crucible of the popular imagination, and Trump cannot allow it to become a space for resistance. If he loses at the 30-yard line, he loses at the ballot box.

There is already talk of a Kaepernick Effect, as more players and other celebrities ‘take a knee’. Even those who ordinarily stand to show their respect for the national anthem are kneeling to show their contempt for the whiner-in-chief, a bully who cannot pause his grievance-seeking tantrums even as Americans in Puerto Rico struggle to rebuild their homes after Hurricane Maria.

Whether Trump takes the country with him is an open question and one where the hypocrisy of his opponents can only help him. Liberals who cheered Google’s decision to fire James Damore, endorsed Brendan Eich‘s ouster from Mozilla, and arranged boycotts of everything from Duck Dynasty to Chick-fil-A over gay marriage, are once again dogged guardians of dissent. Those who objected to Tim Tebow taking a knee for Christ now loudly defend Kaepernick’s right to take a knee for Black Lives Matters. They were not anti-Christian bigots but Kaepernick sceptics are obviously racists.

Such are the joys of kulturkampfing, America’s real national sport. Since the 1960s, it has taken the form of hippies and Reagan Democrats; conservative contempt for education and intellectualism; liberal derision of faith and family; the flyover states versus the Left coast; Marilyn Manson and guns; abortion and gays; bitter clingers and 47 percenters. There were, however, shared assumptions about the basic premises of American life, at least until now. Religious liberty, a founding principle, is challenged by legislation and leaking public support. Millennials, the next generation of decision-makers, are markedly more comfortable with restrictions on freedom of expression than their parents or grandparents.

The identity-rapt Left and Trumpian Right are as one in their contempt for liberal pieties about conscience and toleration. What both seek is the capture of culture by politics and the triumph of culture over the individual. These competing bids for hegemony pose a new challenge to the liberal order. Democratic polities can withstand even violent about-turns in political and economic circumstances because while these are important to our lives, they are not central to them. Identity, beliefs and customs are at the heart of how we think about our place in the world. They tell us who we are and, if we’re lucky, give us a sense of where we’re going.

These dignified protests are cut from a different cloth than the bratty petulance of the post-American Left. Still, taking a knee keenly hurts many Americans who do not see the United States as Colin Kaepernick and others do. They know America has a ways to go to expunge the sins of slavery, Jim Crow and police racism but they still consider it the finest place in the world for people of all races to live.

Americans should be able to watch a football game without experiencing a kneeling player as a blow to their psyche. They can’t because identity politics makes the personal political — and spiteful. There is no defined victory only the gleeful rubbing of opponents’ noses in changes that alarm and upset them. This self-righteous impulse to impose our identity on others strikes at the heart of the social contract by having the state takes sides and adopt one set of cultural preferences or another as a programme for government.

‘If any two men desire the same thing,’ Thomas Hobbes observed, ‘which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end… endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.’ This is how he explained our willingness to relinquish liberty to escape the ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ state of nature. When Hobbes wrote that ‘men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all’, he was describing avarice and our desire for our neighbour’s money, land or cattle. The leviathan is necessary, he contended, because ‘every man looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself, and upon all signs of contempt or undervaluing naturally endeavours, as far as he dares… to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage; and from others, by the example.’

Today a man’s coin is not enough; we want his soul too. He must be virtuous as we see virtue. He must not merely tolerate our view but submit to it. In the war of every man against every man we demand total surrender.

Feature image © Mike Morbeck by Creative Commons 2.0.

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