Donald Trump’s and Mike Pence’s maligning of NFL players who take a knee during the national hymn–sorry, anthem–begs many questions. That is, they assume the truth of matters that are–or should be–in dispute.
The first question begged is whether kneeling or sitting during the “Star Spangled Banner” is an act of disrespect to “the country,” the flag, the song, or the military. But it’s not enough to assume this. Trump and his defenders must demonstrate it, which would be difficult since we’re talking about a state of mind.
Disrespect doesn’t seem to be the message most players wish to send. In fact, some have said they mean no disrespect and only want to express their belief that the ideals supposedly symbolized by the flag are being dishonored, for example, by police mistreatment of black people.
That could end the discussion, but I think Trump, Pence, and their defenders beg a much larger question. People sympathetic to Trump’s tweets–for example, former generals and CIA directors Michael Hayden and David Petraeus–lament the kneeling because, they say, football should not be “politicized.” Their mistake is in thinking the players initiated the politicization.
They did not.
The NFL, like other professional sports, first politicized its games by displaying the flag, playing the national anthem, and honoring the military. Assuming those things are not political begs a whole lot of questions.
The flag is inherently a political symbol, and controversial actions at home and abroad are routinely wrapped in it. The country, which the flag symbolizes, is a political entity. The term “the country” is rarely meant to indicate merely the middle North American civil society south of Canada and north of Mexico. That term is inextricably tied up with the government of the United States, which by nature engages in polarizing actions.
While some Americans believe the flag symbolizes freedom, others identify it with something rather different–a history of senseless wars, global empire, and repression at home and abroad, such as police brutality and torture.
So the flag is political and controversial, and there’s no way around it. Thus, reacting to it by kneeling or sitting can hardly be deemed politicization. It’s a predictable response to politicization.
That most people don’t see the government and its symbols as political is a testament to the effectiveness of state-ruled education and the obsequiousness of the mass media. TV interviewers feel obliged to thank present and former members of the armed forces for their “service to the country.”
Questioning this is deemed a secular heresy. You may be forgiven for criticizing a particular war–as long as you call it a mistake and not a crime–but don’t dare go deeper than that, and especially don’t disrespect the troops, who allegedly “fought for our freedom and our right to dissent.”
But what if they didn’t actually do that? What if the wars, and therefore the warriors’ lethal activities, were in fact inimical to the interests of most Americans?
What if the wars were the schemes of self-serving and deceptive politicians? In other words, what if war is a “racket,” as U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler once famously charged? After all the indisputably bad consequences in this young century, who still thinks the U.S. wars in the Muslim world have really benefited anyone outside the governing class and the military contractors?
Sacralizing the flag–and directing hostility at even mild dissent–are further demonstrations that, contrary to popular myth, church and state in this country have not been separated. Rather, they have been fused. The church is the state, and the state is the church.
That’s where nationalism takes you.
By all means, let’s take politics out of sports. The way to do it is to remove the flags and dispense with the anthem. Rid public events of all symbols of the church-state.
Then play ball.
Sheldon Richman, who lives in Little Rock, is executive editor of the Libertarian Institute.
Editorial on 10/14/2017