More than they can bear
(Members of the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem before the game against the Colts in Indianapolis. Photo Credit – Michael Conroy/Associated Press)
On Sunday, October 8, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of the San Francisco 49ers vs. Indianapolis Colts game when members of the 49ers football team took a knee during the national anthem. The Vice President tweeted, among other things, that, “While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”
These kneeling football players are witless pawns of leftest power-players, individuals who are demanding that we make a stark choice about the meaning of two images; our national flag flown during the national anthem and that of our athletes.
The first image, our nation’s flag and anthem, are either symbols of unity and freedom or, if the power-players are to be believed, of division and tyranny. The second, the athlete, is either an inspirational actor in a physical theater or a highly moral social justice warrior.
Images, the mental pictures we have of objects or people, are funny things. They can carry almost any meaning we assign to them which in turn gives them power over us. What images cannot do, at least not very well, is carry more than one meaning at a time, especially among the same group of people.
Take the cross, for example. For the Romans of antiquity, the cross was a symbol of the state’s “right” to punish, humiliate and kill those who challenged its authority. For the Christians (be they members of the Roman state or not) the cross became a symbol of an authority beyond that of any earthly power, a gateway to individual freedom and salvation. The cross, even an image of a cross, could not stand for the two contradictory meanings at the same time. One of the meanings had to give way to the other.
Which brings us back to athletes and flags. Throughout the history of the West, athletes (and athletics) have played the role of the more physical, the more rough and tumble manifestation of theater. Theater in the West, whether it is on the Internet, television, film or the stage, has been the venue through which we Westerners work out (play-out, if you like) our common issues and conflicts, all while avoiding real civil strife and bloodshed. Cultures that do not have the tradition of theater are highly susceptible to the tyranny of the strongman, a “won’t somebody make the trains run on time” civic despair, or they tumble, generation after generation, through civil strife and endless tribal and sectarian war.
In certain venues of Western theater, the actors have taken on certain roles, and with them, certain expectations from the audience. For example, while it is allowed that actors on the stage can interact with the audience, even in a confrontational way (think of a comedian to a heckler, for example), there is less tolerance for this interaction in the theater of athletics – think John MacEnroe’s tantrums and the fines that he repeatedly incurred. In football, the image of the athlete has come to embody many of our national aspirations including a love of rough competition, a sense of fair play, the operation of justice and the proposition that anyone, regardless of his station at birth, can, through hard work, sacrifice and discipline, rise to great heights of achievement and wealth. The National Football League is keenly aware of this image and has a long list of “do’s and don’t’s” that govern players’ behavior both on and off the field. Those players who will not conform to the rules are fined (heavily) or removed from play entirely. BTW, not standing during the national anthem is on the NFL’s list of “don’t’s.”
In the case of the flag and the national anthem, both carry the values that are acted out in the theater of athletics: universal fairness and equality of opportunity, justice and the belief that through personal and collective sacrifice, we can achieve a more perfect (note, not “perfected”) union, one that offers opportunity to all comers, regardless of social status or station. As a multi-ethnic society, these creeds are the ties that bind us together as a nation, and this is a good thing. Nations that lose their common attraction, their national glue, come apart, like Rome, or never really come together, like Iraq.
In contrast to these common meanings that serve as our common ties, a nameless, faceless and numberless group of hard-left activists claim that the flag and anthem should be seen (and heard) as symbols of an evil and brutal legal system that is determined, through racist law enforcement, to oppress black Americans. If such a proposition were true, that the flag stood for the oppression of our fellow Americans, we should all kneel to cut down every flagpole from sea to shining sea, then burn the odious rags the hang from them in one, giant heap.
But is it true? Is the nation’s law enforcement and legal system bent on the oppression of black America? Is the situation so bleak, so contradictory to the common values that we claim the flag, the national anthem and even athletics carry that we all should kneel in shame seeking collective forgiveness?
No, it is not true. I live not far from Ferguson, MO, and I can tell you that “hands up, don’t shoot!” never happened. America’s legal system is not focused on the destruction of anyone, nor are the police. There are violent forces loose in black communities, but they are not grounded in an oppressive legal system or racist law enforcement.
But sometimes facts play no part in the meaning that is infused into an image. This was certainly the case in Europe during the 1930’s. Throughout that decade waves of antisemitism swelled and spread across the continent, with particular intensity in nations like Germany. Over and over again the German government, media, political parties and the private citizens posted images of the Star of David with the slogan “The Jews are what’s wrong with us (“Die juden sind unser unglück,” literally translated, “The Jews are our misfortune”),” transforming a symbol of religious faith and ethnic pride into an object of hatred and disgust. The “re-branding” of the Star of David in Germany was so effective that it galvanized an otherwise Christian nation into a pliable, murderous mob, one that insisted that Jews wear the Star as a mark of shame and humiliation.
As in the case of most people in Europe during the 1930’s, today’s football players are playing, or perhaps better put, being played, in a dangerous game – both for them and the nation. To reassign meaning to the flag, the national anthem or even themselves, is to open a pandora’s box of potential outcomes that they neither have the age, education, or intellectual capacity to foresee or understand.
The image of the athlete, the flag and the national anthem have, almost from the beginning of our country, carried the values of freedom, fairness and achievement, values that are wholly incompatible with the notion of an unfairness, racism and oppression.
These symbol, the flag, the anthem and the athlete will carry whatever values, whatever meaning we assign to them, but they cannot carry well more than one meaning at the same time. For any nation, multiple and contradictory values infused into their symbols are simply more than they can bear.