Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick stares down America.

(Brook Ward)

The National Anthem's False Notes

One August morning in a small French town in Normandy 250 years ago, a crucifix that stood as a monument in the heart of town was found mutilated. People were upset. They wanted blood. (Irony has never been Catholics' strongest suit.) No one had any idea who'd done it, so it was necessary to invent a suspect.

One August morning in a small French town in Normandy 250 years ago, a crucifix that stood as a monument in the heart of town was found mutilated. People were upset. They wanted blood. (Irony has never been Catholics' strongest suit.) No one had any idea who'd done it, so it was necessary to invent a suspect.

The mob chose a 20-year-old aristocrat, the Knight of La Barre, who was known to run around town doing irreverent things with a couple of equally free-thinking late adolescents. The proof of his guilt was simple: during a religious procession, he refused to take off his cap and stand respectfully. Blasphemy! La Barre was interrogated, tried, and tortured, his head was chopped off in front of an immense and cheering crowd and he was burned.

Substitute dogma for freedom and the cruelty and stupidity of men has no bounds. I was reminded of the treatment of La Barre by the entirely predictable controversy surrounding an NFL quarterback's decision not to stand up for the national anthem before a game. No one is calling for Colin Kaepernick's head, at least not literally, but he's been all but guillotined nonetheless, and for what? For finally deciding, as too few athletes do, to show that he's not exclusively an object of entertainment making $12 million a year. He decided to protest police brutality and racism his way, with a quiet act that doesn't take away from anybody else's right to believe what they will.

Protesters are the ungrateful bastards of the republic, loudmouth pussies who don't have the grace to shut up and take cops' beatings and killings politely, without talking back.Muhammad Ali had done the same to protest Vietnam, refusing to be inducted into the army and converting to Islam: "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger," he told America, which did not forgive this black man for having an opinion, let alone a political opinion, let alone one snubbing the military and the white world that supposedly allowed him to be who he was. He lost his title for seven years at the height of his fitness and was excommunicated from the graces of American public opinion. He stood his ground ("My principles are more important than the money or my title") and eventually proved to be a more honorable hero than many of the honored frauds that, all of them flag-saluting and star-spangled-singing, gave us Vietnam, J. Edgar Hoover's police state, Henry Kissinger's genocides and Nixon's Watergate right about then.

Not much appears to have changed: "What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick's choice to remain seated during the national anthem," that other Muslim Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the Post, "but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos' raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what's really un-American here."

Reflecting America's whiter shade of pale, an incensed letter writer in The New York Times this week said he was tired of athletes "putting down the country that has given them the opportunity to get to where they are," as if those athletes had been spectators to their own opportunity. I can see Orwell headlining that letter: "Freedom is servitude." But that's where we are nowadays. America may have been founded by protest--and little of value by way of civil and human rights has ever been achieved but through protest-but protesters are now the ungrateful bastards of the republic, loudmouth pussies who don't have the grace to shut up and be glad they have the protection of the military, or the decency to take cops' beatings and killings politely, without talking back.

Why confront racism and police injustice when you can hold an inquisition on who's patriotic and who's not, who's behind our military and who's not? When you can just scream U-S-A, U-S-A, the new anthem of goons too challenged by multisyllabic words or complete sentences to propose more reasoned arguments? And when all else fails, let it come down to that gibberish equivalence: compared to soldiers and the flag that represents them, apparently to the exclusion of everyone else, you, civilian whiner, are nothing.

Measuring the role of a principled athlete like Kaepernick--or that of any citizen, for that matter--in defending and protecting America against the role of soldiers in the field can't be a rational comparison, especially in a militaristic society that fetishizes uniforms and rarely corrects an implied contempt by jingoes for civilians not lucky enough to have soaked up and dished out the gore of combat. But to suggest that civilians in their Leaves of Grass varieties don't in their own way nurture and protect the nation reduces all but combatants to a servility that has no other purpose but be worshipful of its armed protectors. It turns the military not only into an end in itself, but into the only end worth celebrating. It's what has reduced the playing of the national anthem into a show of respect for the military above all, as if the nation the military was protecting were not the only valid and defensible reason for the military to exist.

Kaepernick's stand isn't a dangerous slog in an Afghan hamlet. But stand for stand, it's doing more to advance American principles than any slog by any soldier anywhere in Afghanistan or Iraq--two losing, pointless wars that continue to demonstrably damage American security and corrupt its ideals far more than protect them. We're so busy pretending to be pacifying the Middle East from terror that we're not only blind to the terrors young black men face on American streets. We judge them blasphemers and America-haters the moment they take as peaceful a stand as sitting (where would civil rights be without sit-ins?), demonize those who defend them, and conveniently censor their stand by making noise about something radically different, to hijack the conversation.

How sadistically ironic that Kaepernick's condemnation centers on the national anthem, that celebration of the "land of the free and home of the brave" that has somehow, like the Pledge of Allegiance, turned into a modern-day loyalty oath, a dogma. Or that he's had to defend himself against a whisper campaign that he's really doing all this because he converted to Islam (he did not) or because his girlfriend is Muslim (she is), as if, in this land of the free, Muslims don't have the right to protest and be patriotic at the same time. As if Americanism were an exclusive brand, which is really what's at the heart of this controversy: it's part of that ongoing resurgence of nationalist rancor, that emerging minority of hate whose mercenaries want to judge who belongs and who doesn't, who's an acceptable American and who's a heretic. But it is a minority, as indicated by the noble response of Kaepernick's employers, who are standing by their quarterback, and by President Obama's defense of Kaepernick.

They're saying the same thing. How one shows love of country is not definable by whether you doff your cap or not, or whether you stand up for the anthem or caress your smartphone. Particularly when your gesture is not as rote as standing for the anthem because you always have, because everyone else is doing it, or because it's the "right" thing to do, even if you can't articulate the first thing about rights, as Kaepernick's flag-worshipping tormentors prove with every insult they hurl at him.

Kaepernick has been making a painful point. Call him a blasphemer if you like, as that mob did with La Barre for an act of defiance that, a generations later, helped power a revolution. "All great truths begin as blasphemies," George Bernard Shaw reminds us. Kaepernick's act is, let us hope, one of those blasphemies.

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© 2023 Pierre Tristam