Colin Kaepernick, the former star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, made the decision during the 2016 NFL preseason to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem. Other athletes quickly followed suit, some by kneeling, others by raising a fist to protest “racial injustice” in America.
Outrage predictably followed, with opinion polls suggesting that a dramatic drop-off in Sunday football television viewership is directly related to the protests.
Kaepernick and other players certainly have a right to express their views, just as football fans have a right to turn off the television and boycott both the games and their sponsors. There are many reasons to skip professional football on Sunday, but if Kaepernick’s knee shoves fans out the door, then the NFL has no one to blame but itself.
The league could have taken action against the protestors, just as the Seattle Mariners fired catcher Steve Clevenger in September for blasting the Black Lives Matter movement on social media. That was deemed racially insensitive, an act of heresy in the modern age. Kaepernick’s public antics, on the other hand, have support from the left. He is hip, a reflection of Barack Obama’s “change” and the narcissistic Epicurean millennial generation. His cause has been anointed as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement and has protection from the gatekeepers of acceptable opinion.
Right or wrong, Kaepernick’s demonstrations raise several questions that are worthy of consideration by conservative Americans regarding the state of our culture and society. In fact, they further afford citizens who prize liberty the opportunity to reconsider their knee-jerk support of the American state, manifest in the hosannas offered to it in the form of the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a lovely poem written by a great American during a time of tremendous sacrifice and heroism. But why must we recite it before every event in American society? (One might expect to hear it before a dental exam at the rate we are going.) Do we really need to prove our devotion to “the land of the free and the home of the brave” at our PTA meetings or at our kids’ tee-ball contests? Does it make us more American to listen as some tarted up diva blares it out before the Super Bowl, with F-15s streaking overhead? Is Kaepernick less of an American because he kneels instead of stands? And what does that mean, anyway?
During the Eisenhower era, William Faulkner wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about experiencing for the first time a professional hockey game (“An Innocent at Rinkside,” January 24, 1955). Faulkner was perplexed by the anthem’s inclusion at every modern sporting event and civic activity. He attributed this cultural phenomenon to American insecurity, a fear that we may not match up with ancestors who shed blood in the name of liberty and eternal vigilance.
Is our national character of which we are so in doubt, so fearful that it might not hold up in the clutch, that we not only dare not open a professional athletic contest or a beauty-pageant or a real-estate auction, but we must even use a Chamber of Commerce race for Miss Sewage Disposal or a wildcat land-sale, to remind us that that liberty gained without honor and sacrifice and held without constant vigilance and undiminished honor and complete willingness to sacrifice again at need, was not worth having to begin with?
The fact that the “Star-Spangled Banner” was not made the official “national anthem” until 1931 should speak volumes. By most accounts, the song was first played during a baseball game over a century after Francis Scott Key—awestruck by the heroic defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812—penned the iconic verses. It was during the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the Cubs versus the Red Sox, and, because of the war, only 10,000 fans at Chicago’s Comiskey Park heard it. Most fans did not pay much attention to it; Babe Ruth paused from his warmup exercises, but did not salute or place his hand over his heart. Baseball historians see it as an attempt at redemption for players who were looked down upon for failing to join the war effort. Not to be outdone, the owner of the Red Sox had the “Star-Spangled Banner” played at Fenway Park during all of the rest of the games that were held in Boston. Still, it was not seen as disrespectful to acknowledge the anthem while leisurely carrying on a conversation with your neighbor. Our martial enforcement of hand over heart and snap salute came much later.
Were baseball fans any less American in 1917 than in 1918? Did playing the tune before a ballgame make us a stronger people? It might be that two progressive administrations embroiling American citizens in two destructive wars that cost the lives of nearly half a million men between 1917 and 1945 says more about American society at the time than it does about actual American patriotism. In order to galvanize men and make them ready and willing to kill Krauts, Japs, and Dagos—or later, Kimchees, Gooks, Reds, Skinnies, and Camel Jockeys—you need to foster within them a sense of national identity and set it in opposition to the enemy. Click your heels and salute the empire, citizen, and hate whom we tell you to hate.
Americans may not support or agree with Colin Kaepernick—according to polling data, most don’t—but why should we care in the first place? Professional athletes have superhuman skills. We marvel at their physical abilities, but that should be where it ends. Why should an athlete’s behavior before kickoff—unless it is illegal or immoral—affect our assessment of American society?
The Pledge of Allegiance presents the same problem. Well-meaning citizens disgusted by the downward spiral of American morals and statesmanship routinely use the Pledge to “show” American “patriotism.” Those who don’t are called out and declared anti-American.
Perhaps if Americans knew the history of the pledge, they wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about its continued use before so many of our public meetings. It seems you can’t hold a bake sale without it, let alone any type of political gathering.
Socialist Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 as a way to indoctrinate the young, particularly in America’s public schools, for whom the pledge ceremony was created. If he could get them to believe that America was “one nation, indivisible,” it would go a long way toward undermining that pesky problem of American federalism and state powers. That had been the dream of every dyed-in-the-wool nationalist/progressive since Alexander Hamilton, who lied to the people of New York in the Federalist and at the Poughkeepsie Convention in 1788: “[T]he laws of Congress are restricted to a certain sphere, and when they depart from this sphere, they are no longer supreme or binding.” Implied powers are a figment of your imagination!
And now, just look at the federal register of laws. Nothing unconstitutional to see there. Move along.
In order to ram a bevy of illegal legislation down the throats of citizens, nationalists like Hamilton, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln had to convince them that Americans have always been one people tied together in an indissoluble Union. Millions have fought against this ideology. Even in defeat and under Reconstruction, many Southerners still considered their cause to be the correct interpretation of the Constitution. Thus, Bellamy set out to immunize children before they could be infected with the disease of federalism. Their behavior modification therapy involved snapping their heels, stretching forth their hand in a “Bellamy salute” toward the flag, and reciting the American civil prayer.
In 1942, Congress ordered the replacement of the Bellamy salute with the familiar hand over the heart. American schoolchildren looked too much like Nazis otherwise.
Nonetheless, we must admit that none of the members of the founding generation, including Hamilton, would have pledged allegiance to a flag. Their loyalty was always to the Constitution and the principles of independence. Why would a group of men who broke from the British Empire to preserve the “rights of Englishmen” swear fealty to any symbol, particularly when that symbol represented principles they decried?
Kaepernick’s knee, in fact, represents a social and political paradox, one created by the National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance. Blind nationalism has produced a climate in which every issue, no matter how local, is elevated to a “national” problem with a one-size-fits-all solution. This is a nationalist politician’s dream. Vote for me, and I’ll give you the butter. But this approach is turning American society on its head and distorting the value of real federalism.
Does Kaepernick have a legitimate point? What if “racial injustice” and the use of excessive force by police officers are major concerns in predominantly black American communities? That would certainly be an issue worth exploring. But is this a “national” problem? I dare say folks in lily-white New Hampshire don’t experience “racial injustice.” Should their police be required to take racial-sensitivity training in the rare instance that they come across a few minority transients in their towns? Conversely, should minority police officers in majority-minority sections of America face the same type of training in dealing with people of their own race or cultural background? That seems a monumental waste of time and money; but that is what “nationalism” requires.
Appealing to the center to solve a local problem only invites more problems. This is why proponents of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 (Hamilton included) insisted that the states would retain all powers not expressly delegated to the general government. Yes, they did often use the term expressly, even if it was not included in the final draft of the Tenth Amendment.
Kaepernick would be better off appealing to the people of San Francisco to work with community leaders and local police precincts to come up with effective local solutions to what amounts to a local problem. He could do this through civic organizations and charities. But taking a knee on a national stage during our two minutes of state worship is self-defeating and misguided. It is not justice to punish all for the sins of one, but that is the ultimate outcome of nationalism. The United States of America were not a nation but a federation of states, “a more perfect union” than that of the Articles of Confederation.
Tench Coxe, a little known but prominent member of the founding generation, said as much when he wrote in 1788 that virtually anything of a domestic character can and must be a function of the states, including police and “gaols.”
Think locally, act locally.
Perhaps, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, what America really needs is not an infusion of the in-your-face nationalism that plagues both major political parties, but a real discussion of the merits of federalism, localism, and decentralization. That is what authentic conservatism requires. The pot smokers in Colorado, Oregon, and 19 other states have effectively nullified federal drug laws. Such an approach would work well with regard to other aspects of American law. Nullification is the political movement of the 21st century. Moving forward, Americans on both the right and the left would do well to dust off the concept. If nothing else, they should revisit the idea that solving local problems is not the responsibility of millions of Americans from other states and regions. What happens in Minnesota or California should stay in Minnesota and California.
This may be too much to ask, but a little education can go a long way. For now, I would encourage Americans who still insist on watching professional football not to boil at Kaepernick and, instead, to rethink why they are standing every time the “national” government insists on it. Is that patriotism or civic religion? Either way, the principles of 1776 require a different choice, one that would make modern Americans worthy of the founding generation.
Edmund Burke once wrote that, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Making America lovely requires a firm devotion to federalism, to your kith and kin, to your own backyard—the loveliest place on earth.
I’d pledge allegiance to that.