On Kaepernick and Symbolism

Today, Andrew Vandiver shares his thoughts in response to our discussion about Colin Kaepernick. Follow Andrew on Twitter for more of his thoughts (@avandiver3). 

Colin Kaepernick recently decided to sit down during the national anthem because he won’t “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”  He plans to continue his protest until “there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country…”

Kaepernick’s method of protest, while steeped in , seems to be part of a growing trend.  Rituals, traditions, and entertainment, which should unify people of differing viewpoints, have instead become an opportunity to debate politics. Over the past year certain lawmakers and pundits have criticized those who offer their “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of gun violence.  Over the summer, the question of whether you liked or disliked the new Ghostbusters movies became a flashpoint for the culture wars.  Now that we are entering the fall, it is the NFL’s turn to join the political fray. 

It is an odd dynamic. Complaints about the polarized nature of our politics are common.  We constantly fret about the hostility of our public discourse. Yet, as columnist Jonah Goldberg aptly noted, when “politics invades our homes, schools, workplaces, movies, TV shows, video games, sports and every other part of our culture, is it any wonder that our culture becomes politicized? And when culture is politicized, is it so shocking that politics becomes polarized?”

This brings me back to Kaepernick’s protest.  The national anthem is a solemn moment for most Americans. It is a time to honor our country’s history and those who have died in its service.  

Further, the national anthem plays a special role in our civic culture.  Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and advisor to President Clinton, points out that unlike many other countries, the United States was not created with a common platform of religion or ancestry.  Instead, “Americans are bound by notions and concepts — that all men are created equal, as one example — and the ethereal nature of those ideas makes anything that Americans can latch on to concretely seem more important.” “We are united by a creed, and in a creedal society, the outsize rituals — like the anthem — just carry a lot more weight.”

Hence, for many Americans the national anthem is not simply an empty ceremony.  It is a time to be in unity with their fellow citizens, not an opportunity for individuals to draw attention to themselves or their political causes.

Kaepernick clearly believes that he is fighting for an important cause and that his protest of the anthem will bring attention to that cause.  Yet, there will always be important political causes and he is not the only person with grievances against the United States government.  Pro-lifers believe that abortion policy is a national sin on par with slavery.  Environmentalist would contend that U.S. policy is doing irreparable damage to the world.  Anti-death penalty advocates are fighting for the lives of men and women across the country.  

All of these issues are important.  They also inspire profound political disagreements.  Do we help to bridge the political divide by injecting politics into yet another area of our lives, or do we create further division?  

My take is that we lose something important by injecting political protests into the national anthem.  It is Kaepernick today, but perhaps tomorrow it will be other players with different causes.  This eventually becomes corrosive to civil society because it magnifies our differences.  How can we work on the big issues, including criminal justice reform, when we can’t even make it through a football game without an argument over politics?  

I strongly believe in vigorous debate over the important issues of our day.  We need to figure out how to talk about politics.  Yet, I find that political debates generally go better when you feel like you have something in common with the person sitting across from you.  Oftentimes, such common ground is built outside of the political arena in community groups, churches, and yes, even football stadiums.