29 August 2016
Colin Kaepernick's protest: fumble or touchdown?
Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem during a pre-season game. He explained that he could not pledge allegiance to a flag he now identified with the oppression of black people, referring to the controversial shootings by police in recent years. Ever since the "black power" protest at the 1968 Olympic games, black athletes (and others, I presume) have used public moments where they are supposed to represent and/or show respect for their country to protest continued racial injustice. And ever since 1968, self-styled superpatriots have virtually accused them of treason and invited them out of the country. Inevitably, also, these complacent critics defend their "love it or leave it" attitude by claiming the same right of protest that the athletes claim. They thus try to claim the constitutional high ground while implicitly challenging critics of this country to stay out of the kitchen if they can't stand the heat. You hear the same sort of thing whenever anyone, black or white, rich or poor, famous or not, criticizes an American war. On those occasions it is claimed that Americans are risking their lives, or losing them, to protect the malcontents' right to protest. If so, then what's the problem? The problem, of course, is that Our Troops are invoked to implicitly deny our right to protest the war they're fighting, in a variation on the classic trope, "Because you have the right to complain, you have no right to complain." Kaepernick, too, is accused of slapping Our Troops in their metaphoric face by failing to do homage, while his right as a wealthy athlete to speak ill of the nation is challenged, as if NFL salaries were paid out of our taxes. On the simplest level, the right to criticize a critic is indisputable. But if you're going to assert that you and Kaepernick share the same right, doesn't it contradict your argument to deny him the right? Let's make an important distinction. Everyone's entitled to an opinion on what Kaepernick is doing. You can call him a jerk or a racist, or find some way to call him a hypocrite, or you can question whether the facts regarding officer-involved shootings justify his position. But if you call him a traitor or claim that he should leave "your" country, than you belie your own claim that you and he are exercising a common right of critical speech, since if that right exists Kaepernick should be able to say what he has and refuse the Pledge -- since refusing is no crime and the Pledge is no test of citizenship -- without having his moral citizenship questioned. If anyone should have to leave the country, shouldn't it be those who think others with unpopular and controversial opinions should leave the Land of the Free? But since this is the Land of the Free, none of them have to go, but if you think Kaepernick has no right to protest if you call him a traitor or tell him to leave the country, then you have no more (or no less) right to protest if someone calls you a fascist.