observations and opinion
Taking the knee is truly offensive. That’s why it is the right thing to do.
Americans love their anthem and their flag. They inject a huge degree of sentiment into moments when Old Glory is hauled up a pole, draped over a coffin or carried by a crowd. They stand at attention, hats off, hands over hearts, when the Star Spangled Banner comes blaring out of sports bar televisions, or of course at stadiums and rinks, or schools, or….anywhere.
Insults to these symbols have always been met harshly. Years ago there was talk of a “flag burning amendment” to make it unconstitutional to set Old Glory alight. The flag should never touch the ground. And when that song gets played, well, you had better be a deaf foreigner in a wheelchair if you remain planted in your seat.
Non-Americans view this kind of fetishistic thinking with a mix of doubt and sometimes, admiration. We can admire the love of country and profound, innate respect that Americans feel for their country. We can wonder about the sense of those sentiments, when the United States has been so deeply flawed, in particular in its relentless hostility towards the people it stole from Africa, enslaved and continue to treat as inferior. How can Americans leap to their feet so robotically, in ardor for a country which is so damned imperfect?
It may be that people love their countries the way they love other people: they feel affection for the person they know, admiration for their best features, forgiveness for their faults. If I ask you “is your child perfect?” you could not honestly answer “yes” unless you don’t know your child. If I ask you whether you love that child and would stand up and defend her, in any situation, you might honestly not be able to answer “no.” It doesn’t matter whether a person or a nation is perfect; what matters is that we love them.
In the USA, standing up for the anthem and the flag, are standardized displays of one’s love of country that are simply expected; like Catholics crossing themselves at the altar or Muslims removing their shoes before entering a mosque, Americans stand for the Star Spangled Banner (audio and cloth versions both).
So of course, public and political refusals to comply with these expected behaviors are startling – shocking really – and bound to cause consternation. Which they certainly have. When US footballer Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem before a game for the first time, most Americans probably really were shocked. It took guts, but it also took a very marked departure from custom – courage was necessary in part because kneeling at a football game during the song was stunningly dangerous, professionally and personally.
The truth is, for almost any American the act of kneeling during the anthem or watching someone else do it, is jarring. It is a significant breach of social etiquette. It is a gut punch to one unifying symbol every patriot cloaks himself in. The message delivered by not standing for the anthem, is that grief and prayer are necessary now, instead of standing steadfast. The knee says we are in mourning, not celebration. It also says – let’s not lie to ourselves – that the anthem, and the flag, and the country itself – are not always worth standing up for.
That is why “taking a knee” as they call it, is truly offensive.
And that is why “taking a knee” is the right thing do to.
The truth about American civil society is that it is deeply, deeply troubled. The land is riddled with guns – pointed, rather disproportionately, at African Americans. The police, who have the hardest job in the world dealing with crime in a heavily armed culture, have longstanding practices of recognizing black people as more likely to commit crimes. While that might once have been denied, the citizenry itself today is heavily armed – with cameras – recording the shocking frequency, casualness and brutality of anti-black official violence.
That phenomenon of racist violence is what inspired people to say “black lives matter” and it is the heavy weight of that history, that injustice, which forced Colin Kaepernick down on one knee during the national anthem.
Kaepernick isn’t on TV anymore – he is unemployed now. But of course in recent days, dozens more have followed his example, spurred on to protest by the mean-spirited mockery mouthed by the President of the United States. As weeks go on, one can imagine more and more people “taking the knee”, not just in protest of official racist violence but also, as a rebuke to the Racist-in-Chief.
Millions of Americans are offended by “the knee.” They should be. Their most sacred civic symbols are being spurned – are being turned against enthusiastic patriotism, converted to a new message of doubt, disgust, resistance, refusal. We see the most celebrated Americans – professional athletes – kneel during the American song, as a way of standing up for the rights of the American people.
But no one looks happy kneeling during the song. They look grim. They are sending a message and taking a risk. They are offending millions of their fellow countrymen. For good reason.
It pains many Americans to see “the knee.” And here’s the thing: if you are offended by “the knee”, then you probably need to be offended. Your fellow Americans live with pain every day; it might do you good to feel some of it, for two minutes on Sunday.