Over the years I’ve written a lot about symbolic gestures. These are activities or rituals we take part in that make us feel good by providing the illusion that we care about the things we say we care about, when in fact our everyday actions suggest otherwise. These are all around us all of the time. A classic example is a business that pays super low wages to its employees and denies them benefits at every turn (thus trapping them in poverty), yet publicly donates $10K to charity and frames that check on the wall of the business, as if that represents their true values and interests. Or think about the “Please Gamble Responsibly” sticker on the slot machines at the casino. The machines are programmed to addict you to slots, but the sticker makes it sound like the casino doesn’t want you to be irresponsible with the very machines designed to make you irresponsible in the first place (HT to my fav show “Adam Ruins Everything” for the latter example).
This is now on full display with Trump et al.’s criticism of Colin Kaepernick, calling him (as well as other NFL players who kneel during the anthem) “sons of bitches.” To be sure, Trump (et al.) would say they stand for the national anthem because they believe in all of the values that the flag symbolizes. It makes them feel patriotic for standing and expressing their commitment to the principles of this nation. They would say they are standing for democracy, for the idea that “all men are created equal,” for the pledge’s love of “liberty and justice for all,” etc.
Yet at the very same time, Trump’s administration works to actively undermine all of these things. While he stands in patriotic support of these principles — which provides him with the feel good illusion that he’s patriotic — he actively undermines the pursuit of these principles and values. As such, it’s a classically hollow and vacuous symbolic gesture.
What’s more, his “sons of bitches” rhetoric — which is disturbing on many levels — serves to dehumanize the very people who are actively displaying a true commitment to the principles and values that are supposed to be at the heart of the country but frequently are not: the idea of liberty and justice for all and that all people in the U.S. should be treated fairly and equally, including especially black and brown bodies that (because of America’s original sin of racism) have frequently and disproportionately been subjected to police brutality (which is what originally started the anthem protests), which undercuts democracy and liberty and justice for all in an institutionalized and violent form. As such, these commitments by Kap et al. are made not out of a disdain for democracy or for what the country should be, but precisely the opposite: because of an abiding love and commitment for all that is promised in the name of democracy and what the country should be. They’re protesting not because they disrespect the values that are supposed to be at the heart of our country and our democracy (or the troops, as they’ve publicly stated time and again), but because they believe in democracy and justice and equality so much, including the idea that police should not disproportionately shoot and kill black and brown persons, much less with such glaring impunity.
Here we see that Kaepernick et al. are actually the ones expressing a much deeper form of patriotism than are those who simply cheapen the moment of standing for the anthem as a symbolic gesture that provides the illusion that they stand for patriotic principles of equality and justice when in fact their everyday actions and policies undercut these values and suggest they prefer white supremacy and police brutality to equality and justice.
Our civic commitments should be to the best of the values enshrined in our democracy, not to symbolic gestures that make us think we care about these things when in fact we do not. That’s why I will stand (or kneel) with Kap.