A new development in the continuing saga that is the Trumping of some NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against people of color: Vice President Mike Pence left the Indianapolis Colts-San Francisco 49ers game after several Niners – former teammates of protest initiator and onetime quarterback Colin Kaepernick – took a knee during the Anthem.
"I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen," Trump wrote on Twitter.
"I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem," Pence wrote on Twitter.
But he and @POTUS must’ve known that there would be kneeling players, particularly on the Niners – who, along with the rest of California, are to the resistance of @POTUS what Boston was to the American Revolution. So it was a bit disingenuous of Pence and @POTUS – sort of like the kids who know the class cutups are going to cut up and then go squealing to teacher to show how goody-goody they are. Clearly, few qualities are susceptible to hypocrisy the way outrage and self-righteousness are. (And I bet just an itty-bitty part of @VP Pence was sorry he had to leave. Nothing like cutting off your nose when your face is enjoying the game.)
Nonetheless, as one of my cousins pointed out at a recent family gathering, “The players are free to protest, and I am free not to attend their games or buy their merchandise.”
Yes, exactly, tit for tat, quid pro quo, on and on as people scramble to out-reject people who don’t care if you’re rejecting them. But it’s more than that. It’s kind of like the man who announces he’s divorcing a wife who’s already left him. Dude, she got there first. Rejecting someone who’s rejected you is just, well, weak.
This same cousin – a lovely man who enjoys engaging me in political debate – also gave me an article written by a priest who accused the protestors of expecting “The Star- Spangled Banner” to be politically correct. I doubt that’s the case since the offending, potentially racist words in question belong to later verses, and few people even know the second verse of the anthem. But anyone who expects anything historical to be politically correct is a fool. You can’t read history backward. The Founding Fathers were in large part slaveholders. They did not give women the right to vote. Still, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t do a great thing in creating America.
We are all a mix of good and bad and we live with the past, not in it. What matters is what we are doing, and we can stand and sing the anthem proudly, because the context in which we sing it has become more inclusive. (For a particularly moving example of an anthem’s shifting context, I would point to the singing of “La Marseillaise” in the movie “Casablanca.” There are few more bloodthirsty anthems than France’s. But in the 1942 film, released at the height of World War II as the Nazis occupied Paris, the Free French resisted and the Vichy government collaborated, that anthem becomes a symbol of all France had lost and that still remained. I defy anyone to watch that clip without wanting to get up, sing “La Marseillaise” and shout, “Vive la France.”)
Symbols have the meaning we ascribe to them. Some feel the American flag and the American National Anthem represent a country that has betrayed certain segments of the population. Fair enough. But the protesters have no beef with the soldiers who defend the flag and the anthem. Those soldiers in turn have said that part of what they are defending is freedom of expression.
But do we really understand this? In Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” a woman who lost her son in Vietnam remembers telling two protesters who visited her, asking for her support, that they had every right to protest and that if they ever showed up on her doorstep again she’d shoot them.
That doesn’t sound like someone who understands freedom of speech – any more than an @POTUS quid pro quo does.