As appalling as Donald Trump’s statements about the protests in the NFL during the National Anthem have been, I’m more unhappy at the reactions of many who have commented on social media.
Although Colin Kaepernick spoke about the reason for his protest, many people ignore what he said and insist, contrary to what he said, that the protesters are disrespecting the flag and the country, some going so far as to insist that the protest was exactly the same as burning the flag or spitting on it. They are fabricating a straw man — possibly as a way of justifying their failure to deal with the real issue. At any rate, unlike many protests, this is peaceful, non-disruptive, and about as respectful as a protest can be (no signs, no chants, a genuflection). As I see it, the protest does not disrespect the flag or the country. It calls the country to live up to our professed values and principles, specifically in the way black people are treated.
Some people try to make the issue one of respect for our armed forces, past and present. Again, that is a fabrication. Not only is it clear that the protest isn’t directed at our armed forces, but also it is an error to suppose that the National Anthem is specifically about the troops and veterans. It’s about the whole country, “the land of the free,” which promises “EQUAL protection of the laws” to all because “ALL … are created equal … with [the same] unalienable rights.” (Emphasis supplied.) The protest is over a perceived failure of the country to deliver what it promises, and many veterans share the perception of the protestors.
Beyond the misrepresentations of the meaning of the protest, there is a denial of the validity of the protest on its own terms. People say, in effect, “What racism?” either they deny racism outright or they try to deny that it’s a big problem. But even if the opponents haven’t observed any racism that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If they think it’s not a major problem for black people — since clearly it wouldn’t be one for white people — the question is how they could know that. One has to understand the experience and perceptions of black citizens. What has made the protests ring true to them? Until someone realizes that. one is in no position to dismiss the complaint of injustice. Any attempt to dispute the validity of the protest will fail to convince the protestors. Furthermore, it will not truly address the protest.
Some people do not dismiss the protest itself or misrepresent its meaning but still try to argue that, valid as the protest may be, kneeling during the National Anthem is the wrong way to make the protest. The editors of National Review, for example, said that there were “a dozen ways” in which the protest could appropriately be made. But they didn’t offer any. If people want to say, do it differently, they need to give specifics about what form of protest would be acceptable. It seems significant that when one team knelt, not during the anthem, but before it, they were booed as if it were during the anthem, giving rise to the suspicion that for many, it’s not about the National Anthem — that what they really hate is these uppity black people protesting at all.
What Donald Trump has done is to confirm the misrepresentations of the issue in many people’s minds, and he has done so in a way which once again shows that he is a boorish demagogue. His praise of NASCAR introduces a real irony with regard to the “disrespect for the flag” spin. It has been pointed out that NASCAR events are notable for people waving Confederate flags in the stands. It’s a greater disrespect to the flag, to the armed forces, and to our country to proudly wave the flag of rebellion against the United States than to genuflect quietly during “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I’ve heard it suggested that the protests were fading out of public awareness, and that Trump has blundered into making them a big issue again. Whether they will continue at the level of last weekend is doubtful, but at least many more people have been thinking about the protests than would have if he had kept quiet about them. But since he has misrepresented the issue, it has done nothing to promote the reflection which should be taking place. He did the country no service. Some people think he did this to take people’s attention away from his failure to get a repeal of Obamacare or his terrible performance in dealing with North Korea. I doubt he is intelligent enough to plan such a diversion. But I have no doubt he’s been paying attention to the protests to the detriment of fulfilling his real responsibilities.
The sooner he leaves office and is replaced by someone sane, intelligent, and competent, the better it will be for all of us, but it will take more than what has happened so far for the votes to be there to remove him from office. Meanwhile there is only a slender hope that he will decide he is tired of being President and resign.