“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
-Colin Kaepernick, 26 August 2016
“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
-Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, 15 December 1791
As Michael Harriot effectively argued last Friday, a movement is abroad in the land to water down and whitewash the otherwise searingly potent national anthem protest initiated by Colin Kaepernick. This movement, borne of an attempt to make Kap and his allies palatable to a white audience, plus a good dose of knee-jerk anti-Trumpism responding to his notorious “SOBs” comment, is claiming that refusing to stand for the national anthem has nothing to do with the flag, the anthem, or the country for which they stand. It’s just coincidence, this reasoning claims, that the anthem was chosen as the vehicle for the message.
As Harriot concludes, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with standing for the anthem, but don’t participate in the erasure of his protest by taking away the crux of the message. If you take a knee, know it is about black people. Know it is about the flag. Know it is about America.”
Indeed, it would take unbelievable backflips of self-aggrandizing illogic for a protest against the flag and the national anthem to not be about America. After all, this is the country that is hosting the racism, that espoused and perpetuated slavery long after other colonial nations had forsaken it, that instituted a century and a half of pseudo-slavery after the Civil War, persisting today in institutions like mass-incarceration and staggering income inequality. This country harbors and forgives the police who routinely slaughter unarmed Black men and women in broad daylight. What country do you think Kap intends us to protest?
And yet the notion of criticizing even the slightest aspect of America has become so third-rail, so polarizing, so icky, that even alleged liberals recoil at the idea of embracing Kap’s worthy and obvious critique of the stars and stripes. Not about the anthem? Have you heard the third verse of Key’s ode to killing in the name of cloth?…
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
-Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, 1814
Never mind the celebration of murdering escaped slaves who were choosing to side with a nation that recognized their innate freedom. Let’s just focus on the cognitive dissonance between nestling the word “slave” in the same verse as “land of the free”. If you don’t think white supremacy is cooked right into the batter, all the way down, of those white stripes waving in the breeze, you are just willfully blinding yourself. And yet even much of the left-wing flees in terror from the chance to see a critique of America for what it is – a critique of America.
Those who can at least acknowledge the horrors of our so-called founding fathers, the spoiled ruffians who unpatriotically killed their own soldiers over feeling overtaxed, are quick to cite just how long it’s been since 1814. Two-hundred and three years! What a long, long, long time. Look how far we’ve come!
Which brings us to the other aspect of this post, the second quote up top, the tragedy of early Monday that dislodged the alleged scandal of Sunday in the American consciousness. Because the second amendment is even older, 225 years old, yet remains as hallowed today as anytime in that span – more hallowed, in fact, since Jefferson and friends wrote it with the intent of authorizing future like-minded ruffians to violently overthrow the government they were creating when it inevitably grew corrupt and in need of renewal. Not only would Jefferson and his cohort be appalled to see the United States still standing with a continuous peaceful transfer of power this long, they would be horrified to see the second amendment upheld like a Bible verse, and just as twisted in its interpretation. The notion, of course, as the text of the amendment makes plain, is that a militia was necessary to maintain security. Either this means that a standing army or whatever entity is responsible for defending the State should be allowed to have guns or, more likely, that each person should have whatever Arms are necessary to ensure their ability to form a militia that checks State power. In other words, the second amendment entitles us all to nuclear weapons.
As absurd as this latter interpretation sounds on face, it was written by people who had just used single-shot muskets to complete a successful revolution against their government (and were about to use similar weapons to enact the most successful genocide in human history to date). They could no more have imagined the development and proliferation of assault rifles than they could’ve designed an iPhone. Indeed, these individuals themselves anticipated their own short-sightedness in projecting adequate laws into the future, which is not only why they made the Constitution infinitely alterable, but why they wrote the second amendment in the first place! Clinging to only the second half of this ancient text as though it is inalienable divine inspiration makes about as much sense as forgetting the third verse of our national anthem in evaluating the song’s worthiness as a loyalty oath for all Americans.
Something sinister and destructive is at the root of both of these denials, as well as in the heart of the modern-record-mass-shooter* who just killed 59+ and injured 550+ in Las Vegas a couple nights ago and the voice of everyone criticizing Colin Kaepernick and the many NFL players and coaches who have followed his lead. It’s the belief that America is infallible. It’s the belief that only terrorists or those who secretly sympathize with them could ever criticize America as a country, as an entity, stars, stripes, “home of the brave” and all. That self-criticism, hell, self-analysis is not the road to refinement and perfection, but the road to ruin and defeat.
*for now – wait a couple incidents till this gets surpassed
As I have observed in this space many times, this level of self-righteous zeal is simply absent from any other nation on the planet. It is essentially patriotic in Germany to disavow the Nazi ideology and everything it stood for, to quietly acknowledge the sins of the father in an effort to not repeat them. While some of Japan’s prime ministers visit a shrine honoring their war dead, it is highly controversial and criticized when they do so, at home and abroad. Sweden does not hold up their Viking ancestors as models of good citizenry who were right for the time, any more than the British espouse colonialism as their ongoing divine mandate. But somehow America, uniquely in the family of nations, clings to its centuries-old crimes as justified and honorable, as worthy of reverence, as immune to critique. And it is this ability to conflate a flag, an anthem, a founding document, with pre-eminent, infallible rightness, that empowers the racist cops, the mass-shooters, the NRA, the KKK, and all the other present-day monsters of our nation. After all, they and the model they are following are American – so how could they think themselves wrong?
If you’re looking for further explanations of “how Donald Trump happened,” this is a good place to examine. Many have observed the double-standard of Trump being allowed to criticize the USA while Kap was lambasted for same, but this misses the point of “Make America Great Again”. MAGA was never about critiquing America. It was about silencing America’s critics, the critics who were behind progressive change movements like gay marriage and Black Lives Matter. The notion was that progressive change takes us away from what makes America great – the racism, the love-it-or-leave-it-ness, the high walls and big bombs and guns for all. It is no wonder that Clinton’s retort that “America has always been great” (genocide, slavery, Japanese internment, mass-incarceration, school shootings, and all) was insufficient to appeal to either Trump’s demographic or America’s correct critics. The third road, the one I’ve long advocated, that “America is not great, has never been great, and will have to try very hard to be good,” remains unvoiced by all but Kap and other fringe radicals.
Of course, gun control and inroads against the current interpretation of the second amendment is hardly a fringe movement, even less so in the wake of ever growing slaughters of human beings by the firearms alleged to protect us. We are engaged in an ongoing horror-game-show asking us what the tipping point might be, a deadly Deal or No Deal. How about twenty kindergartners? No, not enough? How about fifty teenagers? No, still no good? What about sixty country-music fans? Any takers?
The sticking point is, in part, a result of our fascinated devotion to the old original document as it has been carried down and reinterpreted in a world as foreign to 1791 America as Saturn is to us today. One piece of this devotion is the conflation of money and speech which enables the NRA and their well-heeled corporate mercenaries to buy safe passage of deadly weapons to every man, woman, and child who would turn them on themselves and others. But the other piece is the notion that the second amendment, as unique among the family of nations as our almost uncountable pile of dead gun victims, is sacrosanct, not to be examined or criticized, let alone changed. As was observed in McSweeneys yesterday, basically nothing else we do in society enjoys this level of unfetteredness, which is entirely the result of our dedication to the idea that the revolutionaries were infallible.
Of course this idea is incoherent even with the Constitution as it stands today. We got rid of the notion that Blacks aren’t people (on paper, at least), that women aren’t people (ditto), that wealthy white landowners were the only people who deserved a voice (super-ditto). We have allowed men to marry men in all fifty states for God’s sake, but still recoil at the idea that stockpiling twenty-three assault rifles in your hotel room with more ammunition than was fired in the Battle of Bunker Hill is not your God-given right. Whatever you think of those racist slave-owning hypocrites who started the American experiment, what do you think they would say about this? Which idea do you believe they would deem more radical? Even if we are so obsessed with their myopic desires, maybe we can embrace at least the level of change we’ve already seen in other arenas and apply it to something that is killing us at a rate that would make the most ardent terrorist blush.
As I’ve said before, mass shootings are largely about violence itself. America is the biggest worldwide advocate of the notion that might-makes-right, boasting the largest military in human history and whipping it around the world with impunity and indifference. Most shooters are not only men, but have some sort of military background – this guy being a former defense contractor. Once one fully imbibes the notion that one deserves to end others’ lives because of something that makes one exceptional, it’s just too easy to drape that American exceptionalism over one’s own individual self.
Of course, America is exceptional. Exceptionally stubborn, exceptionally un-self-aware, exceptionally unable to get outside of itself to give itself a good hard look. So we keep killing our kids, every day, be they Black men in the street or white folks at a concert, be they in church or an office party, be they at the movies or the nightclub, be they driving or standing peaceably as can be.
Don’t stand for it. Don’t stand for the song that endorses this ongoing death. Don’t stand for people refusing to criticize the country of your birth. This country is wrong. We are wrong. It’s killing us, the best of us, and it’s not going to stop until we can admit how wrong we are and promise to truly change.