Colin Kaepernick kneels during the National Anthem in final 49ers preseason football game
The Kaepernick kerfuffle is an example of how moral discourse works in the Twitter era. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem. He explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
The response was typical. Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick should find another country. Fans burned Kaepernick’s jersey. Supporters spoke of Kaepernick’s right to free speech. A group of veterans for Kaepernick defended his “right to sit down.”
Instead of talking about the race problem in America, the conversation shifted to Kaepernick’s refusal and his right to free speech. Soon enough people were criticizing Kap’s socks. He wore seemingly anti-police socks during practice.
How bizarre. Racial injustice continues to be a problem without a solution. Poverty and prison plague the black community. Unarmed black men are shot by police. Riots break out. And here we are talking about a quarterback’s socks.
Rather than talk about race and justice, we prefer to change the subject. It’s easier to cast stones at a celebrity than to think about complex questions of social justice.
Kaepernick has the right to sit out the anthem or wear socks of his own choice. But defending that right does not confront the tough question of racial injustice and inequality. We skim the surface and avoid the depths.
Of flag salutes and other rituals
And so it goes with flag salutes and other rituals. They are nice. But they are only skin deep. We can mouth the words without meaning them.
At least Kaepernick appeared to be thinking about the meaning of the flag he chose not to salute. Of course, we cannot dig into the secret recesses of his mind. Nor can we plumb the souls of the athletes and fans who stand and salute.
The conscience is a deep well where we ruminate on meaning. Songs, salutes and socks rest on the surface. The commitments of the heart are independent of the motions of the body. To get to the heart of the matter we need to talk, listen and think.
Standing for the flag is fine. But flag salutes are symbolic, not substantial. Some claimed Kaepernick was disrespecting the troops. But we support the troops most directly by paying our taxes.
Which brings us back to football, which has a strong commitment to supporting the troops. Until last year, the league itself didn’t pay taxes, since it was listed as a tax-exempt nonprofit. To be fair, local franchises pay taxes. But the NFL itself did not, even though the commissioner earned $30 million to $40 million a year.
At any rate, it is strange that the football industry has become a public good, wrapped in the flag, when it is a profitable private enterprise. This is no stranger, I suppose, than the fact that Budweiser renamed its beer “America” this summer and covered the label with patriotic slogans. Budweiser is owned, in case you are wondering, by a foreign beverage corporation named InBev.
Many layers of patriotism
This is a reminder of the complexity of flags and patriotism. Patriotism can be heartfelt and sincere. Or it can be thoughtless jingoism. Patriotism may also be conscientious loyalty to a nation’s highest moral principles. And in some cases patriotism is a useful marketing strategy.
The Roman author Juvenal worried that the Romans were too focused on “bread and circuses.” Today it is football and beer. Trivial distractions undermine thoughtful and sincere citizenship. They keep us too preoccupied to have meaningful conversations about morality, justice and the common good.
And so we mock easy targets and ignore the hard questions. Kaepernick is a millionaire with weird socks sitting alone on the bench. It’s easy to malign the man. But the difficult question of race in America remains on the table.
That question is connected to complex social, psychological, economic and political questions. Like every other important question, the racial problem needs long and careful deliberation. But we ignore that complexity when we blast away on Twitter.
Marketing and propaganda make us think that the truth is obvious and easy to understand. In reality, important ideas take a lifetime to figure out. And flags, socks and songs only touch the surface of things.