Category Archives: Political Theory

How Dare They Take A Knee During That Song That Plays Before Sports Games!

I’m a big fan of the Bill of Rights. In case you’ve been too busy screaming about immigrants and or looking at food pictures on Instagram, the Bill of Rights are the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. After the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, each of the original 13 colonies held a convention where delegates met to decide whether to abandon the former Articles of Confederation to form our current Union. Think of it as a reality show, where during the 1789 season, the question was out there hanging over the would-be nation: “Will the states adopt this Constitution?” The answer actually seemed to be “No,” until an agreement was reached that IF the colonies adopted the new Constitution, THEN the first order of businesses for the new government would be the passage of the amendments we now know as the Bill of Rights. Think of the original Constitution as the blueprint for how the new government would operate, while the Bill of Rights are what give our country its distinctive moral character, by allowing The People to assemble together, to bare arms, to receive due process when accused of a crime, and to speak freely.

Sometimes, somebody burns a draft card, or burns their bra, right in the middle of the street. Sometimes, somebody burns an American flag, or takes a knee during the Star Spangled Banner–on TV nonetheless (!)–and then certain other people go apoplectic. All of a sudden these people become political scientists arguing chicken versus egg scenarios:

“How can someone have the right to burn the flag or take a knee during the national anthem, which are like symbols of our country, when the whole reason they have a right to have free speech is because of the country? It ought to be considered treason and they should be shot!”

You end up listening to a diatribe that’s not very different than listening to someone who has been the same religion since they were infants talking about their religion and how it makes the most sense out of all of the religions and it makes more sense than agnosticism or atheism. It’s not so much a conversation as somebody yelling about something they are certain they are right about, and they go hysterical if you argue with them.

So now, in case you missed it, some NFL players are putting their knees on the ground during the National Anthem, as a protest about something, and the President of the United States, whose business and political career are based on getting people to talk about him constantly like a kind of bomb-throwing-Michigan-J-Frog, tweeted that the owners of NFL teams should fire anybody who takes a knee, and then a lot more players–whole teams, some coaches, some fans–put their knees down during the National Anthem, and now the people that hate anybody who protests anything are out again, arguing that the knee-takers owe a lot to the country for being the place where they were born and therefore shouldn’t disrespect the Star Spangled Banner.

I’m going to say something here, and a lot of people will get mad, but somebody ought to say it:

Who really cares about the Star Spangled Banner?

The song is more than 200 years old, but not old enough to be from the Revolution. It’s from the War of 1812, which few people know the details about. It was pretty much the worst war for the U.S. in our history. A lot of the same people that go crazy over flag burning or taking God out of the Pledge of Allegiance go around repeating this weird old lie that “We’ve been very lucky, the U.S. has never had a war fought on its soil.” Except that during the War of 1812 we lost almost every land battle, the President had to flee Washington D.C., and the British burned the Capitol and the White House. “Well, I meant besides that,” these people might say.

The Star Spangled Banner was written by attorney Francis Scott Key as the British bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. The poem celebrates the fact that the flag was still flying over the fort after a night of bombardment, so Baltimore might yet avoid capture. It does not mention that nobody knew where President Madison was at the time, while the White House and Capitol were on fire. I suppose the song has always appealed to those True Patriots who try to put the best face on the conditions of the country at a given time. So then this poem goes on to be popular, and they put it to the tune of a British song (how ironic), and about 117 years later Congress made it the official song of American officialdom, replacing such classics as God Bless America and My Country Tis of Thee, the latter of which is also supposed to inspire patriotism in everybody’s hearts even though no one knows what the heck a -tis-of-thee is, or what it means for My Country.

Very few people know the words to these songs, or why or when then were written. No one listens to them in their cars; the songs don’t play in the grocery stores, or at local parades because we don’t really have those anymore. The only time anybody hears these songs is when they go to a sports game. After spending a hundred dollars on a ticket and the last three hours getting drunk and throwing bean bags into a corn hole, everybody gets silent for three minutes while the high school glee club or a celebrity that can hit three octaves comes out and everybody puts their hands over their hearts and gets a tear in their eye, and that’s America Being Patriotic, and the point is to get done with that solemn obligation as soon as possible to get back to drinking and media watching and forgetting about your hard job, etc.

Then somebody takes a knee and it just ruins the pageant of the whole thing. They take a knee and it’s like an audience member at a Broadway show shouting “Hey everybody, those are actors up there, not real people.”  It jerks the audience out from their immersion in the narrative.

And that is what really aggravates the people. That is what really makes a protester intolerable. I mean if you go to a Broadway show, and somebody jars you out of the narrative, you’d be annoyed, because you paid a lot of money to be there and have the experience of paying a lot of money to forget about your life for a couple of hours, and if you go to a sports game or watch it on TV, it’s like the same thing. People want to sit there and drink their beer and eat their frozen food and they don’t want to think about the beer coming from a huge international corporation that owns all the other beer companies that used to be locally owned and independent; they don’t want to think about the nacho cheese that isn’t a dairy product and comes from petroleum; they don’t want to think about the chicken wings coming from a huge corporate farm where the chickens never see sunlight before they die–they want to believe the commercials that show Joe the Farmer and the the Coors Lights being mined out of the ice already in cans in the Rockies. I get it. We pretend there are small farmers like the guy in the commercial, and we pretend there are medium-sized breweries the same as there was back in good ole 1950 like they show in the commercials, and we pretend we’re all united together like they show in the soft drink commercials, and the commercials leave out anything bad the way that Frank Key left the burning of Washington out of his Star Spangled Banner…and then some inconsiderate jerk takes a knee during the patriotic song that comes before the ceremony of the game like the bell ringing before Pavlov fed his dogs, and ruins the whole thing!

I once took a Philosophy of Law class and the professor said something that changed my view of government. She said that most people think of The Law as a list of things that you’re not allowed to do, but most of The Law facilitates human activity. It establishes the processes by which people get married, form businesses, or buy houses, get insured. The Law is a system of rules like those of a baseball game, which must be established before the players can start the game. The professor also pointed out that a function of the law is to take care of problems so that we don’t have to think about them all of the time. When you see a person on the street begging for money, you don’t have to feel personally responsible for them, because you know that some government agency somewhere exists to help them. If you swerve to avoid a pothole, you don’t have to think about when you and your neighbors can get some asphalt to fill the thing in, you know that some government agency somewhere has filling-potholes as one of their responsibilities. You don’t have to worry that somebody’s house will catch on fire and no one will come, because there are fire companies; that you won’t be able to get food, because there are grocery stores and a Department of Agriculture and a Department of Commerce, etc. Well, that’s all fine and good, but now we have a government that doesn’t seem able to deal with a growing number of problems. It’s not about the Democrats or the Republicans, but I suspect that more people are worried now than they were ten or fifteen years ago, because The President represents The Government to most people, and the current President doesn’t really seem genuine or like he particularly cares about the majority of citizens or that he grasps the gravity of a lot of the problems or that he is able to focus long enough to really study the causes of some of the country’s problems, let alone to form a plan that would reverse some of the negative trends that everybody sees but tries to forget about while watching football. It is a big problem because if you don’t trust that The Government can or will deal with society’s problems, then you have to start thinking about them yourself, and one of the main reasons any people have any government is to do their societal thinking for them.

So people are taking knees at football games, and now spectators have to think about how we have a lot of problems which The Government isn’t addressing. This seems like about the most American think I can imagine. And it seems necessary.

Necessary, because, really, most people do not engage in any meaningful way in politics, and that just doesn’t work in a democracy. Reading a political blog or liking a post or making a comment doesn’t really do anything. Giving money to this or that organization or political party or candidate, and voting, is only slightly more effective. Basically people like what they already like, give money to people or groups that already exist, and they are more or less equalled out by people who believe the opposite and like the opposite posts and give money to the opposite people and groups, and nothing ever happens. All these billions get soaked up in an argument machine and all this human energy gets used to argue, like 16 very big men playing tug of war. They could have built something with all their labor but instead one side just pulled the other toward them a few inches, one group of spectators cheered while the other booed, and it was a big waste of time.

So some guy who feels frustrated looking at this takes a knee during the Star Spangled Banner, and the President tweets that he ought to be fired because the knee-taking basically suggests that government isn’t doing a good job. And the government isn’t doing a good job, but Joe Spectator gets mad because he wants to pretend during the football game that the government is doing a good job, because the football game is fantasy, and the commercials that show small farmers and businesses are fantasy, and the food is fake and the house is made of modular parts and the car was designed to be obsolete before the loan payments are paid and the kids are withdrawing into their cell phones and none of this is like it was when Grandpa got back from the war, and it seems like it’s on the road to getting worse, and Joe Spectator does not want to think about this, but now he starts to think about it, and the house of cards starts to fall apart.

People would rather not think about how fake and crappy our culture is, and how it seems like we used to have moral integrity but we don’t anymore, and how the government seems like it used to be full of geniuses and now it’s just party hacks, etc ad nauseum. The knee-taking at the football game makes them think about that.

The easy solution: fire the player, or call him crazy or ungrateful. That way it’s HIS personal problem, and We Don’t Have To Think About It Anymore!

 

 

America, an Ideal

[Originally published January 17, 2017 on Facebook]

It was quiet and serene at 6:45, as I stood on the stoop this morning, a Meadowbrook Farms milk truck backing up, the tree branches black against a sky that brightened from navy to cyan over a period of ten minutes. I had been reading a biography of Wilson, and I started musing on America and what it means.

“America…is not a piece of the surface of the Earth. America is not merely a body of towns. America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision,” Wilson said while running for Governor of New Jersey–his first attempt at political office.

As I stood on the stoop, a thin, middle-aged man crossed to my side of the street, pulling a wire cart. Last night was garbage night in Albany, and the man bent from one pile to another, retrieving cans. As he passed he looked in my direction and nodded to me, humbly. I nodded back. I return cans, too. I considered that this man was simply more entrepreneurial than me, when it comes to can-collecting.

The buildings I could see were all in good shape, made of stone and brick, leftover from the 1870s and 80s. I thought of the phrase “make America great again” and considered that it is not the apartments and towers or trees or stoops that are or are not “great”–it is the people who live in the structures, and the systems we put in place for the purpose of increasing our “greatness.”

A garbage truck passed, its side reading “Republic Waste.” Republic is the name of the trash company, obviously, but it was also ironic to see “Republic” and “Waste” so close to one another after thinking about Wilson’s statement of America as an ideal, and all the recent talk about making America “great again,” whatever that means.

The One-Way sign on the corner is chipping and bent, like it’s been hit by a hundred garbage trucks over the years, but nobody thinks to replace it. The intersection of the sidewalk is spray-painted with red letters and arrows from a utility company, though the work has been finished for months, because nobody thinks its necessary to compel utility companies to clean up their spray paint (though we have a graffiti Task Force in case someone puts spray paint on a wall). The sidewalk up and down the street sports accumulations of leaves, black plastic bags, and white plastic cup lids, because no one has swept their sidewalk, because even if they did, the leaves would blow back in front of their houses again because their neighbors didn’t sweep, and the street sweeper hasn’t been down my street in 3 weeks (though The City has given out tickets on the cars that didn’t move because the street-sweeper was supposed to have come). The One-Way sign, the utility graffiti, the leaves and trash, the exploitative tickets without compensatory benefit–these are the signifiers of society being not “great.”

“I feel like everything is like a sham–” (I’m paraphrasing my friend Jess) “–like nothing is built to last or…like you go into a building and its new and from far away it looks impressive, but then you look at the moulding and it doesn’t line up, the paint job is bad–its like we all do 90% of the work on stuff and never do the finishing work.” She was talking about the deck that her father built years ago, which looked great, but he never stained it, so now it’s full of splinters. But she was talking about a trend not just in the built landscape, but in the social landscape.

I continue to feel that the biggest problem with our time in history is the alienation of individuals from the rest of society. All of our other problems basically branch from that main issue, because we could solve most of our problems if we recognized our mutual interests within a community, and used our resources productively.

When I think of a time when America was “great,” I think what people are probably referring to is an idealized version of the 1950s, in a small town, if you were caucasian and Christian. The national economy was operating at near full-employment, there was access to credit, new mechanical gadgets were continually appearing to lessen the toils of life, more people had leisure-time than ever before in history, etc. But none of that gets at why the period seems like it must have been “great.”

What’s missing from the dry statistics is a description of the spirit of the times. What we picture are block parties, backyard barbecues, drive-ins, malt-shops, bake sales, baseball games, rotary club meetings, Church picnics, family picnics, weddings at small community venues–things that involve friends and families–wholesome social structures of which individuals identify as members–which through continual meetings continually reinforce the idea that I–as an individual–am part of larger groups, and those groups are part of a larger society–and it is all possible because we live in a republic.

Immediately, many people will point out, “but that spirit of the times was only great if you were caucasian and Christian, etc. For a lot of people it didn’t apply. Therefore it was a myth.” But between the last two sentences is a lapse of logic–it wasn’t a “myth” for the majority–that’s why people who used to be a majority latched onto the phrase “Make America Great Again” during the last election. Instead of declaring that an inclusive, progressive society is impossible, we ought to seek to make the spirit apply to more people, so that there are fewer who are left out. That is America as “an ideal.” It needs to be a hybrid of conservative and progressive principles.

The flaw in the Republican platform of the last election is that it chose a wall–the great symbol of division–as a symbol for how the party plans to bring about the ideal of an inclusive society. That was a great mistake, which reminds of Harry S Truman’s statement at a dinner of the Federal Bar Association in 1950: “We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat.” A republic cannot exist if it is to be composed of cloistered individuals cowering behind symbolic walls, everyone suspicious of one another, cynical about their own government. A republic must be based on citizen’s mutual self-interest and self help. The Party diminishes republicanism by the same proportion as it diminishes mutual self-interest and self-help. By cultivating divisions in society it encourages segments of the population to depend on the government for their elevation over other segments. It is superlatively ironic that the party that calls itself Republican and champions small government stimulates the conversation that erodes both of those things.

Our politics are like a revolving wheel, turning over cyclically. The people are the actual units that revolve, tied to the wheel. We started at the center, generations ago, but the arguments and philosophies have become more extreme, turning the wheel faster, and causing our people to fly outward, so that we feel connected to society no longer by some great gravitational force, but through a little string of geography: we just happen to live here, next to other people, all under the same government–rather than as fellows who are part of the same society.

In April of 2015 I went out on my stoop, and my neighbor, an old man, was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his stoop. I had planned to smoke a cigarette, but instead I went back inside and returned with a broom, and began to sweep the sidewalk in front of my apartment. “Hello,” the old man introduced himself, “I’m Robert. Do you own this building?”

“Oh no, I just moved in here,” I said.

“Oh, well, its nice of you to sweep, then.”

“Well I saw you doing it and figured it looked pleasant enough that I might as well give it a try!”

I think that is the great challenge of our times, which we should not expect politicians to accomplish: how do we get our neighbors to proverbially sweep? Will we go out and join them? Will that encourage other people to pitch in, because they know that if they sweep just then, they won’t have our leaves blow onto their sidewalk, because we’re sweeping, too? And when the sidewalk is clean, will we finally sit there and realize we are all neighbors, and have the same interest, and demand together that the city send the street-sweeper and fix the One-Way sign, and force the utility company to come back and clean up its graffiti? If we could manage that in all the little patches of earth that make up the towns and cities of America, we’d be much closer to our “ideal.”