Why Colin Kaepernick’s Protest Failed

Kaepernick talks to reports in Seattle, September 2016. (Photo: Troy Wayryen/USA Today Sports/Reuters)
He couldn’t understand that saluting the flag is not a political act.

L’Affaire Kaepernick is winding down with humiliating defeat facing those athletes, and the jock-sniffing courtiers surrounding them, who publicly disrespected the American flag. About all that is left is for the losers to complain that the winners are hypocrites.

A particularly high-pitched whine was heard from the general vicinity of an adamantly woke baseball writer, Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports (whose Twitter bio, incidentally, misattributes a quote to Orwell in an effort to steal a bit of truth-telling credibility):

This was a bitter way of complimenting the efforts of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who made a show of refusing to stand for the National Anthem before games last fall, meekly promised not to do it again when he found himself in need of a job during the off-season, and today remains unemployed and widely loathed by NFL owners. Kaepernick, Calcaterra implies, is just as entitled to show disrespect for the flag as other sports figures are entitled to show respect for it.

Unfortunately for Calcaterra, saluting the flag is not as political as turning one’s back on it, because the flag itself isn’t political. Rather, the flag stands for the American ideal, and while we can all disagree about how well we have lived up to the principles comprising that ideal, only extremists would decry the principles themselves. Kaepernick said he took a knee during the National Anthem as a gesture of solidarity for, and concern about, black Americans mistreated by police. His error was in conflating the actions of a few errant police officers with America itself. His protest was therefore rightly seen by many football fans as outrageous, a slander as indefensible as saying black Americans in general should be disrespected because of the criminal actions of a minority of blacks.

When Americans in positions of power mistreat blacks — and there is much such mistreatment to be concerned about — it is not a failure of American ideals but a failure to live up to them. The flag stands for, among other constitutional principles, due process, equal protection under the law, and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. To the extent that police aren’t living up to these precepts, they need to be more American. But to say that the American flag represents oppression of minorities is fatuous. You might as well claim the Soviet flag represents great writing because Boris Pasternak lived under it.

Showing pride in the flag does not mean support for every political decision that’s ever been made in America, and how could it? We salute the flag when we like the occupant of the Oval Office, and we salute the flag when the president is someone we despise. We salute the flag regardless of what we think of America’s latest military action or the Supreme Court’s latest decision.

Calcaterra, meanwhile, bristles when policy disagreements are characterized as more or less patriotic. “You can be accused of being in league with ISIS for disagreeing about the ideal rate of taxation for certain brackets,” he says in a follow-up essay. Well, you could, but that would be absurd. Just as the flag could be misused to, say, tar all opponents of a given war as anti-American, a baseball bat could be misused to hit a person. There is no equivalence between a flag being used in its proper nonpartisan manner and the Kaepernickian choice to damn it, in the process bringing bitter partisan disputes into the ballpark.

Standing for the National Anthem may make some Americans misty-eyed, but for others it need not mean much more than a handshake, a minimal gesture of goodwill. At a routine meeting, you would shake the hand of almost anyone who offered it. A handshake requires so little moral investment that to refuse one would require extraordinary circumstances. I personally wouldn’t shake hands with a murderer, though some would. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump loathe each other, yet even they shook hands at the latter’s inauguration. Pointedly refusing to shake someone’s proffered hand may reasonably be labeled an insult. In the same way, saluting the flag and not saluting the flag are not equivalent. The former is the civic equivalent of simple good manners. The latter is a specific, targeted show of contempt and extremism.

Assailed by rude remarks, Calcaterra replied weakly, with buckets of ad hominem snark — “Your avatar is literally a distortion of the American flag designed to make a political point,” he told one detractor — and a very left-wing mix of defiance and cowering. In one post, he bragged about seeking protection behind the skirts of the nearest mommy figure, the Twitter standards police. “You know stuff is lit if even Twitter thinks people stepped out of line,” he wrote, pasting in triumph a copy of a note from Twitter apparently granting his request to sanction someone for being mean to him. Here at last Calcaterra brings to mind, if not Orwell himself, at least an Orwell character, from the boarding-school essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys.” She is “the grim statuesque matron, Daphne by name,” who rousted the surprised boy from bed, screaming, “Report yourself to the headmaster after breakfast!”

Calcaterra et al. may have lost the Great Sports and Flags Debate of 2016–17, but at least they can settle for getting some citizens reported to Twitter’s speech commissars.

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