It’s no longer the case that technologies of communication merely accelerate the public discourse, they now ensure that every possible public discourse happens simultaneously. It’s not one damned thing after another. It’s every damned thing all the time.
And so in place of a deliberative democracy, in which we as a people could acknowledge, and even tolerate, our differences while working through complex tensions at a pace consistent with social cohesion, we get a no-holds-barred battle royale in which all things are always at stake — in which we’re fighting every culture battle, past, present, and future, right the hell now.
The professional Left has been all over this for a while. Your neoliberalism is racist. Your anti-racism is sexist. Your feminism is transphobic. And your intersectionality is appropriated. It’s not enough to be woke, you need to be woke and tweaking on amphetamine salts.
But now the Right has gotten in on the game, and we’ve proven to be naturals.
And so let’s talk about football, I guess, and all the little dumb things that made the “take the knee” controversy the biggest dumb thing yet in an epoch of big dumb things.
There were the competing rhetorics, that Colin Kaepernick was without a job because he was atrocious and that he was without a job because of a league-wide blackball over his protest of police brutality. But the truth lay so obviously in between — Kaepernick is a middling NFL talent with a specific skill set in declining demand who’d probably have a job if he were either better or free of baggage — that all the partisans insisting on the antipodes knew better or really ought to have.
There was the tossed-off ephemerality of the president’s actual remarks, a few minutes in an hour-long free-form-jazz-odyssey campaign event in Alabama, words he might not even have remembered having said in the morning if the rest of the world hadn’t torched its wigs.
There was the fact that the kneeling stuff had run its course to the point where it — like the fight over gay marriage before Obergefell or disco before Saturday Night Fever — was practically dead before a late ejaculation reignited the debate.
There was the self-serving neutrality of the NFL response, the decorous and evasive talk of “unity” from a league that has been quietly taking sides for a while now, nixing cleats honoring the 9/11 dead and decals in memoriam of assassinated Dallas police while standing stock still for Kaepernickism and earlier Ferguson-centered protests. This doesn’t mean the league as a corporate entity is woke, of course. It means it’s corporate. And as we see more and more, corporations can be driven to a kind of half-assed performative leftism by asymmetrical incentives.
There were the sportswriters (nobody likes writing about things that aren’t sports more than sportswriters), all goo-covered with self-righteousness, who threw themselves like junkies at every last special-teams assistant and ball boy, panhandling for react quotes and condemnations.
There was the frenzied anticipation of Sunday morning, by which time the kneelers were being posed alternately as traitors and as saints, and the standers too, and their quarrel was not anymore about the substance of the protest, or even its form, but a tribal referendum on the Very Meaning of America.
There were so many finely laminated layers of nonsense baked into the final product — as if you’d subbed bullshit for butter in a croissant recipe — that I found it surreal that anyone could expect me to have a substantive opinion on it at all. It was like being asked by Kafka’s six-foot talking beetle what I thought of the Electoral College.
But finally there is the endless recurrence of the whole thing, the grim realization that this is the umpteenth of umpteen-hundred such culture-war jigs we will be made to dance until we mercifully collapse from exhaustion.
Because let’s face it, I’m writing this — and you’re reading it — under duress. None of us asked for this, but there’s no way out from under it.
Poor tackle Alejandro Villanueva knows this better than most. An ex–Army Ranger, he was made a hero, and a prop, by well-intended Americans for being the lone Pittsburgh Steeler to be seen hand-on-heart during the anthem that Sunday.
But Villanueva wasn’t trying to make a statement. He was honoring the flag as he otherwise would have and standing out in front of his teammates (some of whom can be seen behind him, hands on hearts, in shots that went mysteriously under-selected by photo editors everywhere) because he had asked to help lead the team out the tunnel. Rangers know something about loyalty, and Villanueva was understandably distressed at being portrayed as having defied the decision his teammates had together reached to stay off the field. Asked the next day whether he had any problem with other players’ kneeling, he said “absolutely” not and noted that some players who’d knelt in earlier games had approached him afterward to thank him for his service.
The same people who’d raised Villanueva up the day before of course interpreted these comments as a shameful coerced apology, and the Steelers’ attempt to avoid a no-win scenario by quitting the field was condemned by all sides. Meanwhile platoons of men, of all colors, who rely on implicit trust to protect their lives and livelihoods were set at each other’s throats for no good reason whatever. Metaphors for us all.
And it will all happen again next week, next tweet.
Are you ready for some football?