Owen Courreges’ column in last Monday’s Uptown Messenger took a surprising turn into the orthodoxy of American patriotism that I would not have expected of him. As the piece itself and the comments rolled along, it opened up some interesting paths of thought. Let’s wander around.
His topic is Colin Kaepernick not standing up for the Star Spangled Banner. Strange, isn’t it, a presidential campaign on, featuring probably the worst candidate with the worst associates running for a party in terrible shape, in the flickering shadow of the wings of chickens coming home to roost, recommending the most poisonous, divisive policies in the most vulgar way that anyone has ever seen; ISIS is being rolled back, but half of the people who claim to care won’t look at that, because they have to say Obama is a patsy. Republicans are telling their fans that ISIS, which does not even have an airplane, is their greatest threat, while North Korea, with a huge, disciplined army conducts a nuclear weapon test. Distracted by the Middle East and the endless muttering about terrorism – yet we have been transfixed by a football player who sat down through a song.
Owen explores an innocuous line – an empty line, really – about First Amendment rights. Is sitting out a song protected speech? Owen dismisses it, too, but some Americans must have been discussing his being able to do it without facing prison as if it were a special, proprietary, Shining City thing. People in other countries without a First Amendment can sit through songs.
Owen dismisses the First Amendment issue with a great synesthesia sentence, the rhetorical high point of the piece: “. . . I never heard hide nor hair of the notion that anybody wanted to force Kaepernick to stand steadfast as the Star Spangled Banner played. Everyone seemed to recognize that he had the right to express himself. Rather, he needed to deal with the consequences thereof.” I am still listening for a hide and a hair. When Owen isn’t looking (or listening) I might steal that line.
“Certainly, objecting to the way minorities are treated in America is mainstream enough. Showing contempt for America itself, however, is not. Kaepernick committed the grievous error of failing to show reverence for our country in spite of its faults. Although that’s his right, it also puts him at loggerheads with the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens.”
Mainstream enough? Seriously? Does Owen rate protest on how smoothly the gesture slots into the Six O’Clock News? By whether it is mild enough to survive scrutiny for heterodox implications by Andrea Mitchell? Do we have to watch Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer to make sure a protest is in their comfort zones, so it can be stamped “mainstream”?
“At loggerheads with the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens.” I thought the idea of protest was to wake people up, not help them stay comfortably seated in the Lazy Boy watching “reality” TV.
Then, bringing it back to home ground, Owen gets in character again, referring to a bad, unconstitutional law passed by City Council and signed by Landrieu in October 2011, that made it illegal to “loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political, or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise.” Influential members of that council were Jacqueline Brechtel Clarkson – remember her? Such fun – Kristin Giselson Palmer and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Just the length and rhythm of their names should send a warning. That council had a tendency to loony legislating, but they should not be let off the hook for shaky personalities. They all have legal advisors. I’m sure they had been told that this kind of junk law could not survive a challenge by any lawyer who could stay awake and standing, but they pass them anyway, I guess to appease some scratchy constituents and hope the backlash comes after they leave office.
Courrèges is in his wheelhouse here, tough and clear: “This ordinance, New Orleans Municipal Code Article 54-419(c)(4), was the most blatant piece of unconstitutional dreck that I have, frankly, ever had the displeasure of seeing. There was absolutely no question that it violated the First Amendment.”
Looping back to football songs, though:
“There are certainly acceptable ways to protest, but showing contempt for America and its symbols is objectionable to most Americans. Kaepernick could have protested by organizing, showing up at protests, giving speeches, writing opinion columns, etc. The idea that he just had to protest in a way that strongly implied disrespect for our country is ridiculous. It wasn’t necessary and has been counterproductive.”
“Ridiculous”? Really? Have you seen anything get so much attention for one guy sitting still for about two minutes? I don’t think Kaepernick implied disrespect. He declared it, loud and clear, and gave his reasons. Is Owen’s suggested way better? Show “respect” on the field where you are famous and all cameras are on you, and then turn up at other events to lash out at what he sees – institutionally encouraged or protected racism leading to an annual officially sanctioned killing spree. If that is really what he sees, I would suggest, saying so in the strongest way he can is being a responsible citizen.
What Kaepernick is protesting is adrenaline-fueled murder by trigger-happy cops who are then protected by their union, their departments, and a complicit, dysfunctional injustice system which really should shock all Americans awake just from watching its operations and results for ten minutes. We are talking about an annual murder spree by police of upwards of 1,200 people – more than three a day, with a disproportional number of victims being African American. That compares to numbers that never even reach double digits in Western Europe, and are sometimes zero.
An inordinate amount of the victims are African American. Always have been. And now an increasing number of people are saying, “Enough!” So I was pretty surprised that Owen could talk about “acceptable” ways to protest, against the background of an officially permitted, barbaric murder campaign going on for decades, or centuries if you include the lynching by hanging period, with a body count of thousands.
If you do not think this actually happens, or if you think three extra-judicial murders per day covered for by police departments and municipal governments are okay, then you can object to Kaepernick’s gesture. If you think it does happen, you should applaud it and join him, because what he protests is infinitely more shameful and disrespecting to this country than not showing the expected reverence for a song and a patriotic wave of emotion which to me, frankly, looks manipulated, overcooked and dangerous.
Comply! Not only with shouted police instructions while they throw you to the ground or hold a gun to your head, but to the imperative of a song to strike a religious pose and gaze at the holy flag with patriotic sentiment and a softening of the jaw and face muscles to generate a patriotic expression..
I said I support Kaepernick’s action completely, not because of his rights – because he is right!
With all due respect to the First Amendment, freedom to speak up is not unique to the US. The patriot virus is less virulent in most Western European countries, so messing with an anthem might be less effective than it is here. Our European co-citizens of post-Enlightenemnt culture speak up all the time. They protest, write, broadcast, demonstrate and obstruct traffic. They even face tough police with Plexiglas shields and the whole militarized nine yards (the French Gendarmes are a division of the military, but let’s not foray too far into the long grass).
The exchanges in Comments started leading down some interesting side tracks. Let’s explore a couple.
I wrote, “Why is a football game an appropriate venue for a display of nationalistic ritual? (We’re supposed to say “patriotic” when it is about the USA. “Nationalist” is the same thing for other countries.) Partly, we know, because the Pentagon pays the NFL. The Star Spangled Banner is emotionally linked to this country’s militarism and imperialism. It would be better if all the players ignored it and started the game.
Owen replied: “I disagree; First of all, patriotism and nationalism have entirely different connotations. The former refers to pride in and respect for one’s country, while the latter tends to refer to arrogance and belligerence. Standing for the national anthem at major sporting event is a long-standing tradition associated with patriotism, and the refusal to stand is generally regarded as a show of contempt for one’s country.”
In another paragraph, Owen contrasted patriotic sentiment v. nationalist fervor.
Those are not definitions. Those are the the connotations Americans trowel onto the words when feeling patriotic. In my reading of real usage, patriotic is us; nationalistic is them. Sentiment is us; fervor is them. When Karadjic or Ratko Mladic attacked and killed Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina, it was Serbian nationalistic fervor. When US drones kill Muslims in Iraq or Pakistan, patriots know it is for our national security.
Anglo-America has been plagued by puritanical religion throughout it’s history, from the Pilgrims to Ted Cruz and the Evangelical vote. It simmers and bubbles up even here, a city that could historically be free of the puritans’ choke hold. But the American invasion not only raises house prices; it brings us Jim Kelly and Kristin Palmer getting City Council to help them shut down strip clubs. It gets the neighborhood associations and whatever you call the dire tendency toward boring respectability to close down all the bars in Tremé, and try to kettle all the music into a few weekend bash zones. The Cultural Economy lives on, while creative culture leaves town.
That streak of pietism affects how we handle our relationship to the State. It makes us more vulnerable to the kind of mental tyranny the Constitution writers were trying to put behind them. That’s why they banned kings and state religion.
But there are always strange consequences. Separation of Church and State plus entrepreneurialism led to a wildly competitive market in religions, where any guy with a good voice and a black suit could open a church in a tent and if he was an inspiring preacher, could rise in a hierarchy or make millions in his own megachurch.
I wonder if the Constitution team anticipated our religion of the state, which has replaced the state religion. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are its holy texts, the flag its cross or crescent or star, the Star Spangled Banner its main hymn, Pledge Alliance the credo. It has positions, as religions do: sit, stand, kneel. The Sunday patriots have hand over heart, with a sentimental gaze. We say ‘First Amendment” like one candidate said “Second Corinthians.”
So Owen got me thinking: why don’t we have a free market in patriotism, too? Such a medieval orthodoxy – stand and sing with your hand just right, or else. Poor Gabby Douglas, shredded by the alt-media and social trip, for standing but not putting her hand right. And apparently not handling it so well. As a young gymnast not a seasoned, wealthy NFL guy, she doesn’t seem to have Kaepernick’s battle arsenal.
We could change up anthems. La Marseillaise is a really good one, best national anthem for wanting to pick up a gun and head for the battlefield that I know. The German one, Das Deutschlandslied, has a great pedigree as well – music by Franz Josef Haydn. It picked up a bad rep in the Nazi years, but Germany has been reinstated, and they win a lot of football.
Britain has been having an anthem conniption as well. Along with Brexit, the once-United Kingdom has been choking on undigested nationalisms. Britain is one country in international affairs, and has been since the Act of Union of 1707, but inside the country, engaged in its real passion – football – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are rabidly separate. So what do you play before the game? God Save the Queen is the official anthem. You can see here that the North London fans don’t manage much reverence for the Queen, but they do for Arsenal. I don’t think one of the players sitting down would even make the papers in this crowd. Or you might like the Sex Pistols politically incorrect version. I don’t know if Owen would let us get away with an American one of that here.
Still, it is tough for those national teams within the UK to run a good vicious rivalry under the same song, too monarchist for a lot of the fans at that. Members of Parliament and the tabloids got into it. Some proposed Jerusalem , a class act with lyrics by William Blake. Some preferred Land of Hope and Glory, With music by Edward Elgar, it’s a pretty class act, too; but like the others, I can’t see what it has to do with football.
For a rousing martial patriotic (or is it nationalistic?) emotion, the Foreign Legion marching song Le Boudin should be a contender. Sung at a pretty fast tempo contrasting with the Legion’s ominously slow marching pace, it all seems very menacing, especially with those black bayonets on the ends of their machine guns.
The Marine Hymn is a worthy rival, perhaps especially for halftime. Imagine that button popping on the last syllable of “to the shores of Tripoli.”
The most appropriate anthem might be Sixteen Tons: “Another day older and deeper in debt . . . I owe my soul to the company store.” Only problem, once that was like blues about a hard lot; now in parts of the country, it might be aspirational.
The dominant underlying or meta-political conflict visible for the last 35 years or so is the Sumo match between trans-national corporations and national governments. This is not an Alex Jones conspiracy theory. It is mainstream now, and as we have seen, Owen Courrèges approves mainstream. When Bernie Sanders talks about billionaires, corporations and bad trade deals, that is what he means: how can the transnational corporations be made to contribute to the countries and people they act in, not just pump money out of them? Trump talks about it sometimes, not in a coherent way – just a shiny thing he drops on the table with the other stuff to get the children excited. Popular economists Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich use it as background for explaining extreme inequality. It is the background mechanism of the income and wealth gap that has been widening noticeably for about the same amount of time. It is the mechanism that leads to the Hunger Games And Elysium in popular fiction.
It is where the big treaties come from, like TPP. It is now fashionable for candidates to say they are not going to sign it. Nativist nationalists like Trump and progressives alike can try to look all-American by opposing it, because they say it gives advantages to some other countries. I suggest this: these treaties are only secondarily about countries’ relationships with each other. They are peace treaties between the nation-states and the corporations on who gets what. Who gets what power over whom, and how do they divvy up the money. Toyota, Hyundai, Goldman Sachs, Chase, Google, Apple – the many resource and component suppliers, huge companies with names we don’t know, shipping, containers and airlines, international banks – they source parts from their own subsidiaries and others, who may be located anywhere, manufacture a subassembly or a finished product or supply services in several places that need to be transferred to other subsidiaries or departments which may be anywhere for selling to customers everywhere. National nit-picking is inefficient, in their way. A strong player, maybe a Bernie Sanders if he had won, might have the power to tell them, You want this? We want 400 new car and truck, airplane and tech factories in the US and Puerto Rico employing two million people, with contracted obligation to keep them running while your company lives. Yeah, at American wages you probably want a lot of them programming the robots instead of turning the socket wrench. That’s not a deal Trump would get. He would be fighting the wrong battle, and the transnational maestros would think, correctly, that he is a clown.
If you just put up tariff barriers and resist the movement of history, like Trump, the dope fronting the wreck of the Repubs, now says he is going to do, you just get left behind. They will wait for us to re-emerge from medievalism.
Even with the nativist backlashes and retro vision rising everywhere, the overriding trend is towards an increasingly global outlook. The Internet, increasingly the Blockchain technology (I am just learning what it is; borders won’t bother it) air travel, the explosion of trade-focused hotels, Asia becoming a dominant market as well as cheap labor pool, and also (have to shift a grammar gear here) it should be increasingly obvious that our intense focus on ISIS, Iraq and Syria, and relative ignorance of and low popular value put on Asia, South America and the rest of the world is either deception or distraction – check with your local conspiracy theorist for which word best applies.
So I say (and NOLAscape agrees with me) we need less national piety and more Sex Pistols. Less patriotic emotion and more critical thinking. Less of the hand-over-heart and more looking at what really happens in the lives of some citizens growing up in this country.
Let’s have a big round of applause for Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter, and Gabby Douglas. More choice and less solemnity in nationalistic ritual, and a lighter touch on anthems, because they are used as emotional propaganda-mail to fortify us against the other, and how to create new others.
It is a coincidence that I finished this article on an anniversary of 9/11. I guess some won’t like that. But if you haven’t, I suggest reading Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s article on Kaepernick’s gesture which he contrasts with Sam Jenkins’ gesture of ritual orthodoxy at the Olympics, and wisely says: both are patriotic.
© NOLAscape September 2016
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