In his response to his friend Fredric Jameson’s essay “American Utopia,” Slavoj Žižek makes a case for what is all too often lost in the uproar and turmoil caused by a historical event. What is forgotten, Žižek argues, are those “seeds of the imagination” that first created the conditions that made the event possible; the “seeds of the imagination” are overwhelmed by the event and, without the deliberate act of retrieval, lost to history. Žižek has no timetable, but one suspects that he has a longer view in mind than Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee on the 1 September, 2016. It was in a National Football League (NFL) game for the San Francisco 49ers against the-then San Diego Chargers.
Still, there is a resonance about Žižek’s concept in a moment when there is large-scale support for the decision by NFL players, coaches, owners and an assortment of commentators in response to Donald Trump’s condemnation of the “SOB” players who, following Kaepernick’s example, have kept up the tradition of taking a knee. The bi-racial Kaepernick, adopted by a white family in Wisconsin, took his decision because of police violence and mistreatment of other minorities in the United States. This was not a nation, Kaepernick declared, whose flag or anthem he could honour, this was not a nation to which he could pledge allegiance. Kaepernick was, in this regard, following Jackie Robinson, who had, decades earlier, taken the same stand. As, Robinson said, a “black man” signified very differently to him than it did to white Americans. Unlike Robinson, who made this statement after his career had ended, Kaepernick has paid, like Muhammad Ali, a professional price. Since the end of last season, in a league full of mediocre quarterbacks (and even worse backups), Kaepernick has been out of a job.
However, what Kaepernick brought to the fore was politics. The politics of race, police brutality and the unequal treatment of minorities. In the aftermath of the Huntsville rally where Trump criticised the “sons of bitches” footballers for taking the knee, in this weekend’s NFL games, there was an outpouring of condemnation.
Players, from the usually reliable (Seattle Seahawks’s Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett; Marshawn Lynch, once of Seattle, now of the Oakland Raiders; and so on) to the unexpected (Tom Brady, [New England] Patriot in more senses than one, a Trump supporter to boot; the Dallas Cowboys, albeit taking a knee before the national anthem); coaches, from the admirable (Pete Carroll, Seahawks) to the shocking (Rex Ryan, for whom Huntsville was a Damascus experience); owners, well, other than the Steelers’ Rooney family everyone was a surprise. Shahid Kahn (Jaguars), the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft (like his quarterback Brady a Trump man), Jerry Jones (who participated in the premature knee-taking) to the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles . . . It would seems that the New York Jets’ Woody Johnson, a rather fervent Trump underwriter, is out in the cold by himself. It promises to be a lonely place for Woody. But at least he’ll have the company of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Pittsburgh Penguins, who only represent the whitest sport in America. He’ll have to do without the likes of National Basketball Association (NBA) superstars Lebron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Steph Curry (Golden State Warriors), who want no part of Trump and his White House. Then there’s Robin Lopez of the Chicago Bulls, whose tweet suggests that he expects Trump to be indicted.
What has been lost sight of, in the nigh universal locking-of-arms, taking-of-knees, and expressions of public outrage by commentators from the normally ebullient Chris Collinsworth to the articulate Bob Costas, from the savvy of CNN’s Bakari Sellers to the erudition of MSNBC’s Brian Williams, is how the entire conversation is being overwhelmed by the discourse of respectability, responsibility and, of course, patriotism. The case has made based entirely on the players’ First Amendment right: the right to free speech; their right to protest animated, of course, by the anger fuelled by Trump’s incendiary call to “fire” the “SOBs”.
The players, almost every commentator announces, are patriotic. They have “great respect” for the American flag. Under no circumstances must their protest be understood as a slap in the face of the military. The players are apparently united in their respect for the nation’s armed services, for the police force and all other state institutions whose members work to keep the country safe.
Whatever happened to the “seeds” of Kaepernick’s “imagination?” Have we already forgotten that Kaepernick, like Ali once did (before his conservatism got the better of him), like Robinson and John Carlos and Tommie Smith, understood, correctly, that the problem is precisely the American nation as it is constituted. To be sure, both Carroll and Costas gave voice to this. And, each in their own way, began from the political premise that racism and institutionalised inequality are ingrained in the nation’s fabric; discrimination of African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities is the very stuff of America – you know, like apple pie.
What is more, the dominant line of defence has been, the NFL players “care” about their “communities” and work very hard to contribute to it. These “communities” are never specified, but one presumes that it has to do with kids, and, almost certainly, with kids in under-resourced neighbourhoods.
But . . . But . . . None of this matters. None of it.
In fact, the only way in which the First Amendment means anything, has any political purchase, is if it begins from the ground that the players, like every other resident of this country, have rights that are in no way contingent. That is, they are free do as they choose – protest, take a knee, stand with their hand over their heart, raise a clenched first – regardless of whether they are “responsible” citizens given to doing good deeds in their assorted “communities.”
What the discourse of “caring” achieves is to imbricate, relentlessly and repeatedly, the players’ right to protest, their right to give voice to their anger, whether it be against police brutality or against Trump’s racist bullhorn (very much in the spirit of Alabama’s own “Bull” Connor), in the discourse of respectability. Because the players, and the NFL, by extension, are responsible stewards of their “communities,” they are then implicitly immunized against the charge of disloyalty to the nation. Their commitment to their “communities” is the surest sign of their investment in America and its values; because they have “great respect” for cops and “deeply appreciate the sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform” the act of taking a knee on a Sunday afternoon must not be mistaken for a lack of “patriotism.”
Why ever not? Isn’t the very fundament of the rights enshrined in the First Amendment precisely the right to offend? To give offense, again and again? To disrespect the flag, turn your back on the singing of the national anthem or to pour scorn upon American “values?”
In the rush to support or defend the players’ right to protest, what that right means has been reduced to a publicity relations campaign overwhelmed by the discourses of respectability and responsibility. The logic of this defence proceeds from the ground that the players are “worthy” of their rights; they are “upstanding members” of their “communities” who care — a point with which I am fully sympathetic — about disproportionate police brutality against blacks and the structural inequality that remains a persistent feature of American life.
It does not matter if they are “upstanding” citizens or not. (No one makes the same demands of the owners, those who, like Johnson and Jones and Kraft, remained silent when Trump berated Mexicans as “murderers and rapists,” or advocated predatory sexual behaviour against women, or mocked a specially-abled reporter or . . .). The right to the First Amendment, if it is to have any political salience, must be apprehended as unconditional, something like sovereign. The moment in which support for the players is made to rest upon their socio-political “worthiness,” the discourse of respectability and responsibility veers unthinkingly into political paternalism. Only the “worthy” can give voice to their frustration or anger. Girding this argument is an unreflective and, within the context of the US, historic racism.
Respectability and responsibility (the NFL has its share of miscreants and unsavoury characters, from Lawrence Taylor to Ray Rice to . . .) is installed as the litmus test. There must be no contingency, no dependency upon others burnishing the players’ grievance and anger with their, to mix metaphors, their seal of ethical approval.
There is no need for the players to “nuance” (a term Costas favoured on Monday as he made his way on the talk show circuit) their protest. In fact, they have every right to make, if they so wish, public their disdain for the military or, contrary to what the Steelers so spectacularly failed to do, call one another out, team mate to team mate. Why should one team mate not be divided from another on matters of politics? Why should a league of which, at least, some 70% are black men, not let the mainly white crowds know that they disapprove, in the strongest possible terms, of their – the crowds, as was shown on Sunday and Monday evening – voting tendencies? Why ever not? Why not reiterate the division between black performance (labour, albeit a labour of love, as it is for many) and white consumption? In a moment of historic racial division, it can be argued that the first right is that of enunciating racial difference and the continuing deleterious effect of American racism. From police brutality to the failing Chicago Public School system (ask Chance the Rapper about that) to the intense racial animus that Trump has traded on.
It may very well not, this insistence on the right to unfettered right, to the absolute right to express that right, be the most efficient PR strategy. But, then again, there has never been a protest movement that began by first seeking approval. Or, allowed the fear of sanction to immobilise it. The Montgomery bus boycott, the March to Selma, Ali’s willingness to sacrifice his career because, as he said when he refused induction into the US Army, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, they never called me Nigger,” owes much to its willingness to offend, to take issue, publicly, with the status quo.
Because of the rush to respectability, because of the visceral impulse to submit to the discourse of patriotism (the first refuge of scoundrels, as I’ve argued elsewhere), Kaepernick’s gift is in danger of being trampled upon. It might serve the NFL players better if they resisted the urge to clothe themselves in the cloak of respectability, if they eschewed the trappings of responsibility.
If, instead, they embraced fully the “seeds” of Kaepernick’s “imagination.” Kaepernick sowed, through his willingness to articulate the politics that informed his act of kneeling, in his stated opposition to the racism that has repeatedly allowed police officers who have ended the lives of black citizens (a point Sellers made on CNN) to be summarily ended without any palpable justice, a seed uncompromised by the desire for respectability. Kaepernick acted as a political “bad boy.”
If that “seed” is lost, if his “imagination” is not properly understood and honoured, if the “seed of his imagination” does not grow into a politics rather than a placatory course of action, then, as Žižek reminds us, there will have been, no matter the amount of ink spilled on this issue, no matter the hours spent trolling the internet or sitting glued to the TV/computer screen offer their opinions on it, fidelity to Kaepernick’s “seed,” to the possibilities a now unemployed quarterback opened up when he first took that knee, in that game more than a year ago against the Chargers.
The only proper way to honour Kaepernick is to recognise the promise of the political “seed” he germinated and then to exceed it. As the Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett senior put it, his NFL-playing sons, Michael and Martellus (tight end for the Green Bay Packers), will continue to protest. Out of one “seed,” potentially another. And so on, and so on. The Seahawks defensive end appears ready to add the force of his political “imagination” to the “seed” Kaepernick planted in San Diego. Who said that defensive ends are the scourge of quarterbacks? Not in this case, one dares hope.
Main Photograph: To suggest that the American flag and anthem do not represent the systematic racism and brutality of the United States is to couch Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee in an NFL match on the 1 September, 2016 with a respectability that limits the growth of the “seeds of his imagination” — Pixabay