Protests and Patriotism




One potential benefit to come out of the Kaepernick Affair might be an expansion of what constitutes patriotism in this country.

There’s no question that President Trump has twisted the target of Kaepernick’s silent, respectful protest about police brutality specifically and racism in general into an alleged disrespectful attack on the flag and on America’s fighting men and, by extension, on the sacred office of the Presidency.

There’s no question that culture warrior Trump has been able to do this because of the heady mix of professional sports, patriotism, and militarism. It is not by divine decree that the National Anthem be played at the start of a professional and amateur sporting events, or that the Blue Angels occasionally fly over stadiums in a demonstration of military might or that during the fifth inning transition a soldier home on furlough step out to be recognized by the crown. At its origin football was seen as a manly sport that served both as an antidote to a feminized culture and as a training ground for men who might go off and fight in the real wars that the football wars simulated. One need only look to the language of professional football that comes out of the military dictionary. But in an age of the volunteer army, high altitude drone attacks, and the outsourcing of quasi-military functions to private contractors, the connection is broken and yet the mythology endures. A recent revelation that the public relations branch of the Pentagon has paid professional sports teams to include a military tribute as part of the day at the ballpark schedule is an indication that the mythology needs propping up.

It’s difficult to imagine that sports team owners and league commissioners would choose to eliminate the National Anthem as part of the at times elaborate pre-game rituals. But one has to wonder at what other large assemblies of people do we hear the strains of the Francis Scott Key hymn to the bloody battle that birthed the nation.

Unfortunately then patriotism has been narrowly defined: the military man is the exemplar if not the only visible example of patriotism and heroism. For every first responder who gets recognition at a sporting event there are hundreds of military men and women who do so. If you volunteer for Teach for America or if you operate an inner city shelter you are disqualified from being classified as a patriot and you will never be recognized at half-time. In the congressional gallery at a State of the Union address perhaps. And if you appear to be protesting the flag and all that it nebulous stands for, even if you are only calling attention to legitimate cases of police brutality, you are labelled unpatriotic.

A great deal of perspective on this present crisis (one is tempted to call it a Trump-manufactured crisis) is given to us by the magnificent Ken Burns Viet Nam war documentary currently running on public television.

The 18 hour documentary reminds us that our nation was terribly divided at that time over the prosecution of the war. It doesn’t take too much of a historical imagination to see that the current cultural disputes over patriotism are rooted in the class room debates, street level protests, and newspaper editorials of the late 1960s.

The protests about the war were both large and over something significant. By 1970 more than 40,000 Americans had died in Viet Nam and ten times as many Vietnamese soldiers and civilians had perished. In early 1970 the revelations of the My Lai massacre were revealed by reporter Seymour Hersh. The opposition to the war, initiated by the sober assessment of respected newsman Walter Cronkite and by the gruesome tv and newspaper pictures of battlefield casualties, stiffened. The fall Peace moratoriums of 1969 brought out millions of people into the streets. The Women’s March and the Science March early in the Trump presidency seem small scale by comparison and without as much staying power.

Burns and his collaborator Lynn Novick provide a close look at President Nixon’s management of the war that he had inherited from the two previous administrations. Nixon ran on the promise that he would end the war, yet it would take 7 more years before the last American left Viet Nam. More than one-quarter of US casualties occurred during the Nixon years. The documentary drives home a relatively new revelation: that Nixon hungry for his political rehabilitation through election scuttled peace talks by telling the Vietnamese President to not go to the negotiating table because he rather than Hubert Humphrey, his Democratic rival, would be able to get him a better deal. Does such conduct foreshadow Trump’s sacrificing human lives for political gain?

Nixon, a professional politician for more than 25 years before 1968, was a far more clever and politically savvy politician than Trump is. His institution of draft lottery in 1969, a move that mollified an opposition concerned about the over-representation of the poor in the ranks of the military, is regarded as an astute political move made by a skilled politician long practiced at the manipulation of popular opinion.

A more telling decision was the address that he gave to the American public on November 3, 1969, one year after his election. The speech proclaimed that he wanted an honorable peace and was working toward that end. What he did not reveal was that he had accelerated the war by authorizing bombing campaigns on Vietnamese redoubts in Cambodia, a violation of that nation’s sovereignty. But the speech also served as an opportunity to remind the listeners that he ran  and was elected as a law and order candidate, one who believed that he could address the concerns of the silent majority shaken by assassinations, campus protests and bombings, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the emergence of militant feminists.

The silent majority is the rough equivalent to Trump’s base, an amorphous collection of individuals perplexed by social change, outraged by the antics of the Baby Boomer counter-culture, disillusioned by a permissive and ineffective government, and feeling the loss of economic power. Nixon was able to coalesce “real Americans” — truck drivers, construction workers, factory workers, farmers, cops – disturbed less by the pictures of murders on the streets of Saigon than by the images of topless, hedonistic hippies on the streets of San Francisco and flag desecraters on the streets of the nation’s capital. Nixon, like Trump, redefined patriotism by excluding from its ranks any of the protestors and their supporters among the liberal elites, including members of the press disparagingly labeled by VP Spiro Agnew as “the nattering nabobs of negativism.” In this in-nuanced, binary world view, protestors, most of whom had no animus against the fighting man only against the cruel war that they were engaged in, were tarred with the same un-American brush as the Weathermen and other anarchist groups, the predecessors of today’s much smaller antifa groups. Nixon defined the protestors as ungrateful citizens in the greatest country on earth, citizens unnecessarily distrustful of the government. In his latest crusade, the misguided Trump has a narrower target: millionaire football players who have the audacity to step out of their lanes to offer a political opinion.

Nixon’s base, fr larger than Trump’s, re-elected him in 1972 despite his inability to deliver on his promise to end the war and blind, as almost all citizens were, to their paranoid president’s efforts to get dirt on those on his enemies list and to plug leaks to information unflattering to his administration.

The Burns documentary understandably devotes considerable attention to the tragic spring 1970 killings at Kent State, an event that “brought the war home.”  A poll of public opinion in the aftermath of the event revealed the mindset of the silent minority: 51% of the respondents thought the victims got what they deserved and that the National Guard was justified in its actions. It’s hard to imagine the same level of support were an NFL owner to fire a running back who expresses an unpopular political opinion.

Perhaps we should be grateful that the pool of people tolerant of peaceful protests about legitimate social problems has grown over time. Perhaps we should be grateful that Trump has chosen as objects of his derision individuals more popular than he is. Perhaps we should be grateful that the Tweeter-in- Chief, far more interested in culture wars that in tax policy or the details of health insurance, has picked the wrong culture war battleground to fight on. Any silver lining we can find in this dark cloud.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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