Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Distraction, Diversion and Political Optics

     (Kudos to Sandy Gotttstein, Alaska's gift to the world, for contributing to this piece in more ways than she will ever know . . . )

            John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics

            John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics

By now, , after more than 16 months of  off-the-wall Trumpian weltanschauung, it is clear that whenever the President begins flying too close to the flame of political immolation, he unveils a diversionary issue bound to keep his base both delighted and in thrall.  Most recently, as the Mueller investigation continues picking up Republican support;  the administration continues forcibly taking migrant children from their parents and placing them in separate detention centers, to “deter” illegal immigration; and the world waits and watches as '45 keeps flip-flopping on tariffs and that summit with Kim Jong-un,  what does he do?  He turns up the heat on the various  National Football League (NFL) players who have been refusing to stand for the National Anthem prior to kick-off.  Now mind you, this isn't an issue that just began; it's been around the sports world for more than half-a-century.  Many will remember the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico when African-American 200 meter medalists Tommy Smith and John Carlos both raised a black-gloved "human rights salute" during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.  The two received their medals from David Cecil (the 6th Marquess of Exeter) shoeless but wearing black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, while Carlos had his tracksuit unzipped to show solidarity with blue-collar workers. (n.b. Smith went on to a brief three-year career in the NFL before becoming a longtime professor of sociology at Santa Monica College; Carlos, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles but never played due to a severe knee injury, became a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School. In 2008, the two were honored with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards.)

Fast forward nearly a half-century, and we find San Francisco Forty-Niner quarterback Colin Kaepernik first sitting on the ground (3rd pre-season game) then from the 4th pre-season game onward, taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem.  When queried by the national media, he explained "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder", he said, referencing a series of events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and adding that he would continue to protest until he felt like "[the American flag] represents what it's supposed to represent."  As in the case of Smith and Carlos in 1968, few people paid attention to what Kaepernik's underlying motives were in carrying out his protest; of what he was truly saying. Most simply attacked him for being unpatriotic, for desecrating the memory of all those who fought and died for our freedoms, and for showing utter disregard for the flag and all that it has long stood for.  And, as with Smith and Carlos, Kaepernik's professional sports career has all but ended because of his protest.  

By continually attacking those NFL players who have been kneeling during the National Anthem, '45 has accomplished several things:

  1. Getting the NFL to set a policy which mandates that those players who do not stand during the singing of the National Anthem will remain in their respective locker rooms until the anthem has been completed . . . and that any player who does not obey this mandate will be fined;
  2. Shifted the political optics away from such issues as Mueller, children of immigrants, tariffs and North Korea towards a group of largely minority millionaire gladiators;
  3. Set up a potential issue for the 2018 midterm elections (e,g., "Yes or no: are you for or against the flag and all it stands for?" a question whose complexity demands far more than a monosyllabic response.)
  4. Shown that the POTUS - like an awful lot of Americans - haven't got the slightest idea about the background, history or meaning of the Star Spangled Banner, nor what the law has to say about it or the flag it represents.

While most Americans know that the words of the Star Spangled Banner were written by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), few know that he served as the decidedly pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist United States Attorney for the District of Columbia for nearly a decade. Nor do many know that his poem,  written in 1814 and set to the tune of a popular British song called To Anacreon in Heaven, consists of four stanzas and did not officially become our National Anthem until 1931.  It contains some decidedly racist lyrics: in the 3rd stanza, as but one example, we read No refuge could save the hirling and slave/from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave /And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.  When Key wrote these words on the back of a letter 204 years ago, the "land of the free" definitely did not include African Americans or non-citizens.  When I was in grade school (during the height of McCarthyism) our teacher, Miss Collette, had us sing all four stanzas every day at the beginning of class:


For those who do not have access to audio or video, here are the four stanzas:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner—O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


I personally challenge the president and any member of his Cabinet (or Congress) to sing any (if not all) of these stanzas correctly.  And as for the president's suggestion that those football players who do not stay out on the field of play and sing our National Anthem should be be deported, this flies in the face of a 75-year old decision by the United States Supreme Court: West Virginia State Board of Education v. BarnetteWhile this decision specifically dealt with the illegality of forcing school children to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Justice Robert Jackson noted for all time that ". . . we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."  Some will argue that the court's decision only applies to public places like class rooms, court rooms and city hall chambers - not to privately-owned spaces.  Maybe yes, maybe no.  But do keep in mind that a large percentage of professional sports' stadia (and the land upon which they have been erected) have been underwritten with public tax dollars which, by definition, makes the West Virginia State ruling apply to them as well.  What legal strategy is '45 and his Justice Department going to use to deport American citizens?  Where is he going to send them?  Guantanamo?  Back to Africa?  To Neptune or Mars?

At least one NFL team co-owner - the Jets' Christopher Johnson - has gone on record as saying that while his personal preference was for his players to stand on the field during the singing of the National Anthem, that fines related to national anthem protests “will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. . . .I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players,” he said. “There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”  One wonders how long it will take for the next NFL owner to break with both the POTUS and league commissioner Roger Goodell, who is paid in excess of $35 million a year plus the lifetime use of a jet.  After all, this is a world in which billionaires abound, making unfathomable sums through the gladiatorial efforts of the multimillionaires they employ.  That even one should show independence is a good sign . . .

So let the POTUS try to divert our attention from issues that truly matter with political optics that are as disturbing as anything ever created by Edvard Munch.  We shall neither be deceived, diverted nor distracted, for we are, when all is said and done, "The land of the free and the home of the brave."

494 days down, 978 days to go.

Copyright2018 Kurt F. Stone