Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
There’s a saying that goes, “There are two things you never discuss at the dinner table: religion and politics."
It seems that this metaphor has been applied very loosely to the entire American cultural canvas. Its relevance is being determined by whose "dinner table" the issue is being presented at. And it is more than just politics and religion that are now on the blacklist and being ignored, it is race as well.
The last few years have been tumultuous with politics and race issues being drilled into our heads at every corner of society that we live in, yet those corners seemed controllable. Compartmentalization is a key component of many civilizations and Americans are among the best at it. But between the recent NFL kneeling protests and now the blunt reaction from Lt. Gen Jay Silveria of the USAF regarding slurs at the USAF academy, it no longer feels controllable.
In fact, it feels that it’s starting to slip out of control. It is very human to want an escape from the stress of American life and lines seem to be being drawn everywhere: liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, Republican vs. Republican, elite vs. average citizen, Hollywood vs. audience. What the two recent examples did was effectively start to erode away the barrier we had put up between ourselves and those issues, but that isn’t as new a thing as many of us make it out to be.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
Particularly with the NFL protest, the main issue has been when it is proper to express your political views and when to do your job, as well as what is disrespecting the nation. Many NFL fans are deeply upset because they feel the protests were out of place. Yet something very similar took place during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Two Black American athletes, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos raised their fists up in the black power salute during an award ceremony. The reaction was strong and negative, with the two becoming pariahs to the sports community for similar reasons that the NFL is being judged now. However the move also showed the growing discontent the Black community felt about their treatment by their own nation that they were representing, as well the reality of the struggles going on during the chaotic era of the 1960s.
The Olympics were meant to be seen as a few days where the world could live out the dream of world peace before reality crashed back in. But the black power salute fractured that image because the Black Americans who had been suffering underneath the venire of that dream were now demanding their voices be heard. Not ignored or drowned out by weekly sports, while they were still expected to show fealty to the nation that was responsible for their injustice. Minority communities never had that luxury.
A Certain Point of View
There is another factor at play in this as well and that is our own particular sensibilities and how that may skew our perceptions of our rights. If you were to ask any red-blooded American if the American Revolution was justified the way it was fought, you overwhelmingly are going to get a ‘yes’. Not negotiating with a power that showed no interest in negotiating. The same might be said for the Civil War too. And I think most people protesting the NFL players’ actions would say that the civil rights movement was justified in their peaceful protests. Most Americans would not think like to think of themselves as racists.
The thing is that the argument of protesting on your own time or not during the national anthem, takes away the point of the protest. If people are protesting, about anything, it’s because they feel their voices are not being heard. How does protesting on your day off or weekend send a message to your society and government about how strongly you feel your issue is? That doesn’t automatically mean being un-American.
Rather it comes off as more of a trivial convenience than a right worth sacrificing for. The people who are telling the players they shouldn’t be making such statements about the nation or politics during games, may want to ask themselves if the lifestyles they are living match the lifestyles of other communities they are protesting for. They may find that what is appropriate and not appropriate is not the same as theirs, and if it was, would they then do the same or still hold their views?
The protests from fifty years ago were designed to disrupt our comfortable lifestyles because those lifestyles were hiding a dark truth, even if unintentionally. And that is what the protests are about now. It would be easy to paint these players as communists or the usual anti-American rhetoric that we fall back on automatically during times like these. But it’s that very spirit and actions that have created the country and lifestyle they now enjoy. People raising their voice, or raising arms, or raising fists to bring to light problems that fellow citizens are experiencing.
"The simple reality is that we fall back not on the motto of “love it or leave it”, but “better you than me."'
The Boogie Man
The other factor that may be at work is the specter of the Counter Culture era returning. The 1960s was defined as ten years of social chaos from multiple angles. Whether it was the Vietnam War and the draft, Counter-Culture’s declared war on American institutions or Non-white minorities and their allies throwing proverbial rocks at the American apple pie image, no aspect of American life was safe.
This all came to a head during the democratic convention in Chicago, where a small but loud and radical branch of the Counter Culture movement clashed in the streets with authorities. Though the changes they sparked never stopped after the decade had passed, it may have instilled a deep fear of that kind of chaos returning. Humans by nature are creatures of comfort and status quo. We get into a pattern, form our lives around it, and stay there as long as permitted.
For that safe foundation to be fractured or worse, broken, is a nightmare of almost biblical proportions: even if the reasons are just. The simple reality is that we fall back not on the motto of “love it or leave it”, but “better you than me”. Seriously, a person needs the conviction of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Malala to be so sacrificial as to put their own lifestyle on the line for a greater good.
Sports are one of those safe places. No: not even safe places, but sacred places that Americans have to escape these fears and everyday stresses. When those pressures then threaten to overwhelm even that, then yeah, people will start to freak the fuck out! We don’t want others’ realities crashing in on our own.
Lt. Gen Silveria said it best during his speech that we would be naive not to think about the race issues of our times right now. The reality for all sides is that the treatment of others is the backdrop of our society. Is it the same as almost sixty years ago? No, it is not. But it is just as important. From Obama to Trump and everything else going on, the nation is changing and history is dragging us along kicking and screaming all the way. If we really want stability back, want to live at peace, then we need to start listening to each other. Because neither side is willing to sit back and be ignored. We need to embrace the other and not just view their circumstances and lives through our own lenses.
My dad is a twenty-year USAF vet and served during the Vietnam War. When I asked him what he made of the speech and the state of things, one of the things he said was that people will feel the way that they feel and you can only do what you can with those in front of you. But that also a standard must be set and the way to change how people feel is by encountering other people who are different and seeing that difference for ourselves.