The Point of Privilege

September 1, 2016 § 2 Comments

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem last weekend.  Asked to explain himself, Kaepernick said:

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…This is not something that I am going to run by anybody.  I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

It is moments like this where I very much do feel like a stranger in a strange land in the United States.  Where I come from, I have seen the ‘O Canada’ booed, cheered, ignored, and everything in between.  We do tend to stand for our anthem, some of us sing it, some of us sing in both official languages.  But not always.  But here, in the US, everyone is expected to stand, hand over heart, and belt out ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’

Critics have been all over Kaepernick like Von Miller.  They have said he’s grandstanding.  That he’s trying to attract attention to his failing career.  That he’s privileged.  That he is disrespecting veterans.  That his protest doesn’t count because he is biracial and was adopted by white people.  And so on on and so on.  Kaepernick is not the first black athlete to refuse to stand for the anthem.  Jackie Robinson refused, for much the same reason.  And, of course, so did Muhammad Ali.  And Kaepernick is only the latest African American professional athlete to comment on the plight of black people in this country, following Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James.  The most famous protest came from the WNBA, where a number of players, both black and white and including the entire Minnesota Lynx, wore Black Lives Matters t-shirts during warmups.

As for the criticism of Kaepernick, I can’t help but feel it rings hollow.  The First Amendment guarantees us the right to freedom of expression.  Critics say that Kaepernick lacks patriotism. But what’s the point of enforced patriotism?  Doesn’t that just make it hollow and knee-jerk?

The fact that Kaepernick is biracial and was adopted by white parents when he was a small child has not been lost on critics. Former NFL safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison claimed Kaepernick isn’t black.  I’ve seen worse on Twitter.  The argument here is that because of his upbringing, Kaepernick has no idea what it’s like to be black.  This is specious logic.  Of course he knows what it’s like to be black.  He’s long since figured out that due to his skin colour, he can never be white. He has had police pull guns on him and a friend in college when moving out of an apartment.  He has seen inequality in the world around him.

As for his declining career and the argument he is not Robinson or Ali.  Sure, no one is Robinson or Ali. But Kaepernick is still a former Pro Bowl QB, who carried his team to the Super Bowl.  Some argue that this makes it harder for the 49ers to cut him.  I doubt it. The NFL is a business and its mercenary.  The New York Giants’ kicker Josh Brown has acknowledged he beat his ex-wife, to the point where she called the police over 20 times for over 20 separate instances.  Think the Giants care? Of course not.  Teams have also cut players for supporting marriage equality and medicinal marijuana.  And even if the 49ers cut him, maybe they’ll get a bit of flack, but life will go on.  Levi Stadium is still sold out.  Fans will still buy 9ers gear.

As for his privilege: Of course he’s privileged.  That’s the whole point. Kaepernick has made something like $20 million in the NFL.  He’s a very recognisable player.  So he has a platform upon which to make a statement.  Privilege works in many different ways.   And the only way the world gets better is if those with privilege use it for good.  And Kaepernick is using his to point out American hypocrisy regarding African Americans.  Kaepernick refusing to stand for the anthem and then explaining his motivations clearly and patiently is a much bigger deal than the average punter refusing.  Kaepernick’s privilege here is what allows the statement.

And that, gentle reader, is how privilege should be used.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Stunning ‘Oops’ Moment

August 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

Malcolm Gladwell was on the BBC recently picking his Desert Island Discs.  For the most part, it’s hard to argue with Gladwell’s choices, given his age and his Canadianness.  I’m about a decade younger than him, and his choices look like the selections of someone’s cool older brother c. 1989, there’s BIlly Bragg, and Gillian Welch. Brian Eno’s there, so is Marvin Gaye.  Gaye actually appears twice, with Gladwell choosing the classic deep cut, ‘Piece of Clay.’  But he also picked Gaye’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, which was allegedly the reference point for Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 45-minute version on The Simpsons.  But, none of this really matters so much as Gladwell’s sheer, utter ignorance in introducing The Star Spangled Banner.

He claims that the American national anthem is an ‘insight into the heart of the American soul.’ Why?  Because ‘[t]hey’re blowing stuff up. This is their national anthem, it’s about rockets and bombs.’

Gladwell is referring to the first verse of the song:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched 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.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

See?  There’s the red glare of the rockets, bombs bursting in the air?  All that nasty stuff, this deep insight into “the heart of the American soul.”  Except.  Gladwell is so wrong it’s embarrassing.  The Star Spangled Banner is about the British attempting to level Baltimore the night of 13-14 September 1814 during the War of 1812.  The author of this song was a lawyer named Frances Scott Key, who was stuck on a British frigate that night, watching the British attempt to reduce Baltimore’s defences to rubble.  He was there because he had negotiated a prisoner swap with the British.  The next morning, he was shocked to see Old Glory in the ‘dawn’s early light.’  Somehow, Fort McHenry survived the night and the flag still flew.

Scott was so overcome with emotion, he wrote The Star Spangled Banner almost on the spot.  He set the lyrics to a common British drinking song that every American knew.  Understand the irony: The Star Spangled Banner arose from the War of 1812, when the enemy was the British.  It also had three more verses that, thankfully, have long since been forgotten.

There are many problems with The Star Spangled Banner.  The major one is that anthem singers in the United States think that they must stretch their vocal chords to the breaking point (or quite often beyond) in singing the song.  Interestingly, when the campaign to make the song the official American national anthem picked up steam in the era around the First World War (it finally happened in 1931), newspaper editors complained the song was ‘unsingable.’

But this is all beside the point of Gladwell’s stunning mis-step here, as he descends down into stupid, knee-jerk anti-Americanness.  He should know better.

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