Monday, October 9, 2017

Who Gets to Narrate the United States? 
The NFL protest runs a lot deeper than you think

If you peel back the many layers of controversy which surround the NFL’s national anthem protest, you will find two very different versions of the United States.*  They are reflected, to a large degree, by the political divide between Left and Right. 

A Nation of White Oppressors

NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who started the protest movement in 2016, 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."  Kaepernick’s view of the U.S. as a nation of white oppressors dominates American universities.  It has made its way into many public schools as well. 

The intellectual champion of this perspective is Howard Zinn (d. 2010), author of the celebrated and controversial text, A People's History of the United States.  Zinn takes a dark, cynical view of the U.S. and its history.  He weaves a historical narrative of unrelenting greed, exploitation, oppression, racism, social theft, and even genocide, all committed by white Europeans and American capitalists against people of color.  According to Zinn, the Founding Fathers campaigned for war to distract the people from their own economic problems and arrest popular movements.  This strategy, he claims would continue to be used in the future by the country's leaders
Modern progress towards equality is largely an illusion in Zinn’s view.  Fifty years of civil rights legislation, affirmative action programs, school busing, and even the election of a black president to two terms, have done little to change the sinister character of our society.  We are still, as Colin Kaepernick affirms, a nation of white oppressors. 

Many people are, for good reason, offended by Kaepernick’s view, and the refusal of NFL players to stand for the national anthem as a show of respect (I grant that some players may not be protesting for the same reason).  White Americans who have made earnest efforts to bring about a just society, and consider themselves tolerant and enlightened citizens, are broad brushed as willing accomplices in racial oppression.  This slur barely rises above ‘white shaming’ which equates skin color with oppression.
A Nation of Liberators

Arrayed against this perspective is a more optimistic view of the U.S. and its history rooted in the founding principles and our nation’s ability to overcome the limitations of the past.  I am not referring here to the naïve triumphalism that has characterized some historical narratives in the past.  That narrative is all but dead.  Rather, it is possible to celebrate the principles which make us a great nation while taking a sober view of history that acknowledges past oppressions.   

Integral to this optimistic view is the belief that America possesses the civil and moral virtue necessary to redress past transgressions and overcome the limitations of bigotry and intolerance.  Just as we eliminated slavery and institutional racism, we will eventually overcome the limitations that bind us in the present.  America is not a nation of oppressors, but liberators.  
The Myth Lives On 

Which view is correct?  Zinn’s history, though popular, is regarded by many historians as an overly biased and simplistic version of America’s past.  He is not above stretching some facts and ignoring others in order to squeeze history into the Procrustean bed of his narrative.  His view of history only succeeds by adopting a myopic view of the U.S. and its past. 

Moreover, it is necessary to ask: If America is a nation of white oppressors, why do millions of non-white immigrants from across the globe continue to frequent our shores?  Why are students from India and Asia the top performers in many of our schools?  Why are there so many black athletes in professional sports?  Etc.
Though Zinn has passed off the scene, his narrative lives on in the Colin Kaepernicks of the world who continue to perpetuate the dishonest and divisive myth of ‘America the white oppressor.’

* This is not, and never has been, a disagreement over free speech.  No one, to my knowledge, is calling for the government to censure the kneelers.   And since employers have the legal right to set codes of speech and conduct in the workplace, employees who violate those codes are not protected by the First Amendment as case law has shown.