Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2017

Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem

Filed under: jingoism,sports,war — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

As someone who listens to a lot of sports talk radio, I have been struck by the steady drumbeat of all the white callers who make the same point, as if they were almost reading from a script. It goes something like this:

I understand that football players have free speech but when they are on the job, they have no right to go against their employer. It would be okay with me if Colin Kaepernick had called a press conference to speak about Black Lives Matter or anything else but when he is on company time, he had no right to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is what kind of job requires you to sing the national anthem when the workday starts. People working for Walmart are expected to stock shelves, not stand at attention and sing the Star Spangled Banner so why would someone being paid to throw a football or hit a baseball go through a patriotic ritual before they begin working?

On March 12, 1996, Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (neé Chris Jackson) refused to stand for the national anthem with his teammates. As a convert to Islam, this was counter to his religious beliefs. Additionally, he stated that the flag was a symbol of oppression. He was suspended by the NBA for one game but after a compromise worked out with the league, he agreed to stand but would also be permitted to recite a Muslim prayer instead of singing Francis Scott Key’s harmonically tortuous song that included a verse that condemned slaves fighting for the British in exchange for their freedom.

Unlike the NBA, the NFL has no rules about standing for the national anthem, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement does not mention it as well.

The roots of singing the anthem before sporting events go back to the 1918 World Series when WWI jingoism ruled. This was the same year that Debs made a speech denouncing American participation in World War I, which led to his conviction under the Sedition Act of 1918 and a 10 year prison term. The September 6, 1918 NY Times was clear about the nationalist impulse behind the singing of the anthem, which actually occurred during the 7th inning stretch rather than before the game started:

Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world’s series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch. As the crowd of 10,274 spectators—the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years—stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of ” The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The yawn was checked and heads were .bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U. S. Navy was at attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the vary end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.

The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw when he conquered Hippo Jim Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0. The cheers for America’s stirring song were greater even than the demonstration offered Vaughn when he twice made the mighty Ruth whiff the air.

Nowadays, baseball owners are not content to have such a display before the game begins. During the seventh-inning stretch, the crowd is expected to sing “God Bless America” on various holidays like Fourth of July. Like 1918, it was an outburst of jingoism following September 11, 2001 that led to it being included as part of the nationalist drumbeat in baseball stadiums. It is only in Yankee Stadium and the Atlanta Braves stadium where “God Bless America” is sung at every game during the seventh-inning stretch.

Also like the “Star Spangled Banner” first being played in 1918, “God Bless America” was composed by Irving Berlin that same year as a way of rousing public opinion in favor of fighting in the trench wars “over there”. The USA suffered 116,708 casualties in WWI, which was 0.13% of the population. That’s a considerable figure considering the fact that the USA only entered the war on April 6, 1917. By comparison, American casualties totaled 58,209 in the Vietnam War, which was 0.0003% of the population.

Most of you are probably familiar with how the song usually starts: “God bless America, land that I love” but the lyrics that precede it will give you a better sense of Berlin’s intentions:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

Woody Guthrie hated the song, which was sung ceaselessly on the radio in the 1930s by Kate Smith. He decided to write “This Land is Your Land” as a way of answering Irving Berlin’s pro-war lyrics.

Norman Lear, who just turned down an invitation to be honored at the Kennedy Center because of his disgust with Donald Trump, created “All in the Family” in the early 70s as a way of protesting the Vietnam War and racism. Archie Bunker was the head of the family and about as ignorant and backward as Trump. His son Michael Stivic was a stand-in for people like me, although he never expressed anything remotely sounding like Trotskyism on the show. This argument between Archie and Michael was repeated a million times across America over dinner tables and sounds very much like the reaction to Colin Kaepernick:


  1. This real-life event includes my favorite rendition of the Star Spangled Banner as sung by Borat 😉

    Comment by Jeff — August 9, 2017 @ 11:11 pm

  2. Actually Wal-Mart workers are expected to participate in a “Wal-Mart Cheer” that, among other things, involves the wiggling of the backside.

    Comment by Adam Minsky — August 10, 2017 @ 12:14 am

  3. If Colin Kaepernick had been required to do a San Francisco 49er’s cheer before each game, I doubt he would have ever made a stink.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 10, 2017 @ 12:44 am

  4. US population 1918/1919: ~105M
    WWI dead: 116,708

    US population 1975: ~219M
    Vietnam dead: 52,209

    Colin Kaepernick is the only part of American Football that I like. The French have the only good national anthem.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — August 10, 2017 @ 2:40 am

  5. […] Louis Proyect […]

    Pingback by August 10th – International News Round-Up (Part I) – The Pareto Particle — August 10, 2017 @ 6:10 am

  6. As you may or may not know, “All in the Family” was based on the British show “Till Death Do Us Part.” The character of Mike Rawlins was overtly socialist. (What do you think of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner?)

    Comment by Poppa Zao — August 10, 2017 @ 9:52 am

  7. My job required me to attend a baseball game recently. Some corporate joyboy forced everyone to stand up grinning and sing “Take me out to the ball game.” This was much worse than the national anthem. There is no “I” in “team,” comrades!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 10, 2017 @ 11:03 am

  8. Mr. Proyect you certainly aren’t saying that it is more onerous to expect multi millionaire athletes to stand for the national anthem than it is to require minimum wage workers to enthusiastically cheer the very corporation that provides them with low wages, paltry benefits, and the near certainty of termination should they attempt to organize.

    Mr. Kalosar, be advised that there is a “me” in team. Just saying.

    Comment by Adam Minsky — August 10, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

  9. Working for Walmarts is oppressive on all levels. My point is that Kaepernick was protesting the flag and the national anthem, not being forced to follow the owner’s orders.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 10, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

  10. “I understand that football players have free speech but when they are on the job, they have no right to go against their employer. It would be okay with me if Colin Kaepernick had called a press conference to speak about Black Lives Matter or anything else but when he is on company time, he had no right to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.”

    Drumbeat is an understatement. I heard it last weekend on CBS Sports Radio. Yet another example of how whites are never happy with how African Americans decide to politically express themselves. If you are violent, you should be non-violent. If you engage in direct action, it’s wrong to inconvenience people. If you speak out, you are belligerent and offensive. If you protest silently like Kaepernick, you should have called a press conference.

    Of course, if Kaepernick had done so, the same people would have said that he was creating a distraction to the detriment of his team. He should have kept his mouth shut until the off season. If he had done that, they would have said that the team should release him before the regular season starts.

    It is the same thing that anti-Zionists face.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 11, 2017 @ 1:54 am

  11. By the way, Kaepernick’s background is interesting. He was the classic scholar-athlete in high school, getting good grades while breaking many school records. He is from Tulare County, or somewhere nearby, in the Central Valley, a socially conservative region. He was the smart jock that people in the community talk about for decades as an example to follow.

    So, it is quite remarkable that he has done this. The shock waves must still be reverberating through the school and surrounding community.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 11, 2017 @ 1:58 am

  12. Minsky: Write on the black board 100 times:

    ‘eam’ ne ‘me’

    We have enough backwardness in this country already.

    The hidden “me” is merely lurking like a communist to emerge and ruin everything.

    If you are smart enough to do anagrams, you are a danger to white America and something will have to be done about you.

    Joshing aside, I don’t think Louis, by supporting Kaepernik, is somehow attacking the working class. There’s a basic logical fallacy there. I say “a”. You reply, “You can’t say that! You haven’t mentioned ‘b’.” Non sequitur. If someone says “Assad is a mass murderer,” someone else says, “Imperialist swine! Why haven’t you mentioned Mossadegh?” or “Oh yeah? What about the baby seals?” or “Oh yeah? What about Clinton starting a war with Russsia?” And on and on.

    I don’t think anyone can seriously question L’s commitment to social equality. In fact, I agree with what he says re Kaepernick and don’t see how, by agreeing with that, I’m attacking poor workers who are obliged to waggle their butts and otherwise demean themselves for a lousy pittance. All I meant to show in my comment was a wider context–i.e. workers are forced to enact all sorts of humliating and meaningless rituals to get paid. L. is right on the money when it comes to “God Bless America” and so forth.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 11, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

  13. “humliating” should be “humiliating.” Humiliating.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 11, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

  14. Mr. Kalosar: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Proyect was “attacking the working class”. Nor do I question his “commitment to social equality”. His comments about Wal-Mart gave me the impression that he may not have been familiar with that corporation’s mandatory “cheer”, so I decided to share that tidbit of information. It is not often someone with my modest intellect has an opportunity to provide a man of Proyect’s erudition with new information. I wasn’t about to let such an opening go to waste.

    Comment by Adam Minsky — August 11, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

  15. It’s sort of interesting in re butt-wagging, “No ‘I’ in ‘team'”, etc. that capitalism imposes a kind of stern, self-abasing collectivism on workers while caressing the rich, ripe individuality of “entrepreneurs” like Trump or Elon Musk. Not a novel observation, but maybe a pertinent one. And then there are nightmares like the “‘360-degree performance evaluation,” etc. Collectivism for the rank and file; individualism for the rich. The lower orders are always wrong, always out of line, always superfluous. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a “millionaire athlete”–if you’re a worker of any kind, you will be brought into line at the expense of your self-esteem.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — August 11, 2017 @ 8:13 pm

  16. “Capitalism imposes a kind of stern, self-abasing collectivism on workers while caressing the rich, ripe individuality of “entrepreneurs” like Trump or Elon Musk.”

    Which is why Marx pointed out, from his early writings, that capitalism preaches ‘individualism’, but in reality imposes an oppressive destruction of the true individual, the agent that determines his or her own history and is not blown here and there, at the whim of the ‘invisible hand’. Capitalism turns us into one-dimensional, standard-issued ‘carpenter’, ‘plumber’, ‘electrician’, ‘doctor’ or ‘nurse’ or ‘teacher’, ‘programmer’, ‘techie’, ‘engineer’, ‘mechanic’ or ‘football player’, with the required specifications for ways of behaving.

    Marx’s critique of bourgeois’s misappropriation of the concept of ‘individual’ is one of Marx’s great contributions to an existentially clear way of looking at ourselves: we still need to BECOME individual human beings; by negating being a member of a herd. A herd is constantly led here and there, and never determines where it should go; always led by an exploitative agent imposing on it from outside. Free individuals, by contrast, can be true to themselves and pursue their path unashamedly since they know their individuality is protected in a society free of all exploitations.

    That we are still pushed into herds, for Marx, is connected to the fact that, as a species, we are in our pre-history: still blown here and there by social forces within our own species, over which 99% of us have no control; we’re still held under the thumb of the dead of our species.

    The likes of Kaepernick remind us that we can defy the herd. And that we must.

    Comment by Reza — August 11, 2017 @ 9:40 pm

  17. In light of the NFL controversies, do you think there are perspectives on race outside the scope of Colin Kaepernick and BLM? Can he be part in the right and part in the wrong?
    Of course he can protest at work as all Americans can. But here’s what he may be missing; protest may cost you something if you do it “on the clock”. I think there is a huge gap in players failing to understand the lives of their fans. I think there is a major lack of humility in many youth movements, and that is why they may be successful in short-term, revolutionary gains, but fail to establish lasting consensus and long-term change. Why?
    It’s easier to break someone or something down, than persuade and change the heart of your opponent.
    Do you know that Democrats and Progressives are responsible for:

    a. the Trail of Tears ?
    b. 100% of slave owners at the time of the Civil War?
    c. 100% of the leadership of slave states at the time of the Civil War?
    d. Eugenics that led to abortion and sterilization on the basis of race in US that was an example to Nazi’s for Holocaust?
    e. Japanese interment camps in WWII?

    All parties, people, and individuals are guilty of ignorance. Check out these questions and see what you find? Thanks!

    Comment by PrayThroughHistory — November 12, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

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