By David Leonhardt
The New York Times, October 2, 2017
Symbols matter in politics. They often matter more than the detailed arguments that opposing sides make. Symbols are a shortcut that help persuadable outsiders figure out where to line up.
The professional athletes doing political battle with President Trump are heirs to the civil-rights movement. They are protesting government-sanctioned violence against African-Americans. Risking popularity for principle, they have shown a courage frequently lacking among the affluent and famous.
From a moral standpoint, this issue is clear. The athletes are right — and have every right to protest as they have. Trump is wrong, about the scourge of police violence and about freedom of speech.
But righteousness does not automatically bring effectiveness.
The kneeling argument needlessly alienates persuadable people, and it’s one the athletes don’t need.
Why? Because most Americans respect the country’s symbols and because standing is a simple sign of respect.
Beyond the athletes, there is a bigger question: Do Trump’s opponents want to oppose him in ways that are merely just and satisfying? Or do they want to beat him? “You can’t get angry,” as the longtime activist Vernon Jordan has said, describing a different civil-rights battle, in the 1950s. “You have to get smart.”
Getting smart means nominating progressive candidates who can win, even if they aren’t progressive on every issue. Getting smart means delaying internal fights (like single-payer health care) and unifying against Trump’s agenda (as Democrats in Congress have).
Responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates
By David Leonhardt
The New York Times, October 4, 2017
Ta-Nehisi Coates has criticized my column on kneeling athletes, and several readers also made a version of his point, in emails.
Here is part of what he said:
“And David says, ‘While I’m in sympathy with these players, they need to look at the past and learn that it’s possible to appeal to the masses of Americans, that you can get Americans on your side if you can find something that bridges the gap, that brings us all together. And kneeling doesn’t do that.’
“And he shows some polling data to show that. I read that, and I almost threw my computer across the room. Because in fact there is polling data about what Americans thought of Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders, and the March on Washington. It wasn’t a high opinion at all.”
I understand why many Americans feel despair today and why many on the political left aren’t in a patriotic mood. Racial inequities remain shameful. Gun violence continues unabated. The planet warms. And Trump creates one new crisis after another.
I also understand that protest movements need both radicals and pragmatists to succeed. The civil rights movement had both, and today’s athletes deserve credit for the stir they’ve created. But if progressives choose to reject pragmatism, optimism and, yes, patriotism, I suspect they will spend many years protesting the country’s direction instead of setting it.
Civil-Rights Protests Have Never Been Popular
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Atlantc, October 3, 2017
The idea here is that kneeling NFL players are committing an act of such blatant disrespect that they hand Trump an easy image with which to demagogue.
(David) Leonhardt goes on to contrast this species of activism, which aligned “the civil-rights movement with the symbols and ideals of America,” with kneeling during the national anthem, which presumably signals opposition to those same symbols. Leonhardt is sympathetic to the aims of Kaepernick’s protest but he contrasts this “angry” approach with the “smart” approach of the civil-rights movement.
The trajectory of Leonhardt’s argument is doomed by the defective pad from which it was launched. The problem here is not just a just-so chain of events, but the actual effects of the events. Implicit in Leonhardt’s critique is the idea that Martin Luther King and other civil-rights pioneers, and their protests, were better able to appeal to the hearts of white Americans than Kaepernick and his allies.
As The Washington Post noted last year, only 22 percent of all Americans approved of the Freedom Rides, and only 28 percent approved of the sit-ins. The vast majority of Americans—60 percent—had “unfavorable” feelings about the March on Washington. As FiveThirtyEight notes, in 1966, 63 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King. The popular hostility toward King extended to the very government he tried to embrace—King was bugged and harassed by the FBI until the end of his life. His assassination sprang from the deep hostility with which he was viewed, not by a fringe radical minority, but by the majority of the American citizenry.
Leonhardt is a smart and knowledgeable columnist. It is thus surprising to see him embrace a mythical rendition of the civil-rights movement that runs counter to the the facts and figures of the time. But Leonhardt’s column seems less interested in offering an accurate apprehension of the civil-rights movement than in employing the civil-rights movement as a club against radicalism in general, and the Bernie Sanders-wing of the left in particular:
“Getting smart means nominating progressive candidates who can win, even if they aren’t progressive on every issue. Getting smart means delaying internal fights (like single-payer health care) and unifying against Trump’s agenda (as Democrats in Congress have). Getting smart means understanding, as civil-rights leaders did, that American symbols are a worthy ally.”
Kaepernick did not inaugurate his protest in hopes of helping elect more centrist Democrats, or any kind of Democrat. That said, he was not immune to compromise. When his initial efforts were met with disdain and deemed disrespectful, he actually consulted a group of veterans to see how he might better pursue a protest. That is the origin of Kaepernick kneeling, and the fact that it too has been met with scoffs points to deeper problem. If young people attempting to board a bus are unacceptable, if gathering on the National Mall is verboten, if preaching nonviolence gets you harassed by your own government and then killed, if a protest founded in consultation with military veterans is offensive, then what specific manner of protest is white America willing to endure?
It’s almost as if the manner of protest isn’t the real problem.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
Pragmatism means getting smart. It means respecting our national symbols. It means not offending football fans by protesting injustice through the act of kneeling before the playing of the national anthem. It means “delaying internal fights (like single-payer health care).” Some would say it even means praising the second amendment with fervor regardless… (I can’t go there right now).
How can a nation become incensed at symbolic gestures while ignoring and walking away from the horrendous injustices that provoke those gestures?
David Leonhardt, in advising us essentially to walk away from an internal fight over single payer is merely expressing the view of the smart pragmatists on the left who have been repeatedly telling us that we need to forget single payer and patch ACA with a public option or Medicare buy-in – an approach that would extinguish the fire under the single payer movement.
If a knee were my choice for a symbol, I don’t think I’d place it on the ground; I fantasize about lodging it in a spot where it would really get the attention of these smart pragmatists.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s about social justice and health care justice, you dumb pragmatist. Instead of worrying about where some person’s knee is, you need to help lead the movement to end the massive suffering, hardship and even death that plague our nation.”
Smart pragmatism, my foot. Or is it my knee?
(Please excuse my anger, but I’m really having trouble with this.)
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