Monthly Archives: May 2018

The NFL Steps In It–What a Surprise

The NFL has once again reminded us of its staggering capacity to botch its handling of controversies and make itself look worse. Under their new policy, players must either stand while the National Anthem or stay in the locker room until the song is over. If a player kneels, their team will be forced to pay a fine. There are a lot of thoughts I have on this, most of them negative, which I have organized below:

  1. The argument that kneeling during the Anthem is offensive do not hold up well. It has been asked why players are “taking out” their grievances on the flag and the U.S. The United States government legally oppressed black people via slavery for almost eighty years (following over a century of slavery in the colonial era), and Jim Crow was in place from the 1690s to the 1960s. Since racial equality under the law was achieved half a century ago, racism and de facto racial inequality has continued to be a huge problem. With that point in mind, it should be easy to understand why kneeling NFL players are “taking it out” on the flag and the country even if you disagree with their tactics. Arguments that they are disrespecting soldiers and veterans are also weak. Kneeling players are taking issue with our government and society, not our soldiers, whom Kaepernick specifically expressed respect for. The American flag represents our government; the National Anthem praises the U.S. as “the land of the free.” The author, Francis Scott Key, worked for the State as a prosecutor. Hence, singing the National Anthem and waving the American flag are not simply a show of respect for military personnel but also a tribute to the United States government. As others have pointed out, if players’ quarrel was with our soldiers, they might have chosen, for example, to protest the NFL’s policy of giving discounts to people from the military. They didn’t. In fact, in the military, soldiers who don’t stand for the Anthem are punished, something which would make little sense if honoring soldiers were actually its primary purpose.
  2. The argument that NFL players shouldn’t be “protesting on the job” and need to leave politics off the field is sloppy. Kaepernick and players who followed his example have not marched around the field chanting and waving protest signs. They have simply refused to take part in a political ritual. It is a protest, but it is a very unobtrusive, low-key protest. Furthermore, people who simultaneously want to take a break from politics while watching the NFL yet also adore the performance of the National Anthem are being highly inconsistent given how political the Anthem is. People claiming a double standard because of players not being allowed to wear political insignia are missing the point: if there’s a double standard, then the playing of the National Anthem is itself an example of that double standard in action.
  3. Is this a free speech violation? It’s complicated. Generally, free speech rights only apply to protection from being censored by the government. As I myself have argued, private corporations can–and sometimes probably should–fire people for political beliefs. With the NFL, however, it’s sticky, because they receive a lot of taxpayer support in terms of subsidies and use of publicly funded venues. So at that point, there’s a strong case to be made that what the NFL is doing amounts to taxpayer-funded censorship. This is especially true if you force someone to stand for the anthem or hide in the locker room in a public stadium. As if it weren’t murky enough, we have the fact that, as conservatives have been loudly complaining about, the U.S. government got the NFL to start performing the Anthem through financial incentives. Then we have the fact that Trump was threatening to make the NFL pay more taxes if it didn’t punish kneeling players. So we have a pretty strong case that the government has effectively bribed/threatened the league into punishing players who kneel, which is obviously illegal.
  4. The only good thing about this asinine new policy is that players who don’t want to stand for the Anthem can stay in the locker room. But this caveat does not prevent the policy from being unjust. It effectively tells players who feel they cannot standing during the Anthem that they are not welcome on the field and would be better off unseen. If players who feel positively about the Anthem are given the ability to stand, then it is only fair that players who feel negatively should be given the ability to kneel or sit. Kneeling or sitting does not prevent anyone else from standing, it does not prevent the Anthem from being played, and it should not prevent anyone else from enjoying the Anthem.
  5. Conservatives cannot complain about “political correctness” and liberal intolerance of different viewpoints and also want players punished for not standing during a song. Nor can anyone who has said the phrase “Make America great again” take umbrage at people kneeling because they don’t think America is great. And claims about kneeling being unpatriotic or disrespectful to the military are hard to take seriously when they come from people who are fine with the display of the Confederate Flag. After all, in addition to being founded to protect slavery, the Confederacy broke apart from the U.S. and killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers (in pursuit of slavery.)
  6. Unless I am very much mistaken, the NFL’s strategy here is going to backfire. One thing we have learned over the years is that when it comes to displays of patriotism and un-patriotism–be it not standing for the Pledge, not standing the Anthem, flag burning, etc.–many people on the Right simply will not tolerate dissent. Kaepernick decided to kneel instead of sit after talking to a veteran. That wasn’t good enough. Before Donald Trump poured gasoline on a dying fire last Fall, only about a dozen players were kneeling. That wasn’t good enough. Trump and many of his supporters have demanded that players either stand or be fired. I cannot imagine that those people are going to be satisfied with players having the option of staying in the locker room or with the punishment being fines instead of termination. Meanwhile, the NFL has lost what respect it might have previously had from many people on the Left by caving into reactionaries after originally promising to respect players’ ability to stand or not stand as they see fit. And for what? The controversy had already died down considerably since last Fall, but through its own bad judgment, the NFL just reignited it. They have also strengthened Colin Kaepernick’s case in his collusion lawsuit.
  7. The context of the National Anthem itself makes it more problematic. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholders who used his position as a prosecutor to punish abolitionists and rebellious slaves. There has been debate over whether one line in the full version of “The Star Spangled Banner” praises killing slaves, but regardless, Key’s background and the era in which the song was written makes it cringeworthy enough.

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Speaking Truth To Power

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems to inspire dislike from everyone: conservatives dislike her for being a liberal feminist. Moderate Democrats see her as too left-wing. The far left wing of the Democratic Party sees her as too moderate. Libertarians dislike her partly because she joins most members of both parties’ establishments in voting to continue the Surveillance State. She’s seen as too Coastal, too patrician, too friendly to corporations. Democratic candidates sometimes disavow her. Many Democrats believe that she is a liability to the party and should no longer be House Minority Leader or, if the GOP loses control of the House in 2018, Speaker. I have many political disagreements with Pelosi myself. Economically, her views are a bad combination of heavy government spending and regulation mixed with corporatism. She has, indeed, voted the wrong way many times when it comes to reigning in out-of-control government surveillance. She is very supportive of what I consider to be misguided gun control policies. And while she is supportive of pot legalization, a case could be made that she has not done enough to promote it. Nevertheless, I believe that she should retain her position of power in Congress until she is ready to retire.

Why, you may ask, do I feel this way? The answer lies in her record on LGBT rights. A little-known fact is that Nancy Pelosi almost certainly has the strongest record of any national politician with her degree of political power, who has been serving as long as she has. Other politicians have LGBT rights that are as strong as Pelosi’s, but they are state or local politicians, Representatives and Senators less politically powerful than her, or people who have been in office a shorter time. While her LGBT rights advocacy in the 2010s has been impressive, I think that it is worth looking back at her earlier record, since it showcases the degree to which she has been a trailblazer on these issues. When Pelosi joined Congress in 1987, her first speech on the House floor was about fighting AIDS. That same year, she cosponsored an anti-discrimination bill for gay people. Keep in mind that 31 years later, there is still no federal ban on businesses discriminating based on sexual orientation. In 1993, Pelosi attended a gay rights march in Washington and bucked the Clinton Administration by voting against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise. She voted against it due to her belief that gay soldiers should be allowed to serve openly. In 1996, she was one of just 67 Representatives who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act–once again, defying the Clintons. In fact, for every year that have been able to find data for, the Human Rights Campaign gave her a rating of 100%. “I rise in strong opposition to this ill-named ‘Defense of Marriage Act’,” the Congresswoman proclaimed, “and I do so on the basis of conscience, Constitution and constituency.” House Democrats voted in favor of this bigoted piece of legislation by nearly two-to-one. In the Senate, Democrats voted in favor of it by over two-to-one.

It was in 2004 that Pelosi would take perhaps her most courageous stand in favor of gay rights. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage the previous year. George W. Bush reneged on a campaign promise and called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage, which Republicans in the House and Senate overwhelmingly supported. San Fransisco’s courageous Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in direct defiance of California law. But nationally, most Democrats practically fell over themselves to assure voters that they did not support gay marriage. As far as I can tell from my research, only one sitting Senator, Ron Wyden, openly supported gay marriage at that point. A few other brave Senators–Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer–would come out in support within the next couple of years. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle combined opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment with boasts about his vote in favor of DOMA. “In South Dakota, we’ve never had a single same sex marriage,” promised Daschle, “And we won’t have any. It’s prohibited by South Dakota law as it is now in 38 other states.” John Kerry, who had been one of the Senate’s prominent gay rights champions for over fifteen years, panicked when he feared that marriage equality in his home state would sink his campaign. He repudiated the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision and announced that he had been mistaken to vote against DOMA and now supported the bill. “I was incorrect in that statement,” Kerry said with regard to his original opposition to DOMA. “I think, in fact, that no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy. While Boxer would come out in support of gay marriage two years later, she declared in 2004 that marriage was between a man and a woman. Even Barney Frank, a trailblazer for LGBT rights and one of my personal heroes, publicly criticized Newsom’s issuing of marriage licenses as politically foolish.

In a March 25, 2004 interview, Pelosi initially tried to dodge questions about gay marriage, claiming that her focus was on defeating the Federal Marriage Amendment. But when pressed by Neil Cavuto and asked, “Can same-sex couples marry?” she responded, “Yes.” When Cavuto asked whether she would approve of Newsom’s actions, she again replied, “Yes.” This support may seem perfunctory and tepid now, but it was very courageous in 2004 and went far beyond what even most other liberal Democrats and certainly Democrats in similar places to Pelosi on the pecking order were comfortable with. All of the stances that Pelosi has taken on gay and transgender rights would be considered standard for a prominent Democrat now, and nobody could be nominated by the party for president these days without endorsing them. But a decade and a half ago, they were nothing short of radical. That has to count for something. Pelosi has spent over thirty years being on the correct side of one of the most important human rights issues of our time with remarkable consistency. She does not deserve to be deposed from her leadership position for not being correct on every single other issue. Nobody can measure up to those kinds of purity tests. Oh, and what about Tim Ryan, the Democratic Representative from Ohio who challenged Pelosi in 2016 and 2017 for the position of House Minority Leader and has harshly criticized her? Well, early in his political career, he was scoring as low as 55% from the Human Rights Campaign, in contrast to Pelosi’s perfect scores. It’s great that he and many other politicians have come around on LGBT rights, but converts shouldn’t lead. Trailblazers like Nancy Pelosi should.

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