America’s symbols of nationhood are taking a hammering

by Joanne Black / 30 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Trump

Members of the Indianapolis Colts take a knee. Photo/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick may have started it, but it was Donald Trump who brought almost whole teams to their knees.

No sooner had the US media finished dissecting the etymology and correct usage of “dotard” than “taking the knee” arrived in the lexicon. Most people with any interest in America are familiar with “taking the Fifth” – invoking the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which says individuals cannot be compelled to give evidence that might incriminate them. But as quickly as you can say “social media”, “taking the knee” has come to refer to people kneeling on one knee during the US national anthem.

The gesture is interpreted as a message to US President Donald Trump, and it is loosely translated as “up yours”. It has not always meant that. The most famous recent knee-taker was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who adopted the pose as a sign of solidarity during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. He is now influential in the Black rights movement. He is now also unemployed, because after he refused to stand for the anthem, his contract was not renewed and no other football team has contracted him. Apparently, no team wanted to be associated with a public demonstration of personal integrity. A few other athletes have followed Kaepernick in “taking the knee” during the anthem, but it was Trump who brought almost whole teams to their knees last week after he suggested that any “son of a bitch” who did not stand for the anthem should be fired, and if they were not fired, people should boycott the football.

Trump seems able to create division over almost anything. If going to the football was once a respite from the noise and turmoil of US politics, it is no longer. Media coverage after last Sunday’s football round was not scores on the sports pages but front-page reports of the number of players in each team who knelt, stood arm-in-arm or simply stayed in the sheds for the anthem.

Thanks to Trump’s blundering machismo, the reverence that this country has traditionally shown for its symbols of nationhood – the flag, the anthem and, in particular, the Office of the President – is being increasingly undermined.

The sun rose over Washington DC as I sat in my lounge watching RNZ’s live online election coverage on my TV. The polls had closed at 3am on Saturday, DC time, so I did an all-nighter. I thought RNZ’s John Campbell, Jane Patterson, Mihingarangi Forbes and Guyon Espiner did a good job. It was a budget operation, with no whiz-bang graphics, but it was up-to-date, fair and informative, which is all anyone needs. I also kept an eye on the Electoral Commission’s website.

I used to work for Bill English when he was Minister of Finance, so I had a particular interest in this election. I was sorry to see Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell not make it back. He was a good advocate for Maori, and Parliament will be poorer without him.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sorry to see the demise of former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, whose personal and sneering style of debating I never liked. Mostly, I watched the speeches of New Zealand First’s Winston Peters, the Greens’ James Shaw, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and English and thought – not for the first time – that New Zealand’s practical, civilised and moderate political landscape is one of its greatest treasures. I did not have to leave home to realise that, but it helps.

This Back to Black column was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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