One of the most spectacular shifts of cultural perception currently taking place in the US concerns the symbolic status of the gesture of kneeling. Deemed provocative and unpatriotic only a few months ago by a majority of Americans, prominent people have begun using it as a proof of commitment to their anti-racist commitment to equality. The basketball star LeBron James initiated the trend by posting on Instagram a provocative pairing of the photo of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd — an African American who, as a result, died on May 25 — next to a picture of football quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.
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Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, immediately succumbed to the temptation to exploit the suddenly enhanced status of kneeling as a badge of political honor, in contrast with US President Donald Trump’s continued demonizing of the practice as unpatriotic, if not treasonous. Always on the lookout for an opportunity to stage a dramatic photo-op, Pelosi led a group of kneeling Democratic legislators on June 8 in what could be described as a mock ethnic prayer vigil in front of the media, complete with (comically inappropriate) African Kente cloths draped around each of the participants’ necks.
For three years, the National Football League (NFL) outlawed kneeling and banished Kaepernick from its ranks, thanks to pressure from Trump and some of the league’s sponsors. But Floyd’s death in police custody has led the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, to admit that it was a mistake. One articulate white player on the Houston Texan football team, J.J. Watt, expressed the change of mood. Mike Florio explains: “For as obvious as the point is becoming, there are still people (including those in high public office) who conflate kneeling with disrespect.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Failure to adulate institutions or symbols that most deserve critical assessment, or simply the refusal to suspend or suppress criticism of official injustice
Most people agree that respect is due to people, objects, institutions and symbols that play a socially constructive and morally positive role in society. The corollary of this principle states that when, in a republic, those same people and things serve socially destructive and morally ambiguous purposes, criticism of their function constitutes a valuable way of showing respect. Flags, by definition, are morally neutral. They symbolize belonging and, therefore, can play a socially constructive role. When, as sometimes happens, they serve as a pretext or cover for acts of destruction — as in war and the misuse of authority — the most rational way of respecting and affirming their positive purpose involves establishing critical perspective. This can mean contesting the role they are mobilized to play when they are employed to further or excuse unjust acts.
This raises another question concerning the truth of the acts that require respect. In a secular, democratic society — in contrast with a theocracy where religious authorities establish the rules — the notion of truth must reside in the shared perception and the collective effort of the people.
In contemporary US consumer culture as it has evolved recently, the establishment of what people perceive as truth depends not on any individual’s or institution’s supposed moral integrity, but on two primary sources: opinion polls and revenue streams (if it sells, it must be good). The two are often linked, a fact marketers are keenly aware of.
Politico reports that new “polls show an increasing percentage of the population view racism as a big problem in the country and the protests as a justified response.” Anti-racism is currently undergoing a marketing surge. The major symbolic gesture associated with the current protests — kneeling — has moved, in just a matter of weeks if not days, from being officially reprimanded to being popularly endorsed and embraced as a sign of solidarity.
The US is embracing a cultural civil war over a symbol and a gesture. Weighing in on the controversy in September 2017, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner published an article in Scientific American on the psychology associated with kneeling. They described it as “a sign of reverence, submissiveness, deference—and sometimes mourning and vulnerability.” They offered this analysis of critics like Trump: “Our lab has found that high-power people (say, the president or members of the numerical majority) are more likely to misinterpret nonverbal behavior. … Powerful people are less able to take the perspective of others.”
In conclusion, the authors asked: “Will Americans one day look back on Kaepernick’s symbolic act as a moment when we started to understand each other just a little bit better?” They clearly didn’t expect it to happen so suddenly.
The Democrats have seized on the occasion to play the marketing game of manipulating popular symbols and gestures to create the impression that they are on the right side of history. Charlemagne Tha God, a black American podcaster, summed up Nancy Pelosi’s hyperreal show of “solidarity” that required appropriating the Kente cloth in these words: “This is what happens when people focus on symbolism and not substance.” He complained that we “need policy over pandering.” He noticed that “everybody is on [an] ‘I love black people’ kick right now,” but underscoring the hyperreal nature of Pelosi’s gambit, he correctly observed, “This ain’t a movie.” Instead, he called for action in the form of “legislation and reparation.”
Charlemagne is right. It has become harder and harder to distinguish Washington from Hollywood. Speaker Pelosi felt that the symbolism of kneeling wasn’t enough. She needed movie props. As the producer of a photo-op, she wanted to remind Americans that black people in America originally came from Africa, a continent that had produced a civilization capable of producing attractive pieces of apparel. This was her way of underlining her sense of respect and dispelling the traditional perception of Africans as savages and their nations as what Donald Trump once referred to as “shitholes.”
Similar reasoning led Pelosi to stage her hyperreal performance earlier this year of tearing up the pages of Trump’s State of the Union speech. It also set the stage last week for mocking Trump by holding up a Bible and pretending to be familiar with the text. These are well-honed examples of the pandering Charlemagne complained about.
Although CNN’s well-prepared anchors and commentators claim that ripping up the State of the Union speech was a case of Pelosi’s spontaneous expressions of emotion, a curious clue emerged last week indicating that these are mere marketing stunts.
On June 2, Pelosi appeared before cameras to mock Trump’s shambolic photo-op the previous day when he appeared in front of the Episcopal church opposite the White House lifting a Bible toward the heavens. In her parody, Pelosi does more than display the Bible. She claims that she has been reflecting on the concept of time conveyed by the Bible. She cites a verse from the book of Ecclesiastes that speaks of “an appointed time for everything.” This appeared rather incongruous, especially when, in her deep reflection, she defined time as “the most important commodity” and “the most finite.” Was she thinking of the hourly rates lawyers and lobbyists charge?
Two days later, on June 4, Reverend Al Sharpton, who also works for MSNBC (the media arm of the Democratic Party), delivered his public eulogy for George Floyd. Should we interpret as a coincidence, plagiarism or as part of a scripted political program the fact that he cited exactly the same text as Pelosi? Unlike Pelosi, lost in abstract philosophical elucubrations on time as a commodity, Sharpton challenged Trump to “open the Bible and read Ecclesiastes 3.” He cited the words “to every season there’s a time and a purpose.” What was the profound conclusion to draw from this? Sharpton made that clear in this profound phrase: “You need to know what time it is.”
One verse of the Old Testament appears to have become a major Democratic Party/MSNBC talking point for 2020. They seem to be impatiently counting the time between now and the November election. The message is the same as it has always been. Things will be better when we’re in charge. Give us time, a coveted commodity. Just wait and see.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.