Spectacular Protest

There appears to be a crack in the sports and entertainment industrial complex of American society. What began as a mostly solitary gesture against racial injustice and police brutality by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has ballooned into a fully formed media maelstrom. Kaepernick’s protest consisted of going down onto one knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner—a ritual that precedes every NFL game (and indeed pretty much every organized sporting event from the pee-wee level to the professional ranks). As the football season last year proceeded, more and more fans and reporters began to take note of Kaepernick’s actions, and in a few cases, Kaepernick was joined by other athletes in the NFL and other sports. Before long, a strong backlash had developed against the protests, with many accusing Kaepernick of disrespecting the flag, active military personal and veterans in order to make his partisan statement. As the new NFL season began last month, a handful of players continued to take knees during the anthem while Kaepernick himself appeared to have been blacklisted by the NFL as he was unable to find a spot one of the sport’s professional rosters despite there being an apparent demand for the kind of quarterbacking talent and skill Kaepernick possess.

As a previous post on this space has argued, NFL games are a rather stark example of what Debord called the “integrated spectacle”—the unification of the most effective attributes of consumer capitalism and totalitarian militarism. The lavish patriotic extravaganzas that occur before and during games as well as special “military appreciation” weeks during the season weave a seamless fabric of entertainment and power that distract and deflect popular attention away from the conflicts and contradictions in the personal lives of individuals and collective life of the nation. Kaepernick’s protests place a pall on the pageantry of the spectacle and threaten to insert an element of “real life” into a proceeding designed explicitly to keep the despair of everyday existence at bay. With many commentators and disgruntled fans calling for a boycott of the NFL, might one of the key complexes of American social power be on the verge of collapse? Moreover, will Kaepernick’s protests create enough fervor in the social world of the United States that politicians will take up the cause of racial injustice and problematic police conduct?

Thesis 9 of the Society of the Spectacle states: “In a world that has really been turned upside, the true is a moment of falsehood.”[1] Kaepernick’s protests no doubt come from a place of genuine concern and authenticity on his part, but the nature of the spectacle as captured in the quote is such that these authentic gestures will be transformed into a carnival of controversy. And as has been suggested before, few understand this better on the instinctual level than President Trump, who threw gasoline on the controversy when he recently called anyone who knelt during the anthem was a “son of a bitch” and that the owners should “get them off the field.” One this and similarly phrased tweets went out, media hype machine went into full throttle. The panoply of sports debate shows dispensing out “hot takes” did not disappoint (and surprisingly many of them were quite supportive of the kneeling players). On social media, the scene was much confrontational and ugly, including multiple videos of fans burning their season tickets in disgust and one tweeter gleefully using the N-word toward the coach of the team he ostensibly supports.

Behind all this showcased controversy, however, is an uncomfortable phenomenon—the more heated and intense the debate, the less likely any substantive change will take place. In Thesis 24 of Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes, “The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.”[2] For all the debate, these controversies are less about the verbal search for a consensus on a pressing social issue, and more about demonstrating how insurgent acts of dissent can be neutralized and transformed in such a way that the net effect is to make the status quo even stronger. Opinions are offered, rants are unleashed, hot takes dispensed, and a few ill-mannered tweets are offered up by the President of the United States in a manner that greatly magnifies the place of the controversy in the larger world-historical moment. In the meantime, an audience of millions consumes the controversy until they have had their fill and some other pseudo-manufactured crisis emerges to change the subject. Meanwhile, the actual problem that prompted Kaepernick’s kneeling remains ignored, as do a handful of other genuine life-and-death issues (hurricane damage in the Caribbean, Catalonia and Kurdish independence movements in Spain and Iraq).

Yet there are places where the issues that Kaepernick wanted to highlight are the subject of genuine struggle. As the last post of this space explored, St. Louis is an on-going site of contestation and clash over the nature of police brutality and a compromised justice system. There has almost no mention of the nightly demonstrations there in the mainstream media—and one should not expect there to be. This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t spaces were one can get access to information about them and stay updated. One of the positive elements of the spectacle of disintegration is the emergence of insurgent media sources that do not internalize the values of the traditional spectacle and thus are less prone to its contradictions. These sources also tend to be local in their orientation and seek corresponding local solutions—a likely important step in seeking redress of grievances given the lack of interests in the federal tier of government for such problems. If one is truly moved by the issues Kaepernick attempted to raise through his kneeling, one of the few places where one can actually do something about it (again, at a very local level, as the spectacle prevents any kind of mass mobilization unless it benefits the spectacle itself) one should direct their attention and efforts toward St. Louis.

     [1] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [2] Ibid., 7.

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