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Unless you are one of the tiny minority of Brits who care even slightly about American football you probably haven’t heard about the Colin Kaepernick scandal. Kaepernick used to be very good at his sport. These days he’s a fairly average, overpaid player for a fairly mediocre team – unlikely in other words to cause much of a stir. Except that Kaepernick has managed to kick over a hornet’s nest in the past week by refusing to stand for the national anthem before a match.
Asked why, Kaepernick was happy to clarify: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Cue outrage and national scandal, with every commentator and their dog asked for a stance. Internet videos of fans burning Kaepernick’s shirt have gone viral, and there is a petition for him to be sacked.
The flag and the anthem have become sacrosanct, and Kaepernick’s protest has, therefore, become a form of blasphemy. Kaepernick’s sin, to his accusers, is not that he is protesting about black lives and police accountability, but that he is suggesting that American values are only skin deep – that the values and freedoms for which American soldiers have given their lives are not being lived out in practice. In a nutshell, if he had said only that there is a problem with some “bad apple” police in America that would have been acceptable. To argue that the USA systematically fails to live up to its values of equality, on the other hand, is to attack the very being of American society.
The threat that is perceived here is existential. The USA as a nation is defined by its Western values. As a new nation of immigrants it lacks some of the historic and ethnic rootedness that underpins its older European forebears – instead what makes an American is a belief in and commitment to American values. It is no coincidence that Americans are known for a particularly noisy and extravagant sort of patriotism – these ceremonial and symbolic touchstones of unity are all that really keeps the sense of nationhood together. If, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, the values that underpin the American state are not, in fact, self-evident and these symbols are correspondingly empty – then being an American becomes literally meaningless beyond physical location.
This crisis of values is not, however, unique to the American context. There is an interesting point of comparison with the burkini ban. No one can seriously believe that the French towns that brought in this ban (and continue to fight for it despite the decision of the courts) genuinely did so to counter the oppression of women. Having three armed (male) police confront and force a woman to remove parts of her clothing is not a way to fight against gender oppression. That that needs saying is staggering.
The real reason for banning the burkini had nothing to do with the women themselves but with the fear about what the burkini represents to France and French values. France is proud of its laïcité, its distinctive Republic vision of secularism, which is for many a key component of what it is to have a French society. In fact according to a poll by the Institut français d’opinion publique in 2015, 46% of French adults believe laïcité is the most important Republican principle (ahead of universal suffrage at 36% and freedom of association 8%). It is also a country that feels under siege; a succession of terrorist attacks on French soil has made people afraid. Islam is now seen as a fundamental threat to Frenchness. The burkini is a visual sign of that fear – a public and (to many) alien demonstration of a faith that rightly or wrongly they now perceive as the enemy within. The burkini is a symbol of anti-laïcité, anti-Republicanism and, therefore, anti-Frenchness. It has become a blasphemy against the French state and society consensus.
In both the American and French case it seems to me as if the underlying issue is a desperate Western fear that, just maybe, the emperor doesn’t have any clothes after all. After all if our Western values are so safe and strong why do they need such aggressive defending? It is because of the crisis afflicting any real sense of Western identity that we have come to rely so heavily on symbols. It is easier to direct anger at Kaepernick’s lack of respect for a symbol than to engage with the difficult question of how real American values are when black kids can be shot to death by police who too often seem indifferent and too rarely seem accountable. It is easier to reinforce laïcité and ban a piece of women’s clothing than to deal with the issue of why integration in France is failing. It is easier to make a symbol sacrosanct than to engage with the question of what it represents.
Blasphemy laws in a religious context are a sign of weakness. They represent a fear that religion really will be undermined by mean words or contrary voices. A confident religion with a strong sense of its own identity and happy to engage with others does not need protection from blasphemy. If American identity can be undermined so easily as by a mediocre sportsman failing to stand up before a meaningless sports fixture, or if Frenchness can be undermined so easily by a woman not exposing her body on a beach, then perhaps we ought to reflect that our Western values are in deeper trouble than anyone is prepared to concede.
Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos. @BenedictWRyan