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Free Speech Matters vs. Black Lives Matter?

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Will nuclear holocaust follow human-assisted natural disasters? I was haunted by this question as I worked on my last post. Although I think that the fate of democracy depends on how we address the dilemmas of free speech, a thought that lies behind much of my life’s work, my concerns about such matters recently have seemed secondary, given the never ending bizarre speech and action of the most powerful man in the world, and given that the gods, with the assistance of human folly, have been devastating the people of the American west, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Yet, today, thanks to the President’s decidedly un-presidential performances, free speech once again is a broad concern of the American public, although the suffering of hurricane and fire victims has been unrelenting.

As he exchanged insults with Kim Jong-un, increasing the chances of nuclear disaster, as the Republicans (thankfully) failed once again to repeal and replace Obamacare, and as the agony of American citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands has become ever more apparent, the “tweeter in chief” has focused on the National Football League, despite the fact that not so long ago he tweeted this about Barack Obama: “President should not be telling the Washington Redskins to change their name-our country has far bigger problems! FOCUS on them, not nonsense.’”

Trump, though, is not only “telling”; he is obsessing, attacking football players and their supporters for demonstrating against racial injustice and the embedded institutional racism of American life. And he also, quite unintentionally and ironically, has focused attention on the fundamental principles of free speech.

Thanks to Trump’s vulgarity, racism, and one dimensional patriotism, the once relatively marginal and controlled protest of Colin Kaepernick has become a mass movement, with players, coaches, and club owners (who still haven’t offered him a job) all joining in. To be sure, the focus has become fuzzy. I wonder, along with others: has the controversy of the week been a matter of patriotism, free speech, or black lives? Has the protest on the condition of black lives been lost along the way? Note that the ambiguity was there even at the beginning of Kaepernick’s protest, as reported in the Root.

The protesting Kaepernick:

“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.”

And the supporting statement from his team:

“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

Pride in country and its sacred principles, combined with protest over the way these principles have not applied to black people and people of color were there in the action of the team and the protestor. And the same combination of factors has been there ever since, as we have been discussing here on Public SeminarKathy Smith explained why the issue of race and racism is so important as it appears on the football field. Michael Sasha King explained the deeply radical nature of the protest during its early days, summarized in the title of his piece, “Sitting to Stand.” Joseph Heathcott analyzed how the protest illuminated how deeply embedded white supremacy is in the stories we tell about ourselves, the flag, and the country, including in the national anthem, and Claire Potter most recently reminded us that Colin Kaepernick is not working and showed how it is very much tied to professional football’s very sketchy labor history.

The scandal of the week is driven by Trump as he ignores history and lives in the myths of his own making. He wraps himself in the flag, ignoring fundamental political principles and concerns. As reported in The Guardian, his speech last Friday opened a can of worms, as is his custom:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president said at a rally for Republican senator Luther Strange, who is running in a special election next week to remain in the seat vacated by attorney general Jeff Sessions.

And then he followed up with a series of tweets that led to deep and broad concern beyond his racist base. I quote a few here to underscore his deliberate tenacity and to demonstrate his authentic voice, here as an agitated racist fan calling into his favorite sports talk show:

“The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!”

“The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger”

“Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!”

“Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country.”

“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”

“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!”

“Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”

“NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”

“Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country. Tell them to stand!”

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect….”

“..our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

I read the reports about these tweets as they became public one day at a time. While each was astonishing, taken together, they express an explicit meaning and danger. The flag is sacred. Race is not an issue. Trump’s view of America and its heritage is the truth. Those who publicly disagree should be punished, whether they be ungrateful black protestors or their supporters, “the blacks and lovers of the blacks.” I could say more and be more explicit, but I will refrain. This is Trump at his worst.

Yet, I note the response to Trump has been heartening, though significant dangers loom. As he energizes his base, “the enraged sports fan in chief” has provoked a broader examination of Kaepernick’s protest. More and more players are taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games; others, including teammates and fans, are linking arms. Together they are highlighting both a deep concern about the condition of black life in America, especially concerning police brutality, and supporting the rights of those who are demonstrating this concern.

There is an interesting and important tension here. Put succinctly: is it that “black lives matter” or that “freedom of speech matters”?

Perhaps we can all agree that it should be both, but we should also together understand an underlying tension between the form and content of democratic practice, between the ends and means of political engagement and commitment. Free speech cannot be truly realized in America without racial justice, but also justice cannot be fully realized without free speech. Yet, sometimes commitment to justice requires compromising speech, and commitment to speech sometimes requires compromising justice. Compromise is not a dirty word but a democratic necessity, though knowing when and how to compromise requires judgment that should be addressed politically, not theoretically.

In the United States with its long history of white supremacy, I have sympathy for those who worry that the concern for the rights of the protestors is overshadowing the object of their protest. I too worry that those linking arms expressing support for those protesting race-based police brutality may look away from and accept as normal the brutality itself. And I also know that free speech for provocative racists on universities is problematic, though I would be very cautious about silencing it, as I explained in my response to Jeffrey C. Isaac and Elena Gagovska’s last posts.

Resisting the stupidities and dangers that Trump presents, so vividly revealed in his speech and tweets, I believe, is the pressing problem of the day, in the U.S. and far beyond. Decent people of the world must unite to oppose the clear and present dangers. But how we resist, and the way we deal with the differences among us, will shape what follows. We should proceed accordingly, recognizing we won’t agree on the particulars and that we should dedicate ourselves to coming to working agreements. This week I am trying to judge how my long-term deep commitments to racial justice and free speech in America are related.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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