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Cobb writes: "The claim that it is disrespectful to the military to protest unchecked state violence directed largely at black people is rooted in a euphemistic version of the American past and a blinkered version of the present."

U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke. (photo: Getty)
U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke. (photo: Getty)

Beto O'Rourke, John McCain, and Respecting Fellow-Americans

By Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker

31 August 18


t’s two years since Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, first took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police killings of unarmed African-Americans. In the interim, the country has witnessed a staggering electoral upset; watched as clownish demagoguery was rewarded with the august trappings of the White House; beheld a neo-Nazi cavalcade in Charlottesville; seen immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the border; and watched as racial belligerence became a kind of default setting in the highest office in the land.

It is a testament to a profound absence of self-awareness among Donald Trump’s acolytes that, given these developments, the dialogue surrounding Kaepernick and Reid’s protest, which later spread to other N.F.L. players, has fixated on the idea that taking a knee during the anthem is something that should be decried as disrespectful to both the flag and to the nation’s armed forces. Last fall, the President said that the protesting players should be fired, or maybe shouldn’t even be in the country. This public casting of stones is the worst kind of bad faith—one that, unacquainted with its own holy texts, substitutes fervor and faultfinding for thoughtfulness and reflection. For that reason alone, Beto O’Rourke’s comments on the protests, delivered last week at a town hall in Houston, were an exceptional moment.

O’Rourke, who is challenging Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate race, was asked what he thought of the N.F.L. protests. He began his answer by stating that it was an issue on which “reasonable people can disagree.” That now-rare concept—that one’s political counterparts need not be one’s political enemies—was noticeable when O’Rourke expressed it, and became even more so when the late Senator John McCain’s final statement was released, earlier this week. McCain wrote that “we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times.”

At the town hall, O’Rourke went on to say that he did not think the protests were disrespectful. His four-minute explanation of his position—which cited Taylor Branch’s civil-rights chronicle “Parting the Waters”; Rosa Parks’s refusal, in 1955, to give up her seat on a segregated bus; the lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina; the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham; the deaths of three civil-rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the following year; and the brutal attack on marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, the year after that—sounded as if a history professor had interrupted a political rally to rattle off topics from his “Civil Rights in America” syllabus. Yet that contextualization of the protests explains precisely why O’Rourke’s response received the viral praise that greeted it. (A video of the event has attracted millions of views.) Sacrifice, O’Rourke pointed out, has not been the sole province of the military; the claim to citizenship, particularly for African-Americans, is anchored in blood shed in theatres much closer to home.

The claim that it is disrespectful to the military to protest unchecked state violence directed largely at black people is rooted in a euphemistic version of the American past and a blinkered version of the present. The presumption overlooks the fact that a disproportionately high percentage of the members of the armed forces are African-Americans, and that they are among those Americans who have endured the skewed version of belonging—the discrimination and the disrespect—that fuelled the N.F.L. protests.

In less hypertensive moments, this point would be easier to grasp. It’s worth recalling that John McCain’s death brought with it a frequent re-airing of a clip from one of his Presidential-campaign rallies, in October of 2008, during which he corrected a woman who said that she could not trust Barack Obama because she had read that he was “an Arab.” It has been less frequently noted that McCain’s response came in the context of an increasingly acrimonious and racially flammable tone in the public debate, which corresponded to Sarah Palin’s arrival as his Vice-Presidential candidate. So fraught were some of McCain’s rallies toward the end of the campaign that Representative John Lewis, who had been bludgeoned on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in 1965, said that he saw uncomfortable resemblances between them and those held by George Wallace, forty years earlier. The comparison stung McCain, who had previously praised Lewis as a hero, and Lewis later walked it back. (On Saturday, Lewis said of McCain, “Our nation is forever indebted to men and women of conscience who struggle—in their own way, according to the dictates of their own hearts—to act on the ideals of democracy and work to build a more perfect union.”) McCain, who, the current President notwithstanding, was for most Americans the most visible embodiment of the term “war hero,” recognized in Lewis’s past a kindred brand of heroism—the same kind that O’Rourke described, one defined simply by the willingness to make sacrifices and to endure pain on behalf of one’s country.

We know, even if we wish otherwise, that for a great many people the airy ideals of “kindred heroism” do not register. Heroism, in Trump’s Republican Party, has become the preserve of its own tribe—a virtue that its rivals are incapable of achieving. That miscomprehension was evident in Trump’s statements that N.F.L. players should be fired or, perhaps, kicked out of the country for protesting. It was akin to a sheriff’s earnestly believing that a threat to arrest people would curtail a sit-in. A willingness to risk one’s comfort and livelihood, and, perhaps, a good deal more, was the point of civil-rights protests in the first place. The President does not comprehend the language of sacrifice. McCain did, and the irony is that, last September, after a Dallas Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals game, when asked about the players’ protest, McCain, the war hero, told TMZ, “That’s their right to do what they want to do as citizens.”

All these complexities were implicit in O’Rourke’s response. The moment carried particular weight given that he has drawn into a dead heat with Ted Cruz in the Senate race. Cruz, who refused to endorse the President at the 2016 Republican National Convention (Trump had insulted his wife and his father during the campaign), nonetheless earlier this month asked Trump to campaign with him in Texas and has sided with him on the theme of “disrespecting the flag.” In a new Cruz campaign ad that opens with a coarsely edited version of O’Rourke’s comments, Tim Lee, a disabled Vietnam veteran, expresses shock that anyone would refuse to stand for the anthem. “I gave two legs for this country. I’m not able to stand. But I sure expect you to stand for me,” he says. Lee made a terrible sacrifice for his country, but it is being highlighted in the service of Cruz, a senator now aligning himself with a President who dodged that same war, had to be pressured to lower the flag to half-staff after McCain’s death, and is beholden to elements of his party that are so contemptuous of the late senator that even a kind word about him from a Trump supporter can ignite a brushfire online. The statements of condolence for McCain have tended to note his willingness to believe in the good faith of other Americans, and to lament what his absence will mean for that belief in the Senate. In a four-minute video clip, Beto O’Rourke was essentially advertising himself as the person to continue it. your social media marketing partner
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