Like many of our ultimately insignificant political tempests, I was tempted to dismiss the endless debate about the NFL anthem protests as so much noise. As I saw it, the President, in his crude attack on the players, further soiled his office to benefit from the subsequent controversy, while the players had fallen into his trap by looking as if they were disrespecting the flag. (Though, as Jonathan Last noted, silently taking a knee is just about the most respectful, dignified protest one can imagine.) The media, for its part, continues to pretend as though it is resisting Trump while it really enables him, focusing on whatever issue he raises to chase the accompanying ratings.
The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed to me that these protests, whether justified on the merits or not, mark another significant milestone in the race to destroy our nation’s culture. A culture can only be said to exist if there are certain norms and rituals that bind people together. If every moment of communal life is subject to constant negotiation, if nothing is assumed, then there is no culture, only individual preference and the law.
I’m writing this in New York City, so let me give you a tiny example of what I mean by culture. If you are on the subway in New York, no matter how crowded it gets, no matter how interested you might be in the person next to you, you do not stare, try to get her attention, or engage in random small talk. The culture of the subway eliminates the awkward question of how to act when in a crowd of strangers is pressed uncomfortably close together.
Lots of little “cultures” like this exist in specific communities, among practitioners of certain religions, and within families or groups of friends. When we feel immersed in a familiar culture we generally feel happier, more at ease, more sure of ourselves. But our larger social units are losing these cultural norms, replacing them instead with a singular focus on our rights.
At the risk of being dramatic, sports—and especially football—is a ritualized form of violence. Fandom lets us vicariously feel the thrill of confronting an enemy and prevailing, or the angst of losing. But part of that ritual are the moments at the beginning and the end of games when we acknowledge that we are not enemies. This is why we make our children shake hands at the end of a game, and why it is mildly scandalous when professional athletes avoid doing so. It is also why the national anthem matters so deeply to so many. Honoring it as one means we are together and united, not among rivals. So when some of the athletes we are focused on refuse to join us in the ritual, they not only set themselves apart, but force everyone present to consider whether they want to be a part of the community of those who take off their hats and stand, who affirm that their country deserves their loyalty. The ritual is smashed, and we are left disoriented and unsure of ourselves.
The argument about free speech is irrelevant to how we feel not because it isn’t important but because it is insufficient. Rights are fundamental because they define what the state cannot do to us. Donald Trump cannot have anyone arrested for kneeling during the anthem. The government cannot ban the NFL from the airwaves until the anthem protests cease. They also serve as a guide to how we should make decisions. Though NFL owners have the ability, legally, to fire a player for protesting, the fact that we have enshrined free speech as a right can and should make them more hesitant to do so. But our law and legal traditions can only define what can be done, not what should be done. And it is our feelings about what should be done, about what is proper, that defines our emotional response to the actions of others.
This is closely related to the idea of the “realm of manners”: that there is a level of society between individual freedom and legal compulsion which defines our daily interpersonal obligations, but is only enforced by how those around you perceive, judge and treat you. But we have lost the ability to simply dismiss someone as a boor or a rascal (how old-fashioned those words sound!) and to ignore them, denying them entry into certain rarified areas of society.
Our egalitarianism has eliminated many of those rarified domains altogether, and undermines the prestige of those that are left. And our recent fetish for non-judgmentalism teaches us to ignore behavior that is crude or offensive but “legal”. Someone can be nasty and crude, but if they are on the right side of the law (and especially if they can be portrayed as the victim of some sort of –ism or –phobia) the behavior is forgiven if not outright condoned.
But because we have lost the ability to check bad behavior with these non-legal mechanisms, we’ve both made life less pleasant and increased the intrusion of the law into places where it is a blunt and unsuitable instrument. We have no common culture that guides behavior, but cross certain lines—or just cross a particularly litigious sort of person—and you’ll find yourself in court.
One common rejoinder, one made by writers I respect like Jonah Goldberg, is that we all need to have a thicker skin. But we can’t have a thick skin all the time or we will (almost literally) become calloused individuals—hard and rough. We need places where we feel at ease, where we know the unwritten rules and can expect others to follow them. As our culture frays, we have fewer such places. Sports has now left the realm of manners and entered the realm of law, which is—at best—an awkward fit.
Exacerbating the problem is that, against its many virtues, one of the weaknesses of democracy is that it is unable to create culture. In a monarchy, the behavior and preferences of the royal family and aristocracy become cultural norms. (I’m reminded of the story I was told in high school Spanish, that the difference between pronunciation in Spain versus most Latin American countries is due to courtesans copying King Philip’s lisp.) Because democracy gives everyone an equal voice, it is not well-suited to create non-compulsory traditions that have deep meaning and the power to bring people together. So we are losing our cultural inheritance, and have no source of new cultural norms to replace it with.
If I am honest, I can’t admit much hope that we will restore our nation’s cultural cohesiveness any time soon. But maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. Maybe we should try to rethink our politics so that the little cultures I mentioned can grow stronger, with less interference from on high. What that will require, though, is acceptance of sub-cultures in our midst that we don’t particularly like, a kind of benign disdain that we don’t believe in today. I’d like to think we can get there, but intensifying cultural warfare seems more likely than cultural armistice.