My apologies for the 6 month hiatus in MUSE, PROSE and CONS. Sometimes the flow of writing is impeded by circumstances beyond one’s control. However, equally valid is what spurs you back into the fray. No surprise to anyone familiar with what makes me tick – it’s a constitutional matter slapped about by current US Politics. There’s a lot more to it, but it’s a good place to start.
In the last twenty years or more, in an escalating manner, young black men (and women) in the United States have died in shooting incidents with local constabularies, disproportionate to any other sector of the population. We are not discussing mistreatment. We are discussing death, or murder depending on what perspective you have. I am not in a position to comment on how this happens, the merits either way, the law and the power of special tribunals or grand juries that have time and again exonerated those accused. There is also no way that the actions of the few can create any demerit on countless fine law enforcement personnel who risk their lives every day and do their communities an extraordinary service. We know this to be true of these brave men and women, all year round, not just during natural disasters and tragic events like the recent shooting in Las Vegas. We also must concede that whatever the rules, whatever the disadvantages and however the current problems play out, it is an extraordinary service rendered to get up every day and go to a job from which you might not return.
However, there is nevertheless this trend, of young black men and women dying in unclear and objectionable circumstances, that is not only impossible to disregard but has a permeating counterpoint to the whole topic of community safety and the trust of officials who have that responsibility. It is a responsibility – of trust earned and trust lost. It is not just a job. So, when ordinary commentators- myself included – review this situation we have facts, figures and trend lines that are not pretty. We don’t know exactly where to put the blame, and what drives this wheelhouse of death and destruction. We just know that it exists, and it doesn’t seem to be correcting itself, despite public outrage and protest. Though it is a shameful embarrassment that exact statistics of these shootings are ‘officially unavailable’ – social media and the newspapers lead us to believe that it’s about 1,000 people a year, of which black men and women and minorities represent approximately 650 – two thirds of the total.
It is part of a larger statistic regarding gun violence in the United States. 5000 people have been gunned down in the city of Chicago since 2001, most recently in the so-called ‘gun free zone’, disproportionately affecting the black and minority communities. In comparison, 2000 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the beginning of operations in roughly the same time frame. Whichever way you slice it – Black Americans are dying at a faster rate than any other group.
Now imagine that you are a young African American man, showered with the good fortune of being an NFL star. In what world would you not recognize, not only your success on the backdrop of the African American community at large, but how what you did and the position you held, no matter how noteworthy, could do nothing to stop that dreadful wheelhouse of death for your brothers and sisters? Yes, this is intensely personal, and those who do not see it as a personal and deeply felt wound, have just completely ‘missed the boat’.
Now to the United States Constitution. Having defined seven separate areas of regulation, Article I on Congress; Article II on the President and the Executive; Article III on the Courts; Article IV on Full faith and Credit among the States; Article V on the power to adopt Amendments; Article VI on Supremacy of the Constitution as the Law of the Land; and Article VII on Ratification – it must have seemed like a towering omission to not mention the People. We the People -for whom the Constitution had been designed, and in whose name, and by whose authority it was to function, and whose mention in the first three words of the Preamble, defined what Abraham Lincoln would refer to as a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Enter the Bill of Rights – the ten amendments enshrining protections to the People and their rights and duties as citizens. The original Bill of Rights still had congressional housekeeping issues in the first two amendments. Those two amendments were not adopted in 1789, the second of which now appears as the 27th amendment ratified in 1992. Here is the first amendment as passed in 1789.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In the Bill of Rights, it is appropriate to attach importance to the order in which items are noted, so it is of interest that these particular freedoms come first. Freedom to not have a religion forced upon you by governmental fiat, and therefore, the corollary – Freedom to practice a religion of your own choosing. Freedom of speech (expression), of the press and the right to peaceably assemble in protest to petition for a redress of grievance. Note that the religious protections afforded were not to guard from other religions, but from different denominations within the Christian fold. March 2017 edition of Muse, Prose and Cons explores those details.
It is odd that we Americans view these as inherent rights. The first amendment does not grant them as inherent rights, but rather forbids Congress, i.e the Federal Government from making any laws to the contrary. However, so deeply ingrained are these privileges reserved to the people, and obviously ones denied under British colonial rule, that they are a touchstone of emotion, and have been since the time of the founding.
If a redress of grievance is constitutionally enshrined as a right – then it de facto proposes the incompleteness of the American experiment, and the constant goal of striving towards perfection from a state of imperfection. The incomplete pyramid on the One Dollar bill, and its Latin inscription ‘Annuit Coeptis’ – ‘He (God) Favors Our Undertaking’ symbolizes precisely the ongoing journey of democratic principles and how preciously held the concept. In this case, an undertaking referring to something which is begun-not that which is finished. Similarly, ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ – the New Order of the Ages connotates a beginning, not an ending. This constant demand for review and improvement is the bedrock of democracy, and requires effort to maintain, effort to move, and most of all today, effort to safeguard. The Greeks knew this. Those who were private to themselves and did not participate in Athenian democracy by exercising their rights to vote were referred to as idiotes. That’s where the word comes from.
When I was growing up in England, attending marvelous schools steeped in strong Christian traditions, there was always a moment where – depending on the architecture of the chapel – the congregation would face towards the altar for the Creed. Many students who did not have Christian beliefs were allowed to remain facing front, not complicating with hypocrisy, a physical notion to conform. Even at a young age, it was a known practice amongst contemporaries of various different faiths – but nevertheless a protected right. These Schools, with Founding Charters that mandated Christian worship as a core part of the curriculum, still put a large premium on individual expression and personal responsibility. It is worth noting that there were differences in obeisance and observance between Rome and the Church of England, – when to bow, when to kneel and so on – so it was within the ranks of Christianity as much as without. Later on as Choirmaster and Organist of my College at Oxford, vested in cassock and surplice, processing in a place of honor just in front of officiating clergy and bishops, as a Zoroastrian, I did not turn during the creed, though from the Introit, to the closing hymn, worship could not have continued smoothly without me physically bringing the choir to order. Some context might be necessary. Oriel College is deeply rooted in Christianity. It is Oriel, The House of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Oxford. Its visitors and governors since its founding in 1326 have been high ranking ecclesiastics. In the 1840’s Pusey, Newman and other ‘tractarians’ were engaged in the Oxford Movement, in which Oriel was front and center. John Henry Newman, recently beatified, would later convert to Rome and would end his life as a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. On a recent visit to Oriel Chapel I was quite chuffed that my name, which appears on the list of organ scholars, appears a few feet away from Newman’s which appears on the list of chaplains. My appointment to Oriel as Choirmaster – the first non-Christian in the college’s long and illustrious history forced a discussion with the governing body and Fellows of the College – so I’m told. I am ever grateful that they chose for the first time – in my favor- to regard the position of Choirmaster as a musical one and not a religious appointment. Despite these High Anglican traditions there was not a single objection to my neutrality during the Creed – nor would the ecclesiastics have tolerated the hypocrisy, any more than if I had gone up to the altar rail for communion but not been religiously confirmed to accept it. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Here’s the point. Remaining in place, kneeling, not kneeling, bowing, not bowing, facing, not facing were neutral stances with absolutely no disrespect given, nor taken.
Recently, some African American athletes, and others who have joined their cause, have resorted to their rights under the first amendment to petition for redress of grievance. Having been unable to move policy, or government, or law in their favor through elected representatives and the democratic course – (note the institutional sidestepping in this last election cycle of “Black Lives Matter” as having insufficient political sway or reasoning)- they sought to redress their grievance by bringing it into the public eye, by the act of kneeling during the national anthem.
Athletes – especially African American athletes – have long been politicized, even when they didn’t seek it for themselves. When Olympian Jesse Owens made a complete nonsense of the white supremacy cause – right from the start under the nose of Adolf Hitler at the Berlin games in 1936, it was politics. When Jackie Robinson broke barriers just to take a place due to him through merit, it was politics. When Carl Lewis was prevented from attending the Moscow games in 1980, it was politics. When Kareem Abdul Jabbar took his politically charged position, it was politics. So, let’s not have any hollow objections about keeping politics out of sport. And not just politics. When a Jewish player with strong conviction refuses to play on Yom Kippur, it is his right to do so and it is a right protected under the constitution. We didn’t find ourselves in this moment by accident.
Now, alone and aware of the potential consequences, these NFL athletes were ‘brave’ enough to take a position and ‘free’ enough by the rights afforded to them under law. There was no flag burning, no desecration of any symbol, there was no disrespect to the military, there was none of that. The athletes – if they had ‘mooned’ or ‘flipped-off’ the crowd, as occasionally happens at soccer matches in Europe – would still be exercising their constitutionally protected freedom of expression. This had nothing to do with the flag, or its military symbolism, so let’s leave all that nonsensical objection where it belongs.
They knelt. Something, people do not always successfully accomplish in church. Please find me a single instance in all of human history where kneeling has been a sign of disrespect – and then the conversation can be two sided. Until then, this constitutionally protected freedom which apparently allows the President to ponce about wreaking global havoc and the Vice President to leave a Colts game in a preplanned manner, before a single play had been made – to make a staged political point, (wasn’t everyone there to honor Peyton Manning at half-time?) – surely allows these athletes to kneel to make theirs.
Also, while the anthem is playing, and some hands are hypocritically on heart, as frenzied crowds – baying for blood – are booing athletes who may themselves have served in the military, and certainly who have close family members who currently serve – and the work of Annuit Coeptis remains undone – remember that the highest musical note of the anthem, and the culmination of its words are “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The flag flies because of this renewed promise. Countless men and women have given what President Lincoln referred to as ‘the last full measure of devotion’ for the ideals and freedoms expressed in the Constitution. They didn’t die so that trumped up caretakers could one day order people to obey emotionally charged populist and totalitarian views and that the fickle mob would triumph over the law. The anthem’s words talk of a flag that flies – and will ever fly – despite and during adversity. Celebrate that!!
The athletes who kneel to bring note to injustice are not complicating with hypocrisy, a physical notion to conform, without understanding what it all means. They also hold a quadruple endorsement from the US Constitution and are both free and brave whilst exercising those endorsements. Those in college administration who pander to the crowd, egged on by a despotic bully, by cutting players who exercise these rights, should consider what kind of future civil discourse they are fostering. Academic institutions are supposed to be the last line of defense against mind control and the mindless mob. There is no excuse. No lost revenue. Just lost honor. Those at the top of our government, who swore to protect the Constitution in their oath of office, and in so many instances have yet to uphold it, should take the time to read the Constitution before trampling the rights it affords.