Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Empire and Establishment

Hopefully this will be the start of me back on a normal, twice weekly posting schedule. I never really should've taken the time off. Granted, dropping down to once a week during basketball, when I'm already posting a 1500-2000 word piece each week would make sense, but getting out of the habit of writing on the blog is bad form on my part. Mea culpa.

So, in this first post back (outside of the random Black Panther and Black Power piece I managed to throw together last month), I'll transition a little bit from basketball back to ponderous, intellectual life reflections. During the last month, I attended a whole heap of NCAA tournament games - nine to be exact - and there's a standard set of announcements that come with each. While they are hosting games mostly on college campuses, they try to keep the experience as uniform as possible to maintain some level of neutrality for the players.

At the start of each day of competition there's a national anthem (as one would expect, I guess) - I've written quite a bit here (even before it was a national storyline) about how I generally handle that piece of nationalistic liturgy for myself. I ran into a bit of a philosophical quandary during this year's tournament, though, because the wording of the announcement was unique (or at least it was the first time I noticed it).

The NCAA pre-game script included this invitation: "Please rise to honor America and all those who support our freedom at home and abroad." Obviously there's usually something about "honoring America" and I typically stand with my head bowed so as not to disrespect those who are worshiping, but the "support our freedom stuff" made me think.

One the surface, it's pretty benign. Freedom, even without a solid definition is pretty universally praised. We like freedom and people who support freedom are certainly worth honoring, I suppose - but there's also the implication that typically the phrasing used here denotes military or law enforcement - it's a celebration of power, at best, violence, at worst.

I've written pretty extensively as well about how I view the military (in short: for the most part well-intentioned, honorable people willing to sacrifice for something they believe in, just not by a means I can agree with). I believe all people deserve celebration in whatever ways they serve others, but to make a mass celebration of power and violence (even under the socially accepted guise of "good guys with guns" is deeply problematic for me). You add to the situation that I'm serving as media, representing a pretty well-known (at least in this context) outlet and sitting courtside, in full view of the crowd, there's a dynamic of whether I'm free to speak for myself or not.

I generally fall into the camp of, even if you're going to protest something, doing it in the midst of a ritual meant to celebrate that things isn't entirely loving. It seems almost disrespectful (which is why I usually stand with my head bowed - as did many players on many of the teams I watched - no visible kneeling though, at least in my memory).

At the same time, it's deeply troubling that we continue to creep ever closer to associating the military with the nation, the same way a demagogue tries to make the government or their own person synonymous with the country. It provides protection and horns in on the cult of national pride that exists pretty much everywhere.

One of the ironies of all this is that it comes amidst a renewed push for gun control in the US. One of the most pernicious problems in the US gun debate is the colonial notion of revolt against tyranny. There is an argument I'd like us to collectively discredit, which says that citizens should not only have the right, but have the obligation to arm themselves in case there's ever a need to overthrow a corrupt government. It's logically and practically problematic in the contemporary age for any number of reasons I might outline elsewhere later, but the underlying principle for this argument is that the State is not the nation; there is a difference between the people and the government.

That gets all blurred to death in an effective democracy (which we at least had in our memories and ideals, if not in reality), but it's both untrue and not entirely untrue. In the same way the government and the military are related and inexplicably intertwined with the nation, so are they not entirely synonymous with it.

Schools teach their students to say the Pledge of Allegiance in part to make them good and loyal citizens - it's an indoctrination of sorts; it's precisely what feels like is happening as we more and more connect the military to our understanding of nation. We're making war and violence inviolable. There's a long history (everywhere, but specifically in the US) of debate between militaristic and peacemaking forces, even within our elected governmental system, a history that's largely going away. We've become comfortable with the power our military might ensures for us to the point where using it to do our bidding is simply assumed by both political parties. The only arguments are when and where.

There are problems enough with nationalism, although they're to be expected in any nation. It gets deeper and stickier when we bring military might, power, and violence into the mix - in fact it's one of the signs of the end stages of Empire. Empires fall once the military becomes more than an ancillary tool.

In the end, though, it's all about power. The more ingrained something is in our everyday lives, the more important it appears to us. People may not spend much time on Facebook anymore, but if it went away tomorrow, we'd be upset - not because it's really important, but because it's become familiar.

I tend to be a person who likes doing everything with intention. I want to have a reason for everything or to find the best/most efficient/most defensible way of doing just about everything - from loading the dishwasher to how I spend money. The message implied in our actions is at least as, if not more important than, the actions themselves.

I know the NCAA was probably just trying to capitalize on a trend that gets them additional good will (Lord knows they need it) and not really thinking about the implications of what those words mean or who might be left out, confused, or troubled by them (if they even care, which I doubt), but they are important, nonetheless. Words mean something and they're worth thinking about.

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