symbolic gesture: (adj + n) an action performed to represent a meaning beyond the action itself
I could kneel down
to pick a weed
from the garden
I could kneel down
I could kneel down
an in justice
What is important?
The act of kneeling,
or the intent?
We attended a wedding recently. Weddings are full of symbolic gestures: the Wedding March, the father giving away the bride, the vows, the rings, the kiss, the first dance, the meal, the cake, tossing the bouquet and garter, etc. These represent the act of committing their lives, physically, financially, emotionally, to each other. These represent the joining of families and community. Rarely can one sustain a relationship in a social vacuum.
As we left the church, I noticed a plaque on the wall honoring “Those Who Served” from that rural community. The plaque did not identify in which war, but by the style I would guess WWI or WWII. Yet, these communities have existed in this region of the country since the Colonial Era. Washington marched troops through this Frontier on the way to and from the Battle of Monongahela under the command of General Braddock during the French and Indian War. The Revolutionary War passed only a mountain or two to the east. The Civil War split this region in loyalties. The tradition of military service continued through each of the 20th centuries international conflicts to the present era.
Honoring veterans through symbolic gestures is also a strong tradition here. Re-enactors provide living history events. Memorial Day and Veterans Day decorate the roads with flags and cemeteries with luminaries. When an active duty soldier returns home on leave he or she is applauded at sporting events. Monuments abound.
Yet, recently, those monuments have taken on more controversial meanings. The traditional symbolic gestures have been usurped by those who would take down the monuments because they see something other than revered leaders, and those who would surround the monuments bearing torches asserting their inherent domination. One group sees the horror of slavery, the other their race’s superiority. Different meanings. Different symbolic gestures.
Such controversies encroach onto other traditions, such as the singing of the National Anthem. Why do we stand, turn toward the flag, and place our right hand over our heart to sing prior to sporting events int he USA? What did Colin Kaepernick mean when he sat, then knelt during the National Anthem before a football game last year? What does other athletes mean when they do the same now?
Mr. Kaepernick’s statement was that they was showing solidarity with Black citizens who were killed by White citizens or police. He questioned how he could stand and honor a nation which demonstrated, in his mind, injustice. His team’s management did not re-new his contract. No other team will hire him, even though he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Is this a symbolic gesture on the part of the NFL management? If so, what meaning does the NFL believe, and what message are they wishing to convey? Team work? Total control of the players? Don’t mix politics and sports?
If the last statement were true, why do we have the tradition of mixing patriotism, via singing the National Anthem before the game, with sports?
A bit of history: on September 13, 1814, Frances Scott Key was in Baltimore on a mission to negotiate a prison exchange with the sieging British forces. After a night of bombardment of Fort McHenry, he observed the American Flag flying, and he penned a poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry”. He shared this poem with his brother-in-law, who noticed that it fit nicely with a club drinking song, “The Anacreontic Song”. He took it to a music publisher, which renamed it “The Star Spangled Banner” for better marketing purposes.
During the 19th century the song was popular at parades, especially on Independence Day. In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy declared it to be the official tune played with the raising of the flag. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson deemed that it should be played at official military ceremonies. During the 1918 World Series, in Chicago, the Cub’s had it played for the Seventh-Inning-Stretch. The players turned toward the flag. The fans stood. When the series moved to Boston, the Red Sock’s one-upped the Cubs by playing it before the game. In 1931, Congress officially named it as our National Anthem.
During WWII, baseball games began using it regularly before the game to promote patriotism. The military was segregated at the time. People of Japanese descent were moved to Internment Camps in the Western states because of fears that they would not be loyal to the nation. Were we fighting a war to free Europeans from internal tyranny and external threats, or freedom for all people?
Does the NFL carry implied symbolic gestures of a slave tradition? Is the NFL draft much different from a slave auction? Are players people or property of the NFL teams, to be sold and traded when their value increases (e.g. they helped win the Super Bowl) or diminishes? Are they punished for not adhering to the team’s behavior policies on and off the field? Is there a difference in the racial mix of the team owners, fans, and players?
The concept of team work implies that individual players set aside his or her personal agendas for the greater good of the team. Being a star player is about positioning the team to win a game and series, not about getting a better contract. Taking a hit or injury is about sacrificing one’s personal well-being to advance the team. Showing up for practices and warm ups is about preparing one’s self to be in top-shape for the game. Saying goodbye to family when traveling is about placing one’s personal life on hold for a few days while the team goes to another region to play at another team’s home stadium. Staying for the after-game stand-shake and award ceremonies is about honoring those who played well. Standing for the National Anthem is about remembering that our leisure to play and attend sports occurs because of the leaders and enlisted men and women who have protected our national boundaries and status.
Is this why sing the National Anthem before games? Patriotism? E pluribus unum? Or, is it about substituting sports for war? Being the winning team on the field of battle? Or, is it about conformity and control? Bow to the nation regardless of how you are treated? Obey the master or be destroyed.
One issue I see in the debate is that what one or another group means by its symbolic gesture can change over time. Did Frances Scott Key anticipate 200 years ago that his poem would be sung at sporting events in the USA or protested by some? Did the Confederate soldier and Sons of Confederate Soldiers who erected monuments to their fallen peers and leaders anticipate that re-enactment groups and white supremacists and Black Lives Matters supporters would face off over those monuments one hundred years later?
I shall not claim to answer these questions for anyone else other than myself (answers implied above). But, I ask my readers to consider not just what you do, but why do you do it? Know what you believe. Be aware of how you enact that belief. Recognize that others may see your actions differently from how you intend them.
If Kaepernek claimed that he knelt in prayer, putting God before Country before Sports, would we view his gesture differently?
When we dressed for the wedding, I suggested that I would wear my cowboy boots. My wife vetoed this as a symbolic gesture that could be misunderstood by a rural community. In the receiving line, I complimented the groom on wearing his cowboys boots to the altar.