Sunday, August 28, 2016

What So Proudly We Hailed

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to deliberately sit while the National Anthem was played at the start of a preseason game on Friday.   After the game, he stated that he didn't want to "show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color....this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.  There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

I have numerous, sometimes conflicting thoughts on this one, so bear with me...

First, kudos to him for taking a stand for something he believes in.   I'm not going to tackle  the validity of his statement on racial oppression.   Ultimately, it doesn't matter if I agree with his position or not.  He is taking a principled stand on an issue he feels strongly about, an issue that he might be somewhat insulated from given his wealth and success, yet he is willing to risk at least some of that prosperity and popularity to make his point.

And I say that as someone who truly loves our National Anthem.   I get chills every time I hear it.   I get annoyed (and offended) when I see someone sitting, or leaving their hat on, or talking and laughing while it's being played.  In college, I would take great umbrage at basketball games when students who were Baltimore Orioles fans, when the song says "Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave," would emphasize the first syllable of the line and make an "O" with their arms. Such actions trivialize what to me is a solemn ritual that commemorates the spirit and resolve our nation has exhibited throughout our history.

So I understand the anger that Kaepernick's protest evokes.  And I think choosing the National Anthem as the means to elevate the issue of civil rights winds up being counter-productive because the motive gets lost in the noise of the reaction to the act.   You can't open people's minds right after you've made them viscerally angry by disrespecting what they hold dear.  A far more effective use of sports celebrity status to raise awareness to the state of race relations in this country was the statement made by Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul during the cold open to the Espy broadcast in July.

But the anger is misplaced.  Kaepernick was not trivializing the anthem like those Orioles fans who annoyed me in college.  He is making a deliberate protest.  I found great irony in the articles this weekend touting how the New York Giants made a point to have every player and every staff member standing for the anthem during their game yesterday.   If what Kaepernick did by not standing is so unusual, so against the norm, why would it be such a big deal for ALL of the Giants to be standing yesterday?  Shouldn't they be doing that EVERY game?  What the articles inherently imply is that during the anthem before a typical game, at least some players and staff are too busy or apathetic to stand.   How is that not worse than what Kaepernick did?

Ultimately, the symbol of our country is not a flag, or a song about a flag.  Neither of those things make our nation great.   Our freedoms make us who we are, and what better symbol of that freedom than a citizen taking a deliberate stand, no matter how unpopular?  The National Anthem is indeed a solemn ritual that commemorates our national spirit and resolve.  Not just our courage in war, but also our steadfastness in seeking solutions for our many great problems, including racial division and inequity.     

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Citizen's Dilemma

As an active-duty naval officer, writing a blog that discusses citizenship and politics during an election year can be fraught with peril.   It is certainly contrary to my oath of office and Department of Defense guidance to publicly endorse a particular candidate.   As military professionals, we are expected to be apolitical, loyal only to the constitution in the execution of our duties.   Yet unlike some countries, we do allow our uniformed service members to participate in the electoral process, and although I will keep my own counsel as to who I ultimately choose to mark on my ballot, it is certainly within the bounds of propriety for me to discuss the dynamics of the election and provide a few morsels for thought.

Quite frankly, in the big picture, there is very little in this election year worthy of endorsement.     This is an election in which many of the established rules and norms have been thrown out the window, including a sitting Supreme Court Justice making public comments disparaging a presidential candidate.  An election campaign during which a major party candidate has encouraged a foreign country to hack the emails of his competitor, who in turn chastised him for putting national security at risk, while at the same time denying that her careless use of an ad-hoc IT infrastructure was ever cause for similar concern, despite comments to the contrary by the Director of the FBI.

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Election 2016.

And then we have the recent spectacle of a presidential candidate making disparaging comments about a gold-star family.  To be fair, the Khan family willingly entered the vicious arena of public discourse and therefore some observers may conclude they are fair game for criticism.   But it should go without saying that callously attacking the parents of a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country shows incredibly poor judgment, discretion, and wisdom.   Yes, the Democrats set a trap for the Republican candidate.   And he walked right into it.

It may very well be an apocryphal story, but I seem to remember during the 1996 election, Bob Dole's campaign strategy was publicly criticized by John McCain in a rare (at the time) display of intra-party fratricide.  When asked about it at a press conference, Bob Dole replied something to the effect of, "That man spent seven years in a box for his country.  He's earned the right to say whatever he wants to about me."   Bob Dole is a true statesman, a man who himself suffered greatly for his country, and a former athlete who never forgot that one doesn't need to swing at every pitch that comes their way.

When I studied government and public policy as an undergrad in the mid-nineties, the overarching concern at the time was the dearth of political participation and voter turnout.   Countless academics and intellectuals feared that our fragile democracy was going to wither due to neglect.   Now we face a far different problem, in which the centrifugal forces of rabid partisanship and unwillingness to compromise threaten to spin apart the machinery of our democratic process. Although it is a recurring lament in the modern media age that our elections lack any substantive discussion of the issues, we are definitely at a new low in this particular cycle.  Have we as a society made the presidential election so vapid, so difficult, such a marathon slog through meaningless appearances and posturing, focusing more on avoiding the errant gaffe than providing anything remotely resembling vision and leadership, that we are finally getting the candidates we deserve?  Have we driven out the true servant leaders, leaving only the vain and self-entitled to vie for public office?  As Plato, quoting Socrates, wrote in The Republic"He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself."  Quite possibly we are in for a string of one-term presidents, much like during the pre-Civil War period, until we get ourselves sorted out politically.  (Although I believe that such a "sorting" will be done without the violence of that previous era.)

So what is a citizen to do, in such an election when many voters find themselves opposed to a particular candidate more than they are inspired by another?

One option is to not vote at all.  In general this is something I would discourage.  Voting is not only the right of a citizenship, it is one of its most sacred obligations.  Yet there is a powerful statement sent by not voting, in withholding a mandate and making it clear through low voter turnout that no matter who wins, he or she does not speak for a vast portion of the American electorate.  My only advice, if one chooses to not vote for a presidential candidate, is to not ignore the state and local elections further down the ballot.

Voting for a third party candidate, or a write-in nominee, is another obvious choice for those dissatisfied with the major party nominees and sends a similar, yet more focused message, than not voting at all.  However, third party voting presents a sort of prisoner's dilemma in that you are relying on the cooperation of numerous other voters to vote the same way in order to break the monopoly of our two-party system.   For better or worse, the design of our political ecosystem is one in which there is only enough oxygen to viably sustain two parties of consequence.  Sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good, and third-party voting risks allowing the election of the greater of two perceived evils.

In a political election, there are four characteristics a voter should look for in a candidate:  issue alignment, character, experience, and competence.   When none of the available options meets all (or even most) of the criteria, you have to prioritize.  Which leads to the final option, what I would describe in game theory parlance as a "minimax" strategy, that is to vote for the candidate that will do the least damage.  Or put more colloquially, if you don't like the direction any of them are driving, pick the one least likely to run the car into a ditch.

Regardless, you have an important choice to make this November.  Good luck.  We're all counting on you.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense