Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Libsplaining “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Colin Kaepernick. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.)
“Mansplaining”, originally defined as the tendency of men to explain the frickin’ obvious to women in a patronizing tone, lost its unique vitality and appropriateness by being applied to any situation where men dared contradict feminist dogma. Eventually it met its conservative matches in “femsplaining” and “libsplaining”. Any portmanteau word which includes -splaining can pretty much be taken to mean “ideologically-motivated bulls**t”. While libsplaining is often employed to defend visible-from-space liberal hypocrisies, like George Takei’s labeling Clarence Thomas “a clown in blackface”, it has a more subtle use: rewriting history.

Kaepernick Sits It Out

On Saturday, August 27, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem at the beginning of an exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers. Explaining his refusal, the biracial Kaepernick, who is a supporter of #BlackLivesMatter, said, “There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part, and they’re government officials. They’re put in place by the government. That’s something this country has to change. There are things that we can do to hold them more accountable, make those standards higher.”

Predictably, there was outrage, and it wasn’t confined to white conservatives. Many NFL players admitted Kaepernick’s right to not stand, but felt his decision was wrong. Said New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, “Regardless of how you feel about the things that are going on in America today and the things that are going on across the world with gun violence and things of that nature, you’ve got to respect the flag.” Retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Florida congressman Allen B. West chided Kaepernick:

Mr. Kaepernick, a biracial young man adopted and raised by white parents, claims America is oppressing blacks at a time when we have a black, biracial president who was twice elected. We’ve had two black attorneys general and currently have a black secretary of homeland security, along with a black national security advisor. Here in Dallas our police chief, whom I know, is an outstanding black leader. The officer in Milwaukee who shot the armed assailant after issuing an order to drop his weapon was black. Is Mr. Kaepernick following suit and cherry-picking what he terms “oppression?”

Star-Spangled Bigotry?

Although most people concede Kaepernick’s right to sit out the anthem, a few Social Justice Warriors have used his act as pretext to attack “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The Intercept’s Jon Schwartz writes, “Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans.” Shaun King, writing in the New York Daily News, repeats the trope slightly differently: “Most of us have no true idea what in the hell we’ve been hearing or singing all these years, but as it turns out, Key’s full poem actually has a third stanza which few of us have ever heard. In it, he openly celebrates the murder of slaves. Yes, really.”

No, not really. Both Schwartz and King are being dishonest. But before we drill into the historical context, we have to look at the third verse — the entire third verse, not just the four lines Schwartz and King trot out:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

F. S. Key Writes a Diss Track

Here’s the libsplain:

Francis Scott Key, the lyricist who composed “The Defence of Fort M’Henry”, was a boilerplate antebellum Southern aristocrat — “about as pro-slavery, anti-black, and anti-abolitionist as you could get at the time,” according to Jason Johnson. When British forces under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross routed a larger American army under Brig. Gen. William H. Winder at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 24, 1814), Key was serving as a lieutenant in a militia unit.

Part of Ross’ brigade was a company of 200 Colonial Marines. Formed by British Rear Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the Colonial Marines were composed of black freedmen and slaves who had been offered the options of either emigrating as free settlers to British territories or fighting for the Royal Navy. As such, they received equal pay and equal training under their British officers. The Colonial Marines later participated in the Burning of Washington and the Battle of Baltimore.

Key penned “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which later became “The Star-Spangled Banner”, after being inspired by the refusal of the fort to surrender during the Battle of Baltimore (September 13 – 14, 1814). “With Key still bitter that some black soldiers got the best of him a few weeks earlier,” claims Johnson, “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom.”

These are the facts that, according to King, make Key “a really terrible person”. Except that a couple of the “facts” aren’t facts at all. And Johnson leaves out more than he puts in.

Key and the Colonial Marines

First, the Colonial Marines weren’t “fighting for their freedom”. Britain had only recently illegalized slave-trading, and wouldn’t abolish slavery in her empire until twenty years later. It was never part of Britain’s war goals to repossess the US or force her to end slavery, but rather to hold on to such North American possessions as she still had. Although the Marines did assist the emigration of almost 1,500 slaves from Georgia, the British leaders’ primary motive was economic disruption, not universal emancipation. The Colonial Marines weren’t a true liberating army, as were the U.S. Colored Troops of the Civil War.

Second, that Key was not an abolitionist, and died critical of the abolitionist movement, is true. However, he also manumitted his own slaves. While as a lawyer he worked with slave-owners in enforcing the hated Fugitive Slave Act, he also worked pro bono with several slaves who sought their freedom judicially. He was critical enough of “the peculiar institution” and of slavery’s cruelty that by the time he died, taken together with his efforts on behalf of slaves, Key had earned the sobriquet “the N****r Lawyer”. Even given the biases of the time, that’s not a reputation you’d reasonably expect of someone who was “about as anti-black as you could get” — unless, of course, you’re committed to an unreasonable if-you’re-not-100%-for-us-you’re-against-us mentality.

Third, the same liberal cognitive “blind spot” which overlooks the fact that Sylville K. Smith had a gun and was raising it to shoot the Milwaukee cop, and overlooks the fact that said cop is also black, also overlooks the fact that the Colonial Marines were a military unit belonging to a nation with which we were at war. Had the men of the Colonial Marines been citizens, they would have been accounted traitors (cf. U.S. Constitution, Article 3 Section 3). In fact, more Marines died of disease in the British camp on Tangier Island than died in combat, a not-uncommon phenomenon of the time. Nevertheless, only in situations where the rules of war are violated, none of which obtain here, can combat deaths be rightfully described as “murder”.

Fourth, the Colonial Marines were 200 soldiers among over 6,000 at Bladensburg. Of the 7,000 militia and 1,000 regulars on the American side, Key, a mere lieutenant, was nowhere near the top of the command tree. Bladensburg was never the personal mano-a-mano confrontation Johnson makes it out to be.

Not Nat Turner’s Rebellion

In sum, to make the case that the third verse “celebrates the murder of African-Americans”, the libsplain: 1) misrepresents the reason for the Colonial Marines’ existence; 2) exaggerates both Key’s and the Colonial Marines’ roles in the Bladensburg rout; 3) stereotypes Key as a black-hater; 4) treats the few Marine combat deaths like the Bataan Death March or the Katyn Forest Massacre; and 5) conveniently “forgets” that the Marines were playing on the other guys’ team.

But then, how do we explain the reference to “the hireling and slave”? In any context other than the liberal “cult of victimhood”, it would be considered a poetic reference to mercenary soldiers and conscripts (“draftees”). If anything, the fifth and sixth lines exaggerate the end of the battle. The Battle of Baltimore would have been another American defeat had not British Col. Arthur Brooke, who had taken over when Gen. Ross was killed, been stymied by the refusal of US Maj. George Armistead to surrender Ft. McHenry. The defense of Ft. McHenry was the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal American performance. When Brooke sent the ships back to the main British fleet, the American forces were too disordered to chase them. The libsplain makes too much of Key’s hyperbole.

The Colonial Marines weren’t innocent victims of a race-inspired slaughter. They were soldiers who occasionally met death on the battlefield, as other soldiers have done since before history. The War of 1812 was not a war to end slavery; it was an unnecessary and futile appendix to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. By becoming soldiers, the Marines stopped being victims: in that transformation lies such dignity as does them honor. However, in becoming soldiers of an enemy nation, they lost any special protection due civilians under the laws of war. Their defection to the British was not morally equivalent to Nat Turner’s rebellion.

“The Highest of American Ideals”

Of all the reactions that are still rolling in on Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, the best in my opinion comes from a black Army Ranger veteran, Dorian Majied, who told the Independent Journal, “Kaepernick was wrong in his delivery and protested the wrong symbols of America. The American flag and National Anthem represent the highest of American ideals, not the lowest ideals.”

[Kaepernick] made valid points[;] I’m not ignoring that there are still issues with race in America. However, he is ignoring the positive ideals of America that every colored person who has ever served, fought — while some died — for, by refusing to stand. Proper action is exactly that, action, not the inaction of not standing because he couldn’t think of a better way to protest.

It seems silly to spend so much effort exposing a bogus interpretation of a verse few people know and nobody sings, especially an interpretation that was never necessary to justify Kaepernick’s decision. Yet Kaepernick’s protest shows how influential a deceptive and distractive narrative of African-American problems, such as that propounded by #BlackLivesMatter, can be. Libsplaining to justify the most obvious of liberal hypocrisies may seem silly. Distorting American history to libsplain a public figure’s disrespect for national symbols is serious business.