(Un)bend the knee
Devon Chenelle | Monday, September 4, 2017
During the most recent season of Game of Thrones, HBO’s wildly popular fantasy series, perhaps no theme was more vital — nor was any phrase more often repeated — than the question of allegiance invited by characters’ incessant exhortations to “bend the knee” and affirm the political submission symbolized therein. Viewers await each Sunday to find out if each character will choose or decline to bend the knee, and to enjoy the fallout.
For all that, Thrones’ might not have the most riveting patella-related tension on TV, or even on Sundays. With all respect to the charged interplay between Jon (Aegon) Snow (Targaryen) and his aunt/lover Daenerys Targaryen, hours before primetime and on channels far removed from the rarefied air of premium cable, a melodrama comparable to anything in King’s Landing airs. This drama plays out far from Westeros in the less fantastic, if comparably dangerous, world of professional football, although the symbology of knee bending is quite different. During the 2016 NFL preseason, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers seated himself during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, explaining, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” concluding his protests would not end until the American flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent.” The simmering controversy had gasoline thrown on it last month, when over a dozen members of the hapless Cleveland Browns kneeled during the national anthem, the players acting in response to skirmishing in Charlottesville, Virginia, ignited by attempts to topple statues of famous Confederates.
Let me be completely clear: I hate Illinois Nazis just as much as Jake and Elwood Blues, and I was long mystified and irked by the idolization of the treasonous bigots who commanded the South’s traitor armies. Nonetheless, these developments are troubling. I make no individual moral judgment on anyone who protests in this way, and indeed sympathize with them. It is entirely their right to protest in such a fashion, and the act itself, risking self for cause and belief, is a morally commendable one. Furthermore, I cannot imagine how it would make me feel to live in a country where my people, after being kidnapped, sold and enslaved, lived the nation’s first 100 years as human livestock and the second 100 as half-citizens and are still oppressed by the criminal justice system that, per the Sentencing Project, imprisons a staggering one-third of all black men at some point in their lives. I cannot imagine how it would feel to walk around my city and see heroic statues of men who began a civil war for the explicit purpose of keeping my race in bondage. It requires no great leap of the imagination to see myself being filled with outrage at being forced to accept such a system.
I am convinced these protests — eminently understandable, seemingly unavoidable — are potentially damning. This new America, this America of Group Identity and anti-Solidarity will be much harder to run than the America of homogeneity and unity. When it no longer becomes “our” history to wrestle with and confront together as one nation, but rather a battlefield for different interest groups to push their agendas and grievances upon, it makes this country a whole lot less cohesive. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Those words were most famously said by Abraham Lincoln, but they first came from Christ, directly in Mark, but a little differently in Matthew, where he says “every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Similarly, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan notes “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand,” written after his native England was scoured by decades of internecine conflict.
The need for a shared national myth is no small thing. Our country is staggeringly massive and head-spinningly diverse, and it has every reason to fall apart at the seams. All this makes our need for a shared national story and set of civic values acutely necessary. This country is, although this term is overused, a family, and like you tolerate your oafish drunken uncles at Thanksgiving, your less couth countrymen also are best dealt with using a rolled eye and a closed ear.
As tensions escalate and political violence in the streets, once unthinkable, grows more common, Americans need to take a deep breath and consider where we might be heading and whether we can still get off this train before it takes us somewhere I know no one wants to go. Perhaps it would be best for Americans to follow the lead of Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister, at least temporarily swallowing their rage, humiliation and indignation and straighten their knees to confront a greater danger — civil war.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.