The Kaepernickan Revolution
Media Rants by Tony Palmeri
Note: An audio version of this column can be found here.
In the 16th century a Prussian astronomer, building on the work of prior thinkers, forever changed humanity’s view of the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus put forward the [for the time] radical theory of heliocentrism; the idea that the Sun and not the Earth stood at the center of the universe. When some years after Copernicus’ death the Italian scholar Galileo adopted Copernicus’ views, he fueled a shit storm within the ruling Catholic hierarchy. Guided by the lethal combination of a literalist interpretation of Biblical texts, arrogance, intolerance, and ignorance, the Church fathers succeeded in silencing Galileo and kept him under house arrest for the last nine years of his life.
Today we look back on the Copernican Revolution in science and say, “wow, how could his critics have been that stupid?” Really the problem is not stupidity as much as the human tendency to confuse custom with truth. Consider the comments of Giovanni Tolosani, a theologian/astronomer who was Copernicus’ biggest critic: “For it is stupid to contradict an opinion accepted by everyone over a very long time for the strongest reasons, unless the impugner uses more powerful and insoluble demonstrations and completely dissolves the opposed reasons. But he does not do this in the least." (Italics added). Did you catch that? Tolosani believed that the fact that everyone accepts an opinion over a very long period of time somehow made that opinion stronger. And given that Tolosani saw his own reasons as coming straight from the Bible, it’s not clear what evidence Copernicus could have put forth to “completely dissolve” them.
In the USA of 2016 we’re living through the Kaepernickan Revolution; a revolution challenging some long accepted opinions about the national anthem, about injustice and inequality in America, about the responsibility of athletes (and really all of us) as citizens and about a range of related issues. I’m talking of course about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit (and then take a knee) during the national anthem to protest injustice. Were it not for the fact that Kaepernick and others following his lead have received death threats and other types of harassment for their actions, the opposition to them might be funny; lots of modern day Tolosani’s insisting that everyone should stand for the anthem because, well, everyone has always stood for it and there’s no good reason not to. The Earth is the center of the universe. Period.
We have a better understanding the universe not just because of Copernicus, but because other scientists dared to challenge the church fathers and search for the truth. Kaepernick’s protest picked up steam when other players followed suit. As of this writing, players from the Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles and other teams have sat, taken a knee, or raised a fist during the anthem. We’ve seen high school and college football players raise their voices, along with athletes in other sports. While the majority of protesters have so far been African-American, it is significant that many white athletes have shown support, as have a growing number of fans.
The modern Tolosani’s, fearful of anything contesting their customs, will continue to try and belittle Kaepernick and others as spoiled, unpatriotic athletes. But what’s been refreshing is how reasonable and insightful the protesting players come across. Kaepernick’s actions succeeded in opening up a media space for athlete dissent that we can only hope stay open. Consider these comments from Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jared Odrick, part of his much longer opinion piece appearing in Sports Illustrated:
“As an NFL player, I’ve asked myself on multiple occasions, do I want to speak the truth or do I want to make money? (Brandon Marshall lost anendorsement deal for protesting.) The league pays lip service to the notion that its athletes are valued as conscientious community members . . . I can do a franchise-friendly interview in my sleep, but when we step outside the bounds of third-down efficiency, we are vilified and told to keep quiet . . . Exercising a First Amendment right isn’t an affront to our military. The notion that the flag is sacred and untouchable – or that it has pledged the same allegiance to everyone – is one of the great hypocrisies of our time . . . When Kaepernick bucked the system, he forced people to reflect on the constructs they accepted or, worse, had never considered.” He might have added, “Yes, the Earth orbits the Sun. Deal with it.”
Or consider Kaepernick’s own reaction to the death threats he’s received: “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country and people don’t like to address that and they don’t like to address what the root of this protest is.” He’s going to be donating $100,000 per month to social justice organizations. A website will be set up to track how the money is spent.
If you’re still bothered by national anthem protests, reflect on the words of the great American revolutionary Thomas Paine: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” Challenging custom moves society forward. That’s the Copernican Revolution. And the Kaepernickan too.