|Photo by Gage Skidmore|
Perhaps realizing that he will fare poorly against any Democratic challenger if he runs on his serially irresponsible and inconsistent platform for mauling Nevada’s public institutions, public lands, and public welfare, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt is instead turning to the most powerful weapon in any Republican’s arsenal. How better to distract Republican citizens from the wreckage he wants to make of the schools, healthcare, landscape, and civic infrastructure they share with their Democratic neighbors, than to huff and puff and blow on the dog-whistle?
Laxalt’s tune of choice involves bombarding people on his e-mail list with comically loaded survey questions, asking them if they oppose the federal government killing all babies (I exaggerate, but just barely). His most recent survey question involves an issue surely weighing on the minds of all Nevadans: NFL players and the First Amendment.
The question itself asked voters whether they “agree that NFL players should stand for our National Anthem?” The accompanying text declared that “While the first amendment guarantees our right to free speech, NLF players’ protest is disrespectful to our flag and those who have fought and died to defend our nation.”
I can’t help but think that for most Nevadans, healthcare, education, transit, public services, public lands, and other questions around political-economy probably loom largest in their minds. But Laxalt’s decision to run this survey question does offer a useful window into his thinking and his campaign.
Laxalt’s basic argument is that NFL players’ protest is offensive to our military. That claim demonstrates one of two things. Either Laxalt is seriously dumb (doubtful given his accomplishments) or he is fundamentally dishonest.
As players’ own words, never mind the tens of thousands of words of reporting about their actions have made clear, they are not protesting the U.S. military. Rather, they are protesting systemic inequalities in the way that police in our country behave toward citizens in our country. They are protesting how a justice system, far from being blind, sees very vividly in color, a legacy not just of hundreds of years of institutionalized racism, but of denial of the same over the past several decades.
The insistence on maintaining that athletes’ protests are there somehow an insult to the military tells us some things. It firstly indicates that there is a deep disinclination of both citizens and public figures to listen to protesters to understand their cause. That Laxalt--deliberately or through ignorance, and unless he is a literal troglodyte it’s certainly the former--chooses to ignore their well-substantiated claims speaks particularly poorly of him, because as state Attorney General it is his responsibility to think long and hard about how law functions and is implemented and experienced by the state’s citizens.
The insistence on lying in this particular way about the basis for athletes’ protests--claiming that they are trying to insult the military--also suggests a toxic mindset about nationalism, patriotism, and the military in our country. There is a long and pathetic tradition in our country of urging people to “rally ‘round the flag” as a way of distracting from other issues or shutting down other conversations.
There is an equally sordid tradition of trying to claim that the military maintains some kind of monopoly on national symbols and discourse. The military, like other public institutions, exists to serve the citizens, and any suggestion that we should, voluntarily or otherwise, subordinate our claims on rights to an institution that is for better or worse about coercion, is extremely dangerous and undemocratic. Flags, anthems, and other symbols of our nation, along with the rights they are supposed to represent, belong first and foremost to citizens, and not to any particular category of people.
The reality is that since 1945 the U.S. military has almost never been deployed in conflict to defend the public interest of the U.S. Rather, it has been deployed to defend often deeply-flawed national security nostrums, or the power and profits of American companies. It has been deployed to defend or augment American hegemony, which far from serving the public interest, is often self-defeating and destructive. These realities do not lessen the individual sacrifices that members of the military have made, but they should caution the public about accepting the claim that the military is wielded in order to defend our rights. The suggestion that this is true ranks with the disingenuous claim, “They hate us for our freedoms,” a blanket assertion designed to sweep away a century of politics and relationships and entanglements.
Even if the military did regularly work to protect Americans’ rights, that does not give it and its “supporters” the ability to invoke their work and sacrifice to shut down other conversations. This is what military officials and the Bush administration sought to do in order to quiet critics as they dispatched American soldiers to kill and be killed in a fruitless, illegal war in Iraq. If anything demonstrates disrespect for sacrifice, it was and is the decision by these powerful men and women, and others like them, to hide behind the bodies of dead American soldiers to avoid being called to account for their crimes.
So when Adam Laxalt first lies about the purpose of athletes’ protests, and then invokes the military to shut down discussion about the actual reason for those protests, he is showing us that he is fully prepared to participate in a nasty and dangerous tradition that has been used to silence debate, redirect scrutiny, and foreclose opportunities to make our country more just and equal. It also indicates that as governor he would not take inequities in law enforcement and the law itself seriously, and that he is perfectly happy to subordinate fundamental rights to the basest of political ends.