I watched the Super Bowl and I was thrilled to see the Eagles win. It was a great game. But it was also a spectacular assault on the moral senses. Perhaps I noticed it more now that I don’t usually watch games. At the Super Bowl the volume is raised to 10 and we are supposed to submit to our overlords of militarism, nationalism, and materialism. A healthy dash of sexism and historical appropriation is also recommended.
This is all so normalized that to talk about it is to immediately render oneself a hand-wringing do-gooder unable to have fun. Oh believe me, I had fun last night. But yeah, I noticed what I was being asked to bow down to.
There were the manipulative pregame displays of patriotism, in which we’re told to bask in militaristic nationalism. Nothing could be more quintessentially patriotic than saluting our troops, our carefully depoliticized troops, who are always only protecting us, defending freedom, always ready to respond to aggression but never to deliver it.
History is carefully excised from the patriotism on offer here. The aggressive and acquisitive militarism that has defined centuries of American expansion is not to be seen. There is only “America the Beautiful” embodied most fully in the humble soldier. After watching last night’s display, it’s no wonder so many people have the impression that the point of singing the national anthem is to honor soldiers in particular.
It is to be expected that nations would recognize and honor the important role that soldiers play in a fallen world. And whatever we think of the big questions of war and peace, it is unjust for us to be dismissive of the sacrifices soldiers make while we happily enjoy the fruits of their efforts.
The problem here is that patriotism has become militarized, so that the highest and fullest expression of American nationalism is the depoliticized and dehistoricized American soldier. This is an anti-republican ethos more suited to empire than a democratic state. But perhaps that’s fitting. Though our national self-image speaks of freedom and democracy, our celebrations tell a different story. We honor America not through self-government and civic-mindedness but by paying lip service to the sacrifices of soldiers.
And so protesting racism and police brutality on the NFL’s stage was unpatriotic. Somehow kneeling during the National Anthem had something to do with the troops. If you have a republican conception of citizenship and patriotism, this never would have occurred to you. But if deep down you believe in a militarized American empire, the logic works.
The debate over the player protests has not been about whether NFL games would become politicized. It has always been about whose politics would be displayed. And this is all quite cynical. In militarism there is money to be made. Concern for human life doesn’t sell. It offends too many Americans.
And then there were the commercials. Advertising in general is something not to be taken for granted. Basically, there was a time when it did not exist. Now it does. We are molded by it and we like it. I’m trying to raise kids and form some good things in them. But I constantly find myself asking, “how can I compete with that?” They are little materialists before they know what hit them. And I don’t know how to stop it.
There was the infamous ad this year, the MLK ad. Some folks thought it would be a good idea to use some words from one of Dr. King’s sermons to try to sell some trucks. Nevermind King’s increasingly radical anti-capitalist rhetoric. Nevermind that the sermon in question literally warned against buying cars and being duped by advertisers. Nevermind that the values King spoke of rebuke the foundations of our economy. That the King estate had to sign off on this garbage is yet another sad episode in a long and sordid tale of King’s descendants fighting for the crumbs from the table.
And how about that halftime show? It was a remarkably insipid performance, but you can’t really blame the NFL, right? It’s not as though there are a bunch of other talented performers around who could do a Super Bowl halftime show. So someone said, “Hey, what if we invite back the cause of the most notorious moment in halftime show history?” Sounds good! But what about Janet Jackson? “No, America has seen her boob. She must never perform again.”
If things weren’t so rigged against white men, Justin Timberlake would do the halftime show every year.
I had lots of fun watching the Super Bowl. I invited my sons to watch with me, and I just tried to close my eyes to all that it was demanding of us.