The most important lesson I learned as a history major is that history repeats itself, mostly because we human beings haven’t changed much in the past 3,500 years. As Shakespeare put it, “What’s past is prologue.”
I got to thinking about that as I watched the ongoing political drama of Colin Kaepernick, Nike, and Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn. So much sound and fury, signifying — what?
Mostly, I suspect, history repeating itself.
Standing in Kenner’s Veterans Park, Mayor Ben Zahn rescinded his controversial anti-Nike policy Wednesday, four days after it erupted on socia…
Consider another outlandish act of protest from America’s past: the much-mythologized Boston Tea Party. In its day, and for half a century afterward, it wasn’t even known by that name. In fact, many patriots considered it a shameful act of vandalism.
Let’s start with the mythologizing. It had nothing to do with tea, or higher taxes — Parliament had recently reduced the tax on tea. It was about self-governance.
So why dump 340 chests of minimally taxed East India Company tea (a popular item) into Boston Harbor? Because tea was a convenient target. Then, as now, targeting something popular as a means of protest got people’s attention — but it had serious consequences.
The reaction among many on both sides of the Atlantic was not favorable — and it divided rather than united Americans. George Washington condemned it, and Ben Franklin argued that the East India Company should be compensated. On the other hand, John Adams called the protest “the grandest Event, which has ever yet happened Since the Controversy, with Britain, opened.”
Britain was not divided. Parliament passed the Coercive Acts (called “Intolerable Acts” over here) — and it was those acts, says historian Ray Raphael, not the protest in Boston Harbor, that rallied colonists behind the cause of independence. “The destruction of tea had been a catalyst for events leading to independence,” wrote Raphael in American History magazine, “but its belligerent tone ran counter to the favored patriotic story line: The British were the aggressors, causing peace-loving Americans to act in self-defense.”
Put another way, the protest itself, and the immediate reaction to it, overshadowed the object of protest.
Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn did the right thing Wednesday, even if he did it for the wrong reasons.
Now let’s consider Kaepernick, Nike and Zahn. Kaepernick and other NFL players kneel during the national anthem at NFL games, which many consider unpatriotic and disrespectful. Never mind that kneeling is actually an act of supreme respect, even reverence; to many, it’s enough that it defies the traditional act of standing. Many others, including Nike, support the kneelers, and so we are divided.
Lost amid the din is the object of protest: the fact that so many unarmed black men are killed during encounters with law enforcement.
What does The Star-Spangled Banner have to do with cops shooting unarmed black men? Probably about as much as tea had to do with self-governance in 1773 — but, then again, it’s not really about the anthem, just as it was never about the tea.
When Zahn tried to ban Nike products at Kenner playgrounds, he furthered the divisions and raised the volume of the din. A week later, he walked back his executive order, but his retraction said nothing about the killing of unarmed black men. Instead, Zahn vowed, “My patriotism will not waiver.”
As the mythologizing continues, history again repeats itself.