BY SAM HOOPER
A tale of two product launches, set against the most fawningly corporate Pride Month in American history.
Imagine that you are Jerry Falwell, Jr. or some other notable socially conservative reactionary type, and you see the above image in which the makers of Oreo cookies announce that they are celebrating Pride Month by producing commemorative packs encouraging customers to “share [their] pronouns with pride”.
One can easily imagine Falwell, Jr. taking to his Twitter account in high dudgeon to complain about something (the ongoing erasure of the gender binary) so clearly against his own personal beliefs and conception of Christian morality being promoted on the packaging of a beloved, family-friendly American snack. Maybe this would be followed by an angry TV news appearance – or, in the good old days, a strongly-worded open letter, printed in the national press and addressed to the godless, degenerate executives at the National Biscuit Company.
There was undoubtedly a time when such a reaction from the likes of Falwell, Jr. – or more likely, going back several decades, his father – would have resulted in a swift and chastened response from those on the receiving end, followed by an immediate retraction and apology for whatever the offensive conduct may have been. Needless to say, that time has long since passed.
Now imagine that you are mediocre ex-football player, social justice icon par excellence and Nike endorser Colin Kaepernick, and one day you find out that the company which pays you millions of dollars to use your image is preparing to celebrate American Independence Day by launching a special edition sneaker featuring the historic “Betsy Ross” version of the American flag:
Naturally, the multinational organization which has gone to such great pains to hug you close as a product endorser cannot simply be indulging in the innocent, age-old corporate American pastime of cashing in on patriotism, but rather must be somehow actively perpetrating racism and white supremacy.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Nike Inc. is yanking a U.S.A.-themed sneaker featuring an early American flag after former NFL star-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick told the company it shouldn’t sell a shoe with a symbol that he and others consider offensive, according to people familiar with the matter.
The sneaker giant created the Air Max 1 USA in celebration of the July Fourth holiday, and it was slated to go on sale this week. The heel of the shoe featured a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, a design created during the American Revolution and commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag.
After shipping the shoes to retailers, Nike asked for them to be returned without explaining why, the people said. The shoes aren’t available on Nike’s own apps and websites.
“Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag,” a Nike spokeswoman said.
After images of the shoe were posted online, Mr. Kaepernick, a Nike endorser, reached out to company officials saying that he and others felt the Betsy Ross flag is an offensive symbol because of its connection to an era of slavery, the people said. Some users on social media responded to posts about the shoe with similar concerns. Mr. Kaepernick declined to comment.
In this depressing contemporary case, Kaepernick barely had to raise an eyebrow before terrified executives at Nike were fawningly apologising to him and scrapping the launch of their new shoe, presumably at some considerable cost to the company and ultimately its shareholders.
Think of all the various legitimate and often seemingly intractable problems facing the African American community – poverty and lack of capital, the percentage of unstable or single parent families, lagging educational attainment, male violence within the community and an often fractious relationship with local police forces which at times has led to the tragic and outrageous death of unarmed black civilians at the hands of police officers. These are complex and often interlinked issues, but rather than discussing them and continuing to push rational policy solutions to the fore, instead we must all now stop and waste our time discussing the mental and emotional trauma unleashed on poor old Colin Kaepernick when he beheld a new pair of shoes.
We are loftily told by the usual Twitter verified bluecheck suspects that this should not be reported as a case of fragility or “hating America”, but rather protesting a symbol which is apparently in the process of being appropriated by a number of fringe extremists who like to hearken back to the good old days when minorities knew their place:
Well, if we don’t want something to be appropriated by unpleasant extremists, what is the absolutely worst thing we could possibly do? I would venture that the worst thing we could do is cede the ground to them without a fight and run away screaming, being sure to destroy any products inspired by good-hearted pride and patriotism so that only the scrawled banners of the haters remain.
But clearly I am at odds with the woke commissars, who have instead decided that as soon as a venerated symbol is once used by extremists, it is then lost to the mainstream forever. This never ends well, as I can personally attest, having emigrated to the United States from England, where the English national flag (the Cross of St. George) is still so heavily associated with 1970s racists and football hooligans rather than mild-mannered patriots that even many prominent politicians struggle to relate to it without coming across as insincere, ironic or even derisive.
Now, none of this is to say that racism, sexism and homophobia have been banished from society, and that we do not need to take reasonable care about the symbols and language we use. Not by any means. But it is striking that the people who now complain loudest about word or symbolcrime, and who portray themselves as the most grievously pitiable victims, actually tend to operate in realms where they hold overwhelming cultural and organisational power.
There probably aren’t ten impoverished black teenagers in America today who would have objected to Nike’s new commemorative sneaker bearing the historic Betsy Ross version of the American Flag. But it sure did seem to trigger Colin Kaepernick, multimillionaire, doyen of woke elitists and star of slick television commercials (inexplicably produced given his fading sports career, but for the fact that he substituted football for the fallback option of peddling racial grievance). And so it’s gone, just like that – the sneaker design vanished down the memory hole and the finished products themselves yanked from store stockrooms, presumably to be incinerated in a bizarre holocaust to the god of intersectionality.
The same likely applies to being gay, or an ethnic minority. If your daily existence is lived in the rarefied world of academia or working with your mind in the creative and knowledge economies, your identity is likely not a handicap but a boost in modern day America and much of the West. While pockets of bigotry remain, together with increasingly isolated, unreformed older bosses, from an HR perspective you may well enjoy some kind of exalted position. Your minority status may be continually celebrated and affirmed at various corporate networking events and brown-bag lunches, while your HR department is likely in the process of rolling out inscrutable new guidelines, cloaked in rainbows and the language of inclusivity but designed to ensure that the workforce basically polices itself in order to identity any retrograde or “harmful” thinking – and then either silences it or purges it from the organisation, for your supposed benefit.
How different the experience is likely to be if you are working on one of the lower rungs of the economy – in a wage paying service job, or in agriculture or manufacturing. Here, your ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality and other facets of identity are far less likely to be celebrated. In fact, there is likely more chance that your company will summarily fire you without any kind of due process because an over-entitled upper middle-class woke individual takes unnecessary offence at something that wasn’t even your fault.
Naturally, one of the most recent and compelling examples comes from the increasingly dystopian city of Portland, Oregon:
Last month Lillian Green, an “equity director” at the state Education Department, entered Back to Eden, a vegan bakery, a few minutes after closing time. She recorded videos accusing the bakery of refusing to serve her because she was black. Using the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack, Ms. Green—a doctoral student at Lewis and Clark College—took to Facebook to demand that Back to Eden fire the clerks.
The bakery obliged, issued a 3,400-word apology, and offered Ms. Green a job training the remaining employees in “racial inclusivity.” “In this situation it doesn’t really matter that the two staff members working are not themselves racist because the call they made to deny Lillian service caused her to feel like she had been discriminated against,” co-owner Joe Blomgren wrote in a now-deleted Facebook statement. “Sometimes impact outweighs intent and when that happens people do need to be held accountable.”
In this truly disturbing incident from last year we have a very highly credentialed, economically successful black woman successfully getting two young wage-earners fired because they had the temerity to refuse her service after she entered the store after closing hours. The loyal employees may have expected their boss to show them loyalty in return for their service, but instead they were thrown under the bus in ritual sacrifice to modern intersectional outrage culture, just as Nike’s new training shoes will doubtless be incinerated as a burned offering to the same unforgiving god.
We are constantly told by progressive activists, against all objective reality, that we live in an age of unprecedented oppression, with ancient and universal rights being swept away before our very eyes. Never mind the fact that President Obama took office still officially believing that gay marriage should not be permitted, and that America wasn’t “ready” for such a step. Never mind the fact that the word “transgender” barely even featured in the coverage of major newspapers as recently as a decade ago while now major corporations race to embrace every aspect of the new avant garde gender theory. Apparently we are to believe that the people who shout the loudest from the most prestigious platforms about intersectional identity politics are in fact the most downtrodden among us, while those who lose already-precarious jobs or find themselves cancelled and unpersoned for failing to keep up with the latest intersectional nomenclature somehow wield immense societal power.
This is ludicrous.
If you want to know what real privilege looks like in modern America, it is this: having the power to pick up the telephone, call Nike and get their executives to voluntarily recall and burn thousands of lucrative special edition commemorative sneakers because the historic American flag design offends your pathetic, overly coddled snowflake sensibilities.
Real privilege is being so enormously removed from the concerns of people who actually struggle – including ethnic minorities, gay, lesbian and transgender people who do not have the immense fortune of an elite college education and a lucrative career – that minor or even imagined verbal or visual slights become more important in our national discourse than the social and economic wellbeing of the least among us.
Be assured: we are not living in the age of Jerry Falwell, Jr. We are not even really living in the Age of Donald Trump, though he temporarily resides in the White House and sweats his insecurities on Twitter from the bathroom at 5AM. Neither do we still live in what may become known as the age of “tolerance” – those halcyon days when mere tolerance of other people and alternative lifestyles was considered enough to be able to live one’s life free from the woke inquisition.
No, today we live in the Age of Kaepernick; the Age of Pride, turbo-charged by performative woke capitalism and enforced by some of the thinnest-skinned, most cruelly vindictive people in our society, despite – or perhaps because of – their immense cultural and economic privilege.
And I increasingly fear that toxic pride of this inescapable, coercive type may presage some kind of fall, for all of us.