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“How can we show you napalm in action? And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close your eyes to the memory. Then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context.” From Inextinguishable Fire, Harun Farocki, 1969
When I first heard about Colin Kaepernick’s decision just over a year ago to kneel for the Star Spangled Banner, I felt certain that his method of protest would generate more heat than light. By making the national anthem the battleground on which he would stage his fight against police violence in the black community, I thought that whatever substance there was to Kaepernick’s protests would disappear in a most predictable dialogue about whether or not he had the right to protest in the way he did.
What no one could have predicted, of course, was the way Donald Trump would insert
himself into the matter. By calling on team owners to fire athletes who kneeled during the national anthem, Trump has steered the discussion even further away from the issue of racism in law enforcement. The problem of black lives being needlessly lost has become subsumed in a spirited—and necessary—defense of the first amendment.
As the inevitable arguments play themselves out on ESPN, I have found myself thinking about just how difficult it is stir up a productive political debate. It’s easy enough to catch the public’s attention: we live in a culture of instant outrage. But how do you find a way to persuade people to actually consider your position?
This question was on my mind during a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when I came upon an experimental film called Inextinguishable Fire. Made by the German artist Harun Farocki in 1969, this black-and-white video explores how difficult it was to protest the use of napalm in the Vietnam War. During the film, Farocki recites the text quoted above, describing the challenge of engaging with an audience on such an unpleasant topic. If you show graphic photos of napalm victims, the audience will turn away. And if people don’t turn away, they will feel as if they themselves have been burned by napalm and resent you for it.
In the film, Farocki resolves this dilemma by burning his own hand with a lit cigarette. He explains that while flaming tobacco is about 400 degrees centigrade, napalm burns its victims with a temperature of 3000 degrees. You may not agree with all of Farocki’s assertions during the remaining 21 minutes of the film but he certainly has your sympathetic attention.
The problems Farocki wrestled with have not changed 46 years later. How do you find a way to get the attention of millions of people without simply making them angry for interrupting their daily routines? For Donald Trump, it’s easy: aggravation is both his means and his method.
He skillfully tapped into the primordial rage of his supporters to galvanize his race to the White House.
But what if you are a member of a genuinely disadvantaged group? Or if you are trying to propagate an unpopular idea? It’s easy enough to find relatively small groups of adherents who believe that a given war should not be fought or that black lives matter. But how do you connect with the millions of other people you will need in order to vault your idea into the political mainstream?
To his credit, Kaepernick seems to understand the nature of this dilemma. When he first started his protest during preseason games a year ago, Kaepernick not only refused to stand for the national anthem—he sat on the turf. Then he took the advice of Nate Boyer, a sympathetic fan and a former Green Beret, who suggested that kneeling during the anthem would convey the same sense of pained outrage without any implying any disrespect.
At the same time, the Santa Clara police union had unintentionally helped Kaepernick to make his case. When the union threatened to not work during games at Levi’s Stadium, it raised the question of whether police officers were more interested in protecting their reputations or serving the public. There was, for the moment, a brief hope that this overstep would create an opportunity for real dialogue—real understanding—between police and community members. But in the end, everyone simply picked a side and nothing changed.
We live in a narcissistic age when most people are trapped in the bubbles of their own lives. How do you penetrate that bubble without it being perceived as an invasion? When the messenger is confused with the message, not only do we not want to hear the words.
We want to set them on fire.
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