The Iconography of Outrage

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Some people upset with Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, in their outrage, replaced Kaepernick’s image with that of Pat Tillman. In doing so, however, they most likely are politicizing Tillman’s sacrifice and service in a way he wouldn’t have endorsed. (Photo Credit: Bethany J. Brady/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Chances are someone you know has given up on using Facebook, Twitter, or both because he or she regards it as a haven for discord and stupidity. Personally, my biggest gripe is there are too many Nazis and far-righters milling about, but I sympathize with the position of those who have forsaken these outlets. After all, when you write a post about how whiteness is a distinction that merits no pride, and the first comment you receive is from someone you don’t know living across the country who suggests you should pick a fight with a “real white man” and find out, you tend to want to roll your eyes, throw your computer in the garbage, and call it a day.

Suffice it to say, though, that outrage isn’t just plentiful in the Twitterverse and within the blogosphere—it may as well be a type of currency for social media. In the era of President Donald Trump, it seemingly has spiked the way bitcoin’s price shot up amid its initial surge.

Liberals are upset with the Trump presidency because, well, it’s a shit show. Conservatives are upset with liberals who are upset with Trump. Progressives are upset with liberals for hewing too close to center. Ultra-conservatives are upset with conservatives for spending too much on war and other things. Trump, on top of all this, tweets in frustration all the time, and most of us will be damned if we can figure out why exactly. In all, it’s an exhausting maelstrom of deprecation and fury.

The demand for outrage-inducing content is such that, in the haste to provide it, people, works of art, etc. can be exploited as icons of this outrage. Often times, this purpose will be served against the express wishes of those whose images or work is being usurped.

A recent salient example of this was when Mollie Tibbetts’ murder at the hands of an undocumented immigrant became a rallying cry for border security and immigration enforcement. Trump and other xenophobes like him once again began beating the drum of immigration “reform,” sounding a call for building a wall and for addressing the alleged flood of dangerous immigrants crossing into the United States.

One person who isn’t joining in with pitchforks and torches, meanwhile, is Ron Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, echoing a position other family members have espoused. In an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, he urged people not to “distort her death to advance racist views.” From the piece:

Ten days ago, we learned that Mollie would not be coming home. Shattered, my family set out to celebrate Mollie’s extraordinary life and chose to share our sorrow in private. At the outset, politicians and pundits used Mollie’s death to promote various political agendas. We appealed to them and they graciously stopped. For that, we are grateful.

Sadly, others have ignored our request. They have instead chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed. I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist. The act grievously extends the crime that stole Mollie from our family and is, to quote Donald Trump Jr., “heartless” and “despicable.”

Make no mistake, Mollie was my daughter and my best friend. At her eulogy, I said Mollie was nobody’s victim. Nor is she a pawn in others’ debate. She may not be able to speak for herself, but I can and will. Please leave us out of your debate. Allow us to grieve in privacy and with dignity. At long last, show some decency. On behalf of my family and Mollie’s memory, I’m imploring you to stop.

It is hard to imagine the heartbreak I would feel having a member of my immediate family die in such a gruesome way, and on top of this, to have people like Candace Owens invoke the racist trope of the white woman attacked by a man of color to further their agenda amid my grief. For that matter, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be angry at the individual who killed someone I love.

Keeping this in mind, I consider it a testament of Ron Tibbetts’ character and of Mollie’s that he would argue against messages of division and hate in the aftermath of learning that she had died. As such, his appeals to not “knowingly foment discord among races” as a “disgrace to our flag” and to “build bridges, not walls” carry much weight. As does his notion that the divisive rhetoric of Trump et al. does not leadership make.

“The Lonesome Death of Mollie Tibbetts” isn’t the only event in recent memory by which Americans, flying a flag of pseudo-patriotism, have taken an idea and run with it despite the explicit objection of its originator. The forthcoming movie First Man, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, has garnered criticism for not showing the planting of the flag on the moon as part of Apollo 11, a perceived slight against America about which Buzz Aldrin helped kindle outrage. The movie reportedly focuses on Neil Armstrong’s personal journey leading up to the moonwalk, and on that walk, the visit to Little West Crater.

As Neil’s sons Rick and Mark Armstrong have interceded to emphasize, though they believe otherwise, the famed astronaut did not consider himself an “American hero,” a point actor Ryan Gosling, who stars in the film, also stressed. Thus, they defend director Damien Chazelle’s choice. Chazelle himself also explained that he wanted to portray the events of the Apollo 11 moon landing from a different perspective, highlighting the humanity behind Armstrong’s experience and the universality of his achievement. One small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind, no? Besides, as Armstrong’s sons and others have reasoned, most people nitpicking First Man haven’t actually seen it to tear it asunder.

Then there’s the whole matter of Colin Kaepernick as the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary advertisement for their “Just Do It” campaign. The print ad, which shows Kaepernick’s face up close and personal, features the tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” As self-styled arbiters of patriotism and what is good and right would aver, however, Kaepernick hasn’t sacrificed anything, and featuring a non-patriot like him is grounds for divorce.

Consequently, the hashtag #NikeBoycott was trending on Labor Day and into Tuesday, replete with videos of indignant Nike owners burning their sneakers and other apparel, cutting/ripping the telltale “swooshes” out of their clothing, or otherwise vowing to never shop Nike again. I suppose on some level I appreciate their enthusiasm, though I submit there are any number of reasons why this is folly, including:

  • First of all, if you never planned on buying Nike products in the first place, don’t front like your “boycott” means anything. It’s like people who complained about the Starbucks red nondenominational “holiday” cup controversy. Come on—you know y’all were only getting your coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.
  • Assuming you did actually buy Nike sneakers and apparel, burning things doesn’t take the money back. As far as the company is concerned, you can eat the shoes when you’re done with them. The transaction is done.
  • Though it seems like a lost point by now, Colin Kaepernick consulted Nate Boyer, a former long snapper in the NFL and U.S. Army Green Beret, about how to protest respectfully. They eventually decided on kneeling rather than sitting as a sort of compromise, evoking the image of the serviceperson kneeling at the grave of a fallen comrade. At any rate, it’s not America or the military that Kaepernick and others have protested—it’s the treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and other rigged institutions.
  • A more meaningful boycott directed at Nike would be recognizing the company’s questionable commitment to worker rights here and abroad over the past few decades, including more recent allegations of a corporate culture that discriminates against women. Just saying.
  • As I’m sure numerous veterans would agree, regardless of what you think about Kaepernick and his playing ability, fighting overseas for inalienable human rights just to see players deprived of the right to protest—that is, able to enjoy fewer freedoms—does not indicate progress.

The financial fallout from Nike’s taking a stand, of course, still needs to be measured. There’s also the notion aligning with Colin Kaepernick will ruffle feathers of NFL executives and team owners. Still, one reasons Nike would not make such a potentially controversial move without knowing what it was doing, or at least figuring it was a gamble worth taking.

Going back to social media and expression of outrage, people unhappy about Nike’s decision to celebrate a figure in Kaepernick they perceive to be a spoiled rich athlete who doesn’t know the meaning of the word sacrifice also have been active in creating and sharing parodies of Nike’s advertisement with the late Pat Tillman, another NFL player/serviceperson, swapped in for Kaepernick. While Tillman is certainly worth the admiration, it appears doubtful he would want his image used in this way.

In fact, as many would suggest, based on his political views, it’s Kaepernick he would support, not the other way around. Marie Tillman, Pat’s wife, while not specifically endorsing player protests, nonetheless publicly rebuked Trump for retweeting a post using her husband’s image. As she put it, “The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart—no matter those views—is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they don’t always agree with those views.” As with Ron Tibbetts’s pleas not to exploit or capitalize his daughter’s death, Marie’s desire not to see her husband’s sacrifice and service politicized is one worth honoring.

There’s any number of examples of people’s art and memories being used without their permission (assuming they can give it) despite requests to the contrary. Recently, Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler sent a cease-and-desist letter to President Trump warning him not to use his (Tyler’s) music without his (Tyler’s) permission at his (Trump’s) political rallies. As Tyler insists, this is strictly about copyright protection—not about politics. As Trump insists, he already has the rights to use Aerosmith’s songs. If I’m believing one or the other, I’ll opt for the one who isn’t a serial liar, cheater, predator, and fraud, but you may do with these examples as you wish.

The larger point here, however, is that in the zeal for sparking outrage about political and social issues, there too frequently seems to be a failure to appreciate context—if not a blatant disregard for it. Mollie Tibbetts didn’t believe in an immigration policy which vilifies Latinx immigrants and other people of color. Neil Armstrong, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have balked at choosing not to show the planting of the U.S. flag on the moon. Pat Tillman probably would’ve backed the ability of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players to protest during the playing of the National Anthem.

In all cases, a politically-motivated counternarrative threatens to derail meaningful discussion on the underlying subject matter. The outrage builds, as does the mistrust. The few issues upon which we disagree potentially overshadow the larger consensus we share on important topics. Sadly, this also seems to be the way many representatives of the major political parties like it.


I’ve highlighted examples in which people of a conservative mindset have coopted other people’s memories and works amid their expression of anger and resentment. This is not to say, mind you, that there aren’t occurrences on the other end of the political spectrum.

Not long ago, actor Peter Dinklage had to intervene to defray a controversy surrounding his casting as Hervé Villechaize in a forthcoming biopic about the late actor and painter. The charge was that this casting was a case of Hollywood “whitewashing.” As Dinklage explained in an interview, however, Villechaize is not Asian, as some people believe or claim, but suffered from a particular form of dwarfism that explains why they might assume this ethnicity. From the interview:

There’s this term “whitewashing.” I completely understand that. But Hervé wasn’t Filipino. Dwarfism manifests physically in many different ways. I have a very different type of dwarfism than Hervé had. I’ve met his brother and other members of his family. He was French, and of German and English descent. So it’s strange these people are saying he’s Filipino. They kind of don’t have any information. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or sense of justice because I feel the exact same way when there’s some weird racial profile. But these people think they’re doing the right thing politically and morally and it’s actually getting flipped because what they’re doing is judging and assuming what he is ethnically based on his looks alone. He has a very unique face and people have to be very careful about this stuff. This [movie] isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Personally, I would never do that, and I haven’t done that, because he wasn’t. People are jumping to conclusions based on a man’s appearance alone and that saddens me.

Jumping to conclusions—on the Internet? Well, I never! Dinklage seems to take this in stride along the lines of folks meaning well, but not necessarily being well informed. In this instance, the error is fairly innocuous, but the rush to judgment in today’s climate of information sharing can have serious consequences. There’s a lesson here, no matter what your political inclinations.

As for the Nike/Colin Kaepernick business which Donald Trump may very well be tweeting about right now, Drew Magary, writing for GQ, insists that something is “hopelessly broken” when people feel compelled to champion the company synonymous with the swoosh for taking a stand. He writes:

Corporations already control so much in America that people are compelled—happy, even—to depend on them as beacons of social change, because they are now the ONLY possible drivers of it. I shouldn’t need Nike to get police departments to stop being violent and corrupt. Making decent shoes is hard enough for them, you know what I mean? But I’m forced to applaud their efforts here only because I live in a world where people cannot effect anywhere near the level of change that a billion-dollar corporation can. The social compact of this nation was meant to be between its citizens, but brands have essentially hijacked that compact, driving all meaningful conversation within. A great many brands have performed a great many acts of evil thanks to this. Others have talked up a big game while still being evil (that’s you, Silicon Valley). Only rarely do brands use their ownership of the social compact for good and genuine ends, and even then it accomplishes far less than what actual PEOPLE could accomplish if they had that compact to themselves once more. Politically speaking, one Colin Kaepernick ought to be worth a million Nikes.

Instead, as Magary tells it, “we live in a country where causes only to get to see daylight if they have a sponsor attached.” It’s a particularly bad phenomenon because corporations like Nike exist for their own benefit and have no “obligation to society.” Thus, if we need an athletic apparel company to lecture us on the virtues of sacrifice and of protesting police brutality, or if we need a pizza company to fill in potholes that municipalities can’t or won’t address, you know we’re in pretty bad shape.

While we contemplate our eroding civic virtue and crumbling infrastructure—a contemplation none too heartening, at that—we might also consider what we can do to end the “internet outrage cycle,” as Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer at The Atlantic, put it. Certainly, much as discretion may be deemed the better part of valor, discretion about what to post or tweet and whether to do so seems fundamental to limiting the reactionary culture of outrage, and outrage about others’ outrage that plagues much of interaction on contentious topics. Besides, while we’re dabbling in truisms, if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, perhaps one shouldn’t say anything at all.

Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and their ability to organize for meritorious purposes is too profound to ignore. If we’re going to use them constructively, we will need to resist the iconography of outrage, specifically that which distorts images and people to serve a new agenda. At a time when ownership of creative works can get lost in the ability to share them, and when public figures can become buried under an avalanche of negativity, it’s best to do our homework and to pick our battles when choosing a cause to fight for.

Stop with This “Shut Up and Dribble” Nonsense

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LeBron James doesn’t get paid for his opinions, but by no means should he just “shut up and dribble.” (Photo Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earlier this year, in response to comments professional basketball player LeBron James made with respect to President Donald Trump—notably that Trump “doesn’t understand the people” and that some of his comments are “laughable and scary”—FOX News personality Laura Ingraham took to her show The Ingraham Angle to denounce the 14-time All-Star, calling his remarks “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical.” Furthermore, she opined that it’s “unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million to bounce a ball,” and suggested that James “shut up and dribble.” Meow.

Before I delve deeper into why I categorically disagree with Ms. Ingraham, let me first address the tenor of her commentary. Ingraham holds a view shared by other Americans that star athletes like LeBron James are overpaid (hence the “$100 million” jab) to play a sport that children play (hence the “bounce a ball” dig). Ingraham being Ingraham, though, she takes her level of deprecation up a level by insinuating that James is uneducated and unintelligent. He’s a dumb basketball player! He doesn’t speak too good! Bear in mind there likely is a racial subtext here, too, but one can only guess at exactly what the FOX News host was thinking as she delivered her thoughts, so I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Laura Ingraham’s condescension aside, in addition to thinking that professional athletes earn too much money for playing a game relative to the rank-and-file workers of the U.S.A.—they might not be entirely wrong in thinking this way, mind you—she and others of a similar mindset might wish that entertainers, whether highly-paid basketball players or famous movie stars or what-have-you, would leave their politics to their private conversations. We came for the dunks and the Oscar-worthy performances, not the politics. Stay in your lane.

Taking a step back for a moment, let’s talk some more about LeBron James, and in doing so, not simply dismiss the idea that he, indeed one of the highest-salaried players in the NBA, is one of its best, if not one of its all-time greats. He’s a four-time league MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP and champion, 12-time All-NBA 1st Team award recipient, five-time All-Defensive 1st Team honoree, and three-time All-Star MVP, not to mention Rookie of the Year winner in 2004. If all he does is bounce a ball, then he bounces it exceedingly well. Thus, while you may not agree with how players are compensated in general, next to other exceptional talents in the league, he is appropriately remunerated for his on-court contributions, and should be given his due among the NBA’s elite. I mean, they don’t call him “King James” for nothing.

As for taking shots at James seeming or sounding uneducated, even people who don’t watch the NBA are likely familiar with his backstory. Straight after a standout high school career at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, LeBron was drafted as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers. In other words, he never went to college. As far as James and those around him were concerned, though, for someone who was a lock as a eventual NBA superstar, there was no need for him to seek a degree or try to prove himself against the top talent in the NCAA. This is not to say that he couldn’t have completed a four-year program, just that he didn’t. Besides, one doesn’t necessarily have to have a Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia like Ms. Ingraham to be able to speak with any semblance of intelligence. For that matter, we might also be spared the haughty attitude.

With that aside made, let’s get back to the notion that the realm of politics and the realm of entertainment/sports should be kept separate. For those people who look at these media as escapes of sorts from the news media, especially stories of a political nature, this is a desire for which many of us can be sympathetic, at least in theory. Keeping up with the events of today is, in a word, exhausting. I’m sure there are some of us now whose blood boils at the mere mention of the name “Trump.” Even when we’re not having #NotMyPresident moments, there’s enough that goes on which is liable to depress us. Murder, rape, assault, theft, corruption, natural disasters, drug epidemics, mass shootings, salmonella outbreaks, glaciers melting, the last known male northern white rhino dying. So much of what we are made to absorb seems so abjectly negative, it feels only right we should have some sort of distraction or diversion.

In this regard, the controversy brought about by Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem might be a shock to the system as much as anything. Along these lines, NFL fans were probably angry on some level that they had to consider politics and social issues at all. Give me my three hours of men crashing into one another, cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms, and tons of commercials! I don’t want to have think about why people are unhappy with America!

Then again, maybe politics and social issues do have much to do with the nature of the controversy—too much, at that. Kaepernick intended his protest as a way to bring attention to the injustices faced by people of color at the hands of the criminal justice system and law enforcement in the United States, but without being disrespectful to veterans and members of the Armed Forces (after meeting and talking with Nate Boyer, former NFL long snapper and U.S. Army Green Beret, Kaepernick opted to kneel rather than sit).

After Donald Trump, a majority of NFL team owners, and other self-appointed arbiters of patriotism got a hold of it, however, it became a referendum on one’s appreciation for the military and the country. You don’t like it? Move to Canada! In Kaepernick’s case, the quarterback who at least could serve as a backup to one of 32 teams was all but officially blacklisted from the league. As far as Trump et al. were concerned re the “son of a bitch” Kaepernick, good riddance. And not another word about the treatments of blacks and other people of color in this proud nation.

This is where the desire to keep politics out of entertainment and sports gets tricky. If it’s part of a plea for a respite from the demands of the outside world, that would seem to have merit, or if nothing else, engender pity. If it’s based on a desire to kick dissenters out of the league for acting in accordance with First Amendment rights and to indefinitely prolong a meaningful conversation about race in this country, that’s a horse of a different color.

The latter condition accompanies an ongoing debate among self-styled culture warriors about whether there is a “time and place” for a discussion on important social issues, and whether “civility” should be observed. With respect to the ongoing dumpster fire that is the Trump administration’s handling of separating/reuniting immigrant families, some individuals decried Sarah Sanders’s being told to leave The Red Hen restaurant because of her politics, while others reveled in it. On the left, some, such as Maxine Waters, insisted Trump administration officials should expected to be “harassed” in public as long as the White House’s disastrous immigrant policy is in place, while others, like Chuck Schumer, put forth that this treatment was “un-American,” and even Bernie Sanders professed that Sanders and others should be able to sit down and have a meal.

While I, too, believe that individuals like Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen—reprehensible as their conduct has been in their official capacities—deserve not to be shouted at or threatened with bodily harm, all calls for civility are not created equal. First of all, what “civility” entails may be open to interpretation. Is asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant uncivil? That might depend on who you ask.

Secondly, and more importantly, calls for civility are only as good as the ability to interact with the other party on an equal footing and with an openness to act in a corrective way. Indeed, there must be a time and place for such a dialog, alongside a legitimate promise to debate the issues at hand (unlike, say, a Mitch McConnell promise to his Democratic colleagues to hold a vote, which is almost certain to be broken).

Too frequently, meanwhile, protests that there is a time and place for serious deliberation signify that the desired time is “never,” the desired place is “nowhere,” and furthermore, that there is no guarantee the two sides will even talk about the same thing or agree to interact on level-headed, rational terms in the future. Besides, how do you debate, for instance, that tearing children away from their mothers is immoral? If it’s not already apparent that it is, this already signifies a bit of a problem.

Returning to the earlier war of words between Laura Ingraham and LeBron James, there are two concepts I submit we should consider. The first is whether or not Ingraham’s opinions carry more weight than James’s because she is specifically paid to express her opinions, whereas he is paid only to “bounce a ball.” While it might be Ingraham’s job to wax philosophical and political, and while she may be better-versed on specific topics, her opinions are no more valid than James’s, especially if buttressed by misstatements of fact and other misleading information. Sure, Ingraham’s education and experience may make her seem more credible, but just like you or I, she is subject to bias, not to mention a tendency toward elitism. Just because we might agree with her views doesn’t mean that bias isn’t there.

The second topic to consider is whether or not the want of refusal to “talk politics” should be considered an abdication of civil responsibility. Much as we might be loath to confront it, politics is infused into every facet of our daily life. Going back to the NFL, we might seek to avoid politics, but on the subject of player protests and other pertinent matters, the battle lines, if you will, have already been drawn. Consequently, not taking a stance is, in effect, taking a stance.

This sentiment only intensifies when the issue at hand directly impacts the person faced with making a judgment. How reasonable is it to expect professional football players, two-thirds of whom are black, not to have thoughts on this topic? Are they just supposed to “shut up and tackle?” Because they signed a contract to play football for a living, have they thus waived their freedom of speech? It’s no wonder players like Michael Bennett have likened the league’s treatment of its talent to how plantation owners treated slaves as property. It might be an extreme comparison, but it’s one that captures the feelings of blacks across the nation. Unless or until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, we can’t really know what that’s like.


LeBron James changed team affiliations when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in early July, but his views on Donald Trump don’t appear to have changed any. In a recent interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, James reiterated his belief that President Trump is trying to “divide us” and that he feels that he “can’t sit back and say nothing” in the face of POTUS’s rhetoric. He also alluded to the President’s attitudes giving a sense of empowerment to those with strong racist beliefs to say demeaning things when previously they would not have, and stated his wish to never sit across the table from Trump (though he would do so with Obama).

If Laura Ingraham has had anything to say about LeBron James since her previous rant, I don’t know, though confessedly, I’m not really all that interested. Criticizing James as a stupid jock when he has remained free of controversy throughout his career (outside of “The Decision” and his numerous team changes, though this doesn’t relate to his personal conduct) and when he has done so much charity work for children in his native Ohio strikes me as petty and misplaced. As far as the NBA is concerned, James is to be celebrated on and off the court—not the other way around.

As some critics of Ingraham’s have suggested, it’s a little strange for someone who believes in individual liberty to rail against someone like James for expressing his or her personal opinions. What’s obvious in her reaction to James’s words is that she’s only telling him to stay in his lane because she doesn’t like what he says. If it were Candace Owens or Kanye West calling out professional athletes for kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, Ingraham would, in all likelihood, be lapping it up, extolling the virtues of black Americans becoming “independent thinkers” and eschewing Democratic or liberal values. Cue the comment about taking the “red pill.”

While lamenting the idea that conservatives are threatening to ruin, for me personally, a movie in The Matrix which I have enjoyed since first seeing it in theatres, I am nonetheless focused on the real issue at hand. Though jingoistic Americans may feel otherwise, dissent can be patriotic, too. On the subject of athletes and entertainers using their platform to share their political views, such should be encouraged, for even if we disagree with them, there is no mandate which states that their beliefs are better than or count more than ours. They just happen to have a larger audience at their disposal, or stand to increase the size of their platform exponentially with their commentary. When prompted about her response to his interview, LeBron professed that, before their war of words, he had no idea who Laura Ingraham was, but that he definitely knew now and that it was good for her that she stoked this controversy. The baller he is, James knows not to hate the player, but the game.

So, let’s stop all this “shut up and dribble” nonsense. To be a citizen is to be an engaged, informed, and responsible individual—regardless of what you do for a living. After all, if we can elect a dangerously unqualified businessman in Donald Trump to be our leader, it’s just as well that we encourage one another to speak our minds.

Trump’s Military Parade Is a Colossal Waste of Money

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Well, I mean, that says it all. (Image retrieved from newsweek.com.)

In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from January of this year, the U.S. military was the only institution for which a majority of respondents (53%) expressed “a great deal of confidence.” When considering favorability—either with respect to “a great deal” of confidence or “quite a lot” of it—that rate soars to 87%. Compared to the other institutions named in this survey, the military stands head and shoulders above the rest. The next-best choice, in terms of highest confidence, is the FBI, garnering only a 24% mark of great confidence, and in terms of overall favorability, the Supreme Court is the top also-ran at 59%. Also striking about these polling statistics is that approval rating for the U.S. military has increased markedly over the last 40 years, rising some 30% (57% to 87%) in that time, likely in response to the draft being abolished and fewer Americans knowing someone or having a direct connection to someone in the Armed Forces.

Perhaps no institution, then, inspires the same kind of knee-jerk defense as the military. For evidence of this, we need look no further than the seemingly never-ending kerfuffle over the National Anthem protests in the NFL. What began as a statement by Colin Kaepernick and other players as a response to racial injustice in this country, especially as it intersects with the treatment of blacks at the hands of police and the criminal justice system—a protest that was discussed with Nate Boyer, former NFL long snapper and Army Green Beret, as a more respectful alternative than sitting during the Anthem—was quickly co-opted by Donald Trump and other people of a conservative mindset and turned into a commentary on the military and supposed disrespect for men and women in uniform. To borrow from football parlance, Trump and Co. ran an end-around, changing the conversation from a topic they actively try to suppress and dismiss in civil rights and racial equality, to one with which they and the jingoists among us could take and run.

Since last fall, reports have surfaced of President Trump’s desire to hold a military parade in the United States akin to France’s celebratory display for Bastille Day after witnessing it first-hand last summer; in fact, Trump inquired with the Pentagon about the use of armored vehicles for his Inauguration, and expressed desire to see the military on parade during his tenure back in January 2017. Now, apparently, he’s getting his wish. According to multiple new reports this week, the Pentagon has agreed to hold a parade to coincide with this year’s Veterans Day celebrations.

If estimates provided by Office of Management and Budget director and interim Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Mick Mulvaney are accurate, the cost for this big show could run anywhere from $10 million to $30 million, with the higher price tag attributable to Trump’s vision of tanks being driven down Pennsylvania Avenue. There won’t be tanks, according to a memo from Navy Capt. Hallock Mohler, executive secretary in the office of the Secretary of Defense, to Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but there will be aircraft and period uniforms. In other words, for the big baby in the White House, there’ll be plenty of toys on hand.

As with the Anthem protest to-do, here is a situation that is liable to be divisive depending on your feelings toward the military and the U-S-of-A. I’m sure many will see this planned parade as a wonderful show of admiration for our great nation and for the men and women who serve and have served for its ideals. Don’t get me wrong—I love this country. This is United States of Joe, not, say, Canada of Joe. At the same time, though, I and others of a like mind are left to question whether it’s worth it to hold a military display such as this. Ryan Sit, writing for Newsweek, tells of a recent analysis by the publication that finds, for the same money to be spent on this parade, the nation’s homeless veterans could be fed three meals a day for two weeks. While acknowledging the difficulties in making calculations based on the estimated costs associated with the parade and the transient life that many homeless veterans lead, Sit also reports that even by conservative counts, these figures tell an important story about the priorities of the Trump administration.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at the numbers, as cited within the Newsweek piece. The most recent statistics of homeless veterans in the U.S. compiled by the Bureau of Housing and Urban Development from the end of 2017 puts the overall tally at just over 40,000, up 1.5% from the previous year. As per the non-profit hunger relief organization Feeding America, as well as information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other agencies, the average cost of a meal is $2.94 in the United States (as of 2015, the source of the latest-updated data), with the lowest tally identified as $2.04 and the highest $5.61. Using Mick Mulvaney’s $10 million estimate, which is on the low end of the cost spectrum, and the highest cost of a meal, that’s three meals a day for 14.8 days, or two weeks. Keeping with the $10 million amount but using merely the average cost per meal figure, homeless veterans could eat three meals a day for roughly twice as long, 28.3 days.

Though all of Donald Trump’s public statements should be taken with a grain or two or 100 of salt, the President said the parade wouldn’t be held if the cost were “exorbitant.” Meanwhile, the memo sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff specified that the military showcase to be integrated with the annual Veterans Day parade will emphasize “the price of freedom.” While we’re questioning the ultimate worth of these proceedings, in light of what else the money could be spent on—Lord knows there are any number of things on which it could be spent, but let’s keep the conversation within the purview of those who have served—the very meaning of the phrase “price of freedom” merits scrutiny. If we’re talking purely financial costs, the implication here is that we need a strong military to protect us and our freedoms, so that’s just the cost of being the greatest military force on the planet. Then again, it’s sort of Trump’s thing to run up a bill on someone else’s tab. Just thinking about his umpteen trips to Mar-a-Lago is enough to make my blood boil.

If we’re talking the human price of freedom, however, how many homeless veterans is too many? Is 40,000+ (and rising) an “exorbitant” cost, as if you can put a price on a human life? And this concern about the fate of those who have served the United States only scratches the surface of the true nature of our ongoing armed conflicts and “peacekeeping” missions abroad. How many lives have been lost since we became embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how many more stand to be lost in pursuit of al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, or in the fight for a free Syria? Speaking of Syria, how many more civilians must be killed as a result of military operations for a larger audience to understand the types of atrocities residents of war-torn lands must face? Or are we supposed to care less because they are Muslims or brown or what-have-you? To borrow from the words of Bob Dylan, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

What makes the concept of a multi-million-dollar military parade all the more egregious is the notion that most Americans don’t seem to want or need one, especially those connected to the military in some capacity. Back in February, Military Times, a news outlet that reports on the Armed Forces for service-members and their families, launched a poll on its website soliciting users’ thoughts on the question, “Should there be a parade showing troops and military equipment in Washington, D.C.?” Within a day of the poll’s launch, it garnered over 50,000 responses, and an overwhelming majority (89%) answered, “No, it’s a waste of money and troops are too busy.” And this is coming from people who are arguably the best-qualified to comment on these matters.

Assuming you are not someone who falls within Military Times’s key demographic, odds are you agree that the time, money, and effort to be allocated for the purposes of a military showcase could well be used more constructively. Granted, the Department of Defense has not exhibited a penchant in recent times for managing its money very efficiently—and I’m being kind with my diplomatic language here. Still, it’s frustratingly odd that the Pentagon would seemingly acquiesce to the whims of one man, even if he is President of these United States, and carry out a whole military display that costs tens of millions of dollars.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis notably dodged a question in a press briefing last month about why resources should be diverted for this purpose by reiterating the need for Congress to commit to fully funding the military and speaking to Donald Trump’s “fondness for the military.” So Pres. Trump is fond of the military. Children are fond of ice cream, but that doesn’t mean you should allow them to eat it for dinner. In this context, #45 is dining on a sundae full of ice cream, and it costs upward of $10 million for that one sundae. No amount of cherries, sprinkles, and whipped cream can make that palatable for those of us watching at home.


Now that it’s evidently a done deal, what makes this military parade all the more unnerving is the kind of images it invokes. As numerous critics have suggested, military showcases like the one planned for this November are of the sort that you would be more apt to see in China, North Korea, and Russia, nations noted for their authoritarian leadership style. The United States is obviously not at this point yet, and aside from the lack of tanks or ICBMs on hand, a major difference is that the members of the military on hand for America’s celebration, which coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, will feature servicemen and servicewomen who enlisted voluntarily, as opposed to the conscripts in those foreign armies.

That said, this is not the first time Donald Trump has done or said something which would lead one to believe he is a would-be dictator, leading some to make allusions (however overblown) to Adolf Hitler. He’s made the media, an institution which routinely gives him the attention he seeks—and one which is among the worst in terms of inspiring confidence, hearkening back to the aforementioned NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll—an enemy to be threatened and undermined. He and his shameless Republican supporters have attacked the credibility of the country’s intelligence community. Aided and abetted by Mitch McConnell, he’s gotten his pick of the conservative justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court to fill the void left by Antonin Scalia. He’s aligned himself with people who are renowned anti-Semites, homophobes, and/or racists, and plays to people’s fears about immigration and terrorism, as well as their dislike of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Heck, he even suggested Xi Jinping’s recent move to end presidential term limits in China is a “great” idea. The parade set to kick off in roughly eight months to appease Trump is just another bullet point on his autocratic checklist.

While we commemorate those who died while serving the United States specifically on Memorial Day, Veterans Day is nonetheless a time when solemn reflection is encouraged. Returning to the concept of the “price of freedom,” that the date of its celebration coincides with the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a conflict which easily saw over 10 million deaths between soldiers and civilians, should only further communicate an understanding of the profound loss attributable to war. For someone like President Trump, however, who has never served and whose remarks about Democrats being “treasonous” in refusing to clap during his State of the Union address prompted Sen. Tammy Duckworth to derisively refer to him as “Cadet Bone Spurs,” one does not get the sense he comprehends that sacrifice or the very meaning of the word. Not when he belittled John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war. Not when he verbally attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Humayun Khan, a captain in the United States Army killed while serving in Iraq. Not when he reportedly told Myeshia Johnson, widow of Gold Star Army Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson, that Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” Trump doesn’t understand the depths of these emotions behind these events, because he can’t.

Nor can he grasp the gravity of the homelessness faced by thousands of veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, not that you or I can likely fully appreciate this either. Regardless, the numbers don’t lie, and anyway you slice them, Trump’s military parade is a colossal waste of money when considering where else the money can be spent.

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