Who Gets to Be Political

Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump and the Pernicious Vapidity of "Staying in Your Lane"

By Sam Eichner ·
Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Have you searched the phrase “stay in your lane” on Twitter recently?

It’s a toxic rabbit hole to wander down in the wake of recent events, split pretty evenly between people who think others should stay in their lane, people who refute the notion that others should stay in their lane and people who are rather innocently tweeting about traffic. Regardless, vitriol abounds on all sides. There are myriad responses, and more all the time. The phrase has captured the zeitgeist, at least the zeitgeist of the past two weeks—the zeitgeist shifting more quickly all the time—becoming a weaponized tool in an ongoing debate about, yes, “free speech,” but also the related, more nuanced debate about “who gets to be political.”

To “stay in your lane,” I should clarify, is to do or comment on what people perceive you to do or know best. “Perceive” is the operative word here, because staying in your lane has more to do with who you are or what you represent to others than with who you really are and what you represent to yourself. For example, incensed readers of this very publication who tell us to stick to the topics we know best, like food, drink, travel, etc, and not venture into the realm of politics, are suggesting we stay in our lane. The National Review, chastising Jimmy Kimmel for illuminating aspects of the doomed Graham-Cassidy bill with the conclusion that “comedians are not public intellectuals,” is classic stay-in-your-lane-ism. When ESPN calls Jemele Hill’s tweets calling Trump a white supremacist “inappropriate,” they’re really telling her to stay in her own lane as a sports commentator (this, despite what appears to be a tacit understanding that she is successful precisely because she refuses to stay in her own lane). Even Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, suggesting NFL players “do free speech on their own time”—as incendiary and logically unjustifiable a comment as Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” rationale—is a way of telling athletes to stay in their own lane: that the football stadium is not a political arena.

The problem inherent to these “stay in your lane” arguments is that politics have permeated every aspect of public life (and have been, slowly but surely, since the ‘90s). Everyone has a voice now; we can’t unring that bell. And Trump has successfully deployed the very tool (Twitter) by which the “stay in your lane” rhetoric should’ve been dismantled as a means of ascending to the White House. He also ran on a platform of blatant anti-intellectualism, which, to a base that wasn’t numb to hypocrisy, would immediately undercut his rants against certain NFL players' peaceful protests. When everything is political, even apoliticism is a stance—just consider Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman’s tweet, suggesting that those who are not condemning the acts of the president are condoning it. How does one stay in one’s own lane if all the lanes have merged?

The answer is you can’t, so the next question becomes: why do some people get to be political while others are criticized for it? Certainly, there is a racist tenor to some of the hostility directed towards the players who’ve chosen to kneel during the national anthem. Trump’s own language, calling the protesters “sons of bitches,” is in stark contrast to the language he used to describe the neo-Nazis protesting in Charlottesville, some of whom received the rather neighborly “very fine people” label. Indeed, as Jelani Cobb notes in The New Yorker, “the belief endures...that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude.” Telling these athletes they shouldn’t disrespect the flag if they "want the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL" is a convenient cover for the real reason Trump is telling these athletes they shouldn't disrespect the flag, which is that they're black.

But while race is an underlying factor, it’s not the only one. Businessmen, NFL owners amongst them, always get a seat at the table. That Trump was a businessman, albeit a notoriously bad one, immediately qualified him to enter any lane he chose, including politics, even though he was no more qualified than former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to run the United States government. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise; in fact, until I wrote this paragraph, that notion felt like a given. It’s in keeping with America’s myopic devotion to capitalism that we would deem businessmen innately capable of performing the role of the public servant, despite such a laughable contradiction in terms.

The sad reality is that when the leader of the free world is not a legislator, but a former reality TV star who tweets unabashedly about everything from the NFL to nuclear war with North Korea, the idea that politics is reserved for “experts” becomes a folly. Kaepernick said, in the wake of his initial protest, that he thought about going public about his decision to take a knee during the national anthem for a while, but needed to understand the situation better. Can you imagine Trump taking the same considered approach to healthcare? To immigration? To anything? It’s time we acknowledge the fact that the line between public intellectuals and the rest of us no longer exists; that demanding people “stay in their lane,” either expressly or tacitly, is just another rhetorical device used by those in power to devalue the voices of those who are not; and that, in the case of comedians like Jimmy Kimmel, the mere suggestion amounts to a feeble defense: instead of debating him on the merit of his positions, some conservatives would choose to attack his credibility as a funnyman, staking claim to an intellectual high ground while simultaneously attempting to pass a healthcare bill they either do not know or do not care to know the full ramifications of.

And yet, we must recognize the grave irony here. It was exactly this inability to keep people in their lane that led to the Trump presidency in the first place. News outlets frequently granted credibility to the then-reality TV host, when he helped propagate "birther" conspiracies against President Obama. Later, during his campaign, they continued to legitimize him, providing a podium behind which to spew hatred and spread disinformation. Had these outlets told Trump to stay in his lane, the thinking goes, he would never have been able to run over 16 primary challengers and Hillary Clinton on his way to 1600 Penn.

The continual inclination to value voices just because they are loud is, even after the election, problematic. Writing about the angry reaction to Taylor Swift’s apolitical silence, The Ringer's Justin Charity sums it up quite well: “Modern politics invites us to think of Taylor Swift, the singer, and Donald Trump, the president, in similar terms, comparable to one another in credibility and talents. In this dismal paradigm, critics—and, terrifyingly, the public they serve—make no distinctions between a politician’s platform and a pop star’s platform. They lose all sense of the difference between civic life and fandom. That’s the dead end. That’s the trap.”

This invitation is an issue for prominent political comedians, too, and has been for quite some time. The great Jon Stewart used the argument that what he did on The Daily Show wasn’t news, as a means of defending his pointed attacks on Fox News against conservative detractors. Surely, this was a fair argument to make. But it was also willfully oblivious to the underlying fact that people perceived his show as news; that some viewers got from it the same information they would from news (or at the very least, cable news). And isn’t that what really matters? Fake news is real to those who perceive it as such. In an era where we find our hard news in the same place as pictures of our Aunt Judy's cute new kitten, comedians, if they’re discussing political matters to a wide audience who perceives their commentary as news, should have as much responsibility to the truth as politicians. (That they often take that responsibility more seriously is both uplifting and upsetting.)

Ultimately, the ongoing debate about “who gets to be political” is part and parcel to the ongoing debate about “what constitutes news.” If everyone gets to be political, everything is news, and we end up treating Trump’s petty tweets about Steph Curry with the same seriousness as we do his response or lack thereof to Hurricane Maria. This is a uniquely modern problem, one we must contend with on a daily basis.

And how best to contend with it? If staying in your lane stifles the voice of some and is necessary for curbing the profligate opinions of others, if wading into political waters allows for both progressive change and injurious propaganda, what are we to do? Must we treat everyone, even the apolitical, as political actors?

First, let’s dispense with the “staying in your lane” rhetoric completely. The implication—that you’re either in or out—imposes a binary on a modern political discourse that is anything but. Like other binaries, it tendentiously prioritizes an easy clarity over the hard work of reality. When you tell someone to “stay in your lane,” with regards to politics, you strip a citizen of his or her fundamental rights in a participatory democracy. Moreover, you fail to recognize that we are, as humans, more multidimensional than at any point in human history. Pop stars can also be feminist activists, actors can also be environmentalists, football players can also be civil rights protesters and, yes, reality TV hosts can also be president. That’s just the world we live in.

But we should also proceed warily when assessing the statements or actions of traditionally political and apolitical actors alike. We have to be active rather than passive. There’s a responsibility now that falls on normal Americans to actually listen to the message, rather than simply acknowledging the messenger and reacting based on his or her identity alone; to give everyone a voice, but treat that voice with a proportional amount of skepticism and scrutiny.

Given the mostly cosmetic reasons people voted for Trump in the first place, we have our work cut out for us. But the level-headedness of the NFL's response to Trump’s outrageous threats should give us hope. Their message, while a far-cry from Kaepernick’s original intent, is maddeningly clear: they’ll stand up for their right to peaceful protest, even if it means having to take a knee.

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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