Opinion

Believe in Something

Wednesday, September 12, 2018



Last Monday, Nike revealed the star of its newest campaign: former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and social activist Colin Kaepernick. Through his own account, Kaepernick tweeted out the artfully shot black-and-white photo of himself, headlined, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” just beneath his dreamy bedroom eyes, “Just do it” and the company’s trademark “Swoosh” above his chin. The campaign’s first TV ad, “Dream Crazy,” debuted shortly after, during Sunday’s Bears-Packers NFL opener.


Given Kaepernick’s singular position within the pantheon of conservative boogeymen, it’s no surprise that the reaction from the right was swift and hyperbolic. From the moment that Kaepernick tweeted out the picture, MAGA hat-wearers across the country destroyed their own Nike gear, sometimes even buying new items just to trash them. Tucker Carlson called the ad “an attack on the country.” The president tweeted.


But the response on the left was, while not quite as prima facie dumb, also predictable in its own sorry way. As conservatives destroyed their sneakers in protest, liberals rained plaudits on the sporting goods behemoth for boldly, courageously aligning itself with such a controversial figure. As #nikeboycott has taken over twitter, so too has #supportnike.


Let’s get this out of the way: Nike did not suddenly become good, because corporations are neither “good” nor “bad.” Corporations are legal entities that exist to make money. Though it may be morally sound to signal an adherence to liberal cultural values, the marketing team at Nike did so because it made financial sense, and because the pros of doing so outweighed the cons. The partnership likely came after an exhaustive round of market research, focus groups and number crunching over a months-long span. Though Nike suffered in the short term—the stock price, at $82 a share on the Friday before the ad’s release, had dropped to $79 by Tuesday morning—it’s already returned to its pre-ad value, and, more importantly, managed to dominate the cultural conversation for over a week. If internal numbers had determined that a partnership with Kap would permanently lose the company customers, and get them no new ones, Nike would have gone with somebody else.


What struck many as courageous, then, was almost certainly a calculated business decision. And while there may be something to celebrate in the fact that liberal causes are popular enough to turn a profit, it’s hardly fair to hail Nike for that.


But this isn’t the first time in the past two years that liberals have been duped by this kind of thing. It seems that again and again the Prius crowd laps up the narrowest feints toward progressive values. There are the plum positions at ostensibly liberal-leaning outlets that have been awarded to “Never Trump” Republicans like Bret Stephens at the New York Times, Nicole Wallace at MSNBC and Kevin D. Williamson, however briefly, at the Atlantic, whose only share with their audiences is a belief that the president is bad; there’s the praise that doctrinaire conservative politicians like Jeff Flake or Ben Sasse get every time they proffer up the wannest, substance-free criticism of the president; and there’s the rush, as with Nike, to support corporations that pick a feud with the President.


It’s not like any of these entities have ever really put their necks on the line. While all of these Trump critics seem appropriately sincere in their outrage, the fact is that if there weren’t a ready-made audience for these sorts of moves, or if the president’s approval rating were 60 rather than 40 percent, they’d probably be a little quieter about it. After all, what did each of the above gain from cozying up with the resistance? The commentators got good jobs; the politicians good press; and the companies good business. It bears repeating, loudly: there’s nothing particularly brave about getting a paycheck.


Why then, do we see this same scene play out again and again? To liberals, Trump is an aberrantly awful president, presiding over an administration so horrible and cruel that it overrides all other disagreements. In such troubled times, temporary alliances with right-wing ideologues and multinationals seem no more irrational than cozying up with the Soviets did in World War II. These are troubled times, and when you’re out of power, facing an unprecedented assault on democracy and decency, you take whatever friends you can find. And so anybody, literally anybody, who opposes Trump is a force for good. It’s the reason that “Welcome to the Resistance” has become such a commonly mocked sentiment. Even if it’s the weakest opposition, even if it’s over something incredibly minor like tariffs, defection to the cause of truth and justice is enough to make somebody worthy of valorization.


But it’s worth remembering: the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Equating goodness with “the resistance” and turning it into just a kind of “oppositionism,” has its risks. Because oppositionism can be bogus. Making a speech, writing an op-ed and co-opting a social movement for marketing purposes isn’t hard. And, should the winds of popular opinion blow the other direction, it’s all just as easy to retract.


Criticism that doesn’t actually grapple with ideas, that stays confined to the mall, isn’t worth very much. Without intellectual rigor, without an actual agenda for change, all you have are taunts executed for self-enrichment, devoid of substance, purpose or value.


And when that happens, politics becomes nothing more than weaponized culture. And if the only meaningful political engagement is through consumer choices or writing angry tweets, what else is there to do but buy some shoes? So by all means, support Colin Kaepernick and anybody else who stands up (or kneels) against injustice. But don’t confuse opportunism with courage.


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