Hidden and painful truths about the NFL protests

Summary: Lord Moulton, Mark Steyn, and James Bowman give us insights about the NFL protests not shown in the news, explaining why this is an important event. This is a follow-up to Looking beyond the politics of the kneeling NFL players.
Dallas Cowboys protest
The Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones kneel prior to the national anthem before playing the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, AZ. Matt York/AP.

Many have discussed the NFL players’ protests in light of this famous passage by Lord Moulton. Mark Steyn and James Bowman give trenchant analysis applying it to America today.

Excerpt from “Law and Manners

By the English judge Lord Moulton (aka John Fletcher Moulton).
The Atlantic Monthly, July 1924.

“I must ask you to follow me in examining the three great domains of Human Action. First comes the domain of Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed. Next comes the domain of Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.

John Fletcher Moulton

“But between these two there is a third large and important domain in which there rules neither Positive Law nor Absolute Freedom. In that domain there is no law which inexorably determines our course of action, and yet we feel that we are not free to choose as we would. The degree of this sense of a lack of complete freedom in this domain varies in every case. It grades from a consciousness of a Duty nearly as strong as Positive Law, to a feeling that the matter is all but a question of personal choice.

“Some might wish to parcel out this domain into separate countries, calling one, for instance, the domain of Duty, another the domain of Public Spirit, another the domain of Good Form; but I prefer to look at it as all one domain, for it has one and the same characteristic throughout — it is the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself. …

“{T}here is a growing tendency to treat matters that are not regulated by Positive Law as being matters of Absolute Choice. Both these movements are encroachments on the middle land, and to my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the licence of behavior which so often ac-companies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.”


ESPN poll about NFL protests
ESPN poll about NFL protests.

 Excerpt from “Man Un-Makyth Manners

By Mark Steyn at his website.

“Almost any point on that continuum {of Lord Moulton} covers the minimal civic act of standing for a national anthem. …That presumably is why on Sunday two dozen kneeling Americans decided to rise to their feet for Britain’s national anthem. Because they understood that were they to remain kneeling they would be regarded by their London hosts as boorish graceless ignorant clods – which, in fact, they are, with respect to their own anthem. We stand for the anthems of foreigners not out of allegiance but out of Moulton’s ‘good form’.

“Standing for other people’s anthems is the minimal respect required to transact international relations: At, say, US/Soviet summits, Reagan could have taken a knee to protest Moscow’s human rights record, and Chernenko could have taken a knee to protest that Reagan was a running dog of capitalism and imperialism. But both men remained standing – because that’s the minimal requirement for any mutually beneficial relations. …

“For anyone who wishes to live in a civilized society where the observance of social norms can be safely assumed, this wretched business is a loss – for what remains of social cohesion, for “true civilization” and for “the real greatness of a nation”. A national anthem can be a national anthem or an opportunity for self-expression, but not both. And, if this is yet one more thing that Americans can no longer agree on, if a people lack the minimal social glue to rise reflexively when the band strikes up the first bars of “O-oh, say, can you…”, you have to wonder whether anything remains to bind us together at all.”


Political order & decay

Diary note by James Bowman at his website.

Reposted with his generous permission.

“As is so often the case, Mark Steyn had the best and most trenchant take on the NFL’s collective kneeing of its former patrons and supporters. He cites Lord Moulton’s division of the rhetorical universe into the domain of freedom and the domain of the law with a vast middle ground between them occupied by — or formerly occupied by — the domain of manners. Manners, that is, are a kind of law that we impose on ourselves for the purpose of living on amicable terms with our neighbors. On this view of the matter, both the boorish players on one end of the continuum and the brutish Donald Trump on the other end, with his proposals to enforce good manners on the players, are guilty of encroachment — that’s a five yard penalty, I believe — on the domain of manners.

“It’s all perfectly true, of course, but there is a certain inequality between the two sides in this unseemly battle because of the shameful role of the media in it.

“Just as reliably obtuse as Mark Steyn is acute, The New York Times editorial board headed its editorial on the subject: ‘The Day the Real Patriots Took a Knee.‘ For extra credit, class, discuss the use of the word “real” in that headline. So confident, in fact, is the Times in its ownership of ‘reality’ — just like its ownership of ‘truth’  — that the article never even bothers to attempt to justify it. It is enough that the Times says it is real for it to be real, even though the overpaid behemoths on whose behalf they are claiming this ‘real’ patriotism could hardly be said to have claimed it for themselves. The Times is presumably stuck back in the days  when lefties used to be outraged — or at least to pretend to be outraged — at anyone who dared to impugn their patriotism. Remember ‘Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism’? It seems like only yesterday. But that slogan is no longer operative in the left’s rhetorical arsenal. Now they’re outraged by patriotism itself, and the media with one voice seconds that emotion.

“Mark Steyn also points out that the players in London who knelt for their own anthem but stood for the British one were demonstrating that they knew very well what was due to good manners but had deliberately decided that their brand was bad manners towards the fellow citizens whom they knew would be outraged by their action. But that could also be said to suggest that their quarrel is not really with flag or anthem, for both of which, after all, they have stood respectfully many times before in the course of their careers, but with the very idea of holding anything in common with those they have been taught by the left and the racial grievance industry to hate.

“How has this been allowed to happen? Because, I think, not the least of the bad effects of moralizing politics is that it makes your mind up for you on all kinds of subjects that might otherwise require thinking. Instead, you just have to go with the good people and their opinions about everything and hate the bad people and their opinions about everything.

“Pace their perfervid headline writers, I don’t think The New York Times is really anti-patriotic. It’s just that, from the media’s point of view, that kind of yah-boo politics makes better copy and energizes their political base, just as Donald Trump is doing in reverse. That’s what makes the attack on Trump as the cause of it all so ridiculous. He’s just playing the media’s own game, and they don’t like it one little bit. It’s very bad for the country, of course, but Mr Trump could truthfully say he didn’t start it. And who knows if all those liberal-minded conservatives’ scolding of the President and praising with faint damns the creeping anti-Americanism of the left wouldn’t be even worse for the country?”


James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest. See his collected articles at this websiteat his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

This is a follow-up to Looking beyond the politics of the kneeling NFL players.

Here’s how we got into this mess: “It’s True, The Government Paid the NFL to Stand For the National Anthem” by Elura Nanos at Law Newz. This also explains that NFL owners can require players to stand during the Pledge. Also see this insightful column by David French at National Review: “I Understand Why They Knelt.” Also, NFL ratings have fallen 11% year over year. Especially watch next week’s ratings to see the full effect of the players’ actions.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about protests, and especially these…

  1. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century.
  2. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?
  3. Will the Ferguson protest force development of African-American leaders?
  4. Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?
  5. About this new era of protests by the Left.
Honor: A History
Avilable at Amazon.

About James Bowman’s great book.

From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete. In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

21 thoughts on “Hidden and painful truths about the NFL protests”

  1. Unfortunately nobody is talking about the fact that police seem to be permitted to dispense with Due Process in persuit of Law and Order. Trump and the NFL have successfully buried the issue. Can it be resuscitated? Will it?

    Thanks for the piece by Moulton

    1. Furthermore, it’s more finger-wagging by white America on what’s acceptable protest for black Americans. Riots aren’t acceptable, so they get scolded for that. Then blocking traffic as civil disobedience isn’t acceptable, so GOP-controlled legislatures start proposing laws to exonerate anyone who runs them over. Simple marching is largely ignored or slyly denigrated (“Must be nice to have all this time to protest…meanwhile, the rest of us have real jobs to go to.”). Even the simple gesture of bowing a knee results in scorn heaped upon the protestor (then our idiot president weighs in and it becomes all about him again, completely ignoring the issues of race and police brutality).

      It seems the only acceptable way for black Americans to protest their treatment is in a way that white Americans don’t have to:
      A.) see
      B.) think about
      C.) be made uncomfortable by
      D.) be inconvenienced by

      1. ch1kpee,

        “it’s more finger-wagging by white America on what’s acceptable protest for black Americans. ”

        Perhaps many Americans have lost interest in marching mobs and TV-centric symbolic protests. Black communities are a mess, with a long list of social pathologies — aka voluntary behavior, often applauded. Perhaps the rest of the nation would be more supportive of protests if the protesters showed some interest in improving their own communities.

    2. Charles,

      “police seem to be permitted to dispense with Due Process in persuit of Law and Order.”

      I believe that’s an exaggeration. There are arpox 800 thousand law enforcement officers in America. The number of shootings by police has been falling — along with crime — for decades, and is microscopic compared to the number of crimes or arrests. The vast majority of shootings are of people with a history of violent felonies.

      So police shootings — and police violence — is clearly a serious problem, I don’t believe yours is a fair statement of it. If your statement were true, perhaps our violent crime rates would not among the highest of the developed nations.

  2. FM,

    “Perhaps the rest of the nation would be more supportive of protests if the protesters showed some interest in improving their own communities.”

    You bring up another thing that always seems to happen whenever blacks (or often any member of any Other Tribe, from the perspective of the critic) protest something: whataboutism. Who ever said these protestors aren’t just as interested in improving their communities? Kaepernick is donating $1 million this year to various charities benefitting black communities. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and other prominent athletes that have criticized police brutality all have large charitable foundations. There are scores of activist groups, foundations, and NGOs addressing issues such as the inner-city drug epidemic, Chicago’s gang violence, etc.

    The people taking a knee have done much more to try to improve the conditions of the black communities than any right-wing politician or critic like James Bowman or Mark Steyn. People act as if you can’t care about multiple causes at the same time.

    “Patrick Moynihan identified this problem in 1965. 52 years later it has grown far far worse. See the ugly details here.”

    It didn’t all happened in a vacuum, as if black Americans woke up one morning in 1965 and decided to commit cultural suicide. Moynihan knew that much; he stated that it was a result of the wearing down of black society after centuries of poverty and marginalization. He also advocated that civil rights legislation wasn’t enough, that a significant government effort was needed to economically empower African-Americans (education, jobs, etc.) to bring them up to parity with the rest of the country and avert a social death-spiral. Instead, we’ve exacerbated it with the war on drugs, harsher treatment by the justice system, ever deeper cuts to education, infrastructure, and social welfare programs.

    Poor white communities are beginning to crack at the seams too, especially as more working-class jobs flee rural areas and their own drug problem (the opioid epidemic) grows. We’re already seeing them deteriorate and already hearing the same callous and lazy “solutions” from right-wing ideologues like Kevin Williamson and JD Vance (eg, “Why don’t they just move to where the jobs are?” “If you stopped popping oxy and drinking moonshine, maybe you could learn how to code and write an app!”)

      1. ch1kpee,

        Lacking the ability to look at alternate timelines, we cannot tell if the marches helped or hurt the Civil Rights cause. We do know that support for ending the post-civil war legal oppression of Black Americans had been building since WWII — and that the first of the great civil rights bills passed 3 years and 2 months after that poll.

        Belief that the marches contributed to their passage — in the absence of evidence — is the commonplace post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy that powers so many superstitions.

        Given the history of marching mobs in western history, the Left’s love for them is a mystery to me. of course the Left condemn’s them as legitimate mob action — as fast as does any KKK member — when the march is conducted by conservatives. Hypocrisy is one of the most common and enduring of American characteristics.

    1. ch1kpee,

      “always seems to happen”

      Always happens! Wow. Please share some evidence for that! Most of us learn to avoid “never” and “always” by our sophomore year.

      “Who ever said these protestors aren’t just as interested in improving their communities?”

      Wow. That’s quite a reading fail! Let’s replay the tape to see what I said: “protesters showed some interest in improving their own communities.” Let’s see action.

      As for Kaepernick, it would be interesting to see what he’s doing with his donations. His most famous one is one million dollars to Assata’s Daughters, with the first $25,000 givin in April 2017. It is named after Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur. Shakur was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1973 shooting death of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster and sentenced to life in prison, but staged a daring jailbreak and now lives as a fugitive in Cuba.. “We come together in struggle as radical Black feminists and organizers, under the shared respect, love and study of Assata Shakur.” “We intentionally develop and train young people, ages 4-19, in the Black queer feminist tradition and in the spirit of Assata. ”

      Looks to me like he is part of the problem, not the solution.

      “The people taking a knee have done much more to try to improve the conditions of the black communities…”

      I doubt you have much evidence to support that. It sounds like a statement of ideological solidarity.

      “It didn’t all happened in a vacuum, as if black Americans woke up one morning in 1965 and decided to commit cultural suicide.”

      Yep, about this time ideologues trot out the strawman fallacy. The bottom line is that cultural pathologies have grown stronger in most Black communities since 1960. Many of these pathologies are applauded in those communities. Black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa tend to do better than native American Blacks, despite facing the same racism — and often coming from worse backgrounds. Dance around those facts to your heart’s content; they will remain true.

      “he stated that it was a result of the wearing down of black society after centuries of poverty and marginalization.”

      You are, deliberately I suspect, missing the point. Whatever the causes in the distant past, for the past 5+ decades Black communities and families have deteriorated. Marching about police violence and racism are nice, but profoundly irrelevant to the pathologies affecting those communities. The reaction by the Left — and many Black Americans — to Moynihan’s report is similar to that today to people making the same point: avoidance, changing the subject, blaming those who point out the obvious. None of that is helping.

      “Poor white communities are beginning to crack at the seams too,”

      Yes, which makes the Left’s love of divisive identity politics so destructive. The Republican Party is as an institution a loyal servant of the 1%. As are the neoliberals. But nothing warms the heart of the 1% imo as does the Left’s identity politics.

      Only an alliance of the populists and progressives can defeat the 1%, as in the New Deal. The inherent divisiveness of the Left’s identity politics makes that absolutely impossible. Focusing on fractional politics furthers the careers of group leaders but diverts attention from issues that affect us all and leaders that can unite us.

  3. The David French article summed up my position on the whole squalid mess. In a single statement, Trump managed to push an unfortunate but forgettable incident in the NFL into a no-win situation that can only continue to wound American unity for some time to come.

    I doubt he sought that kind of power when he ran for the White House.

  4. Get real, people. It is a cultural war, powered by unforgiving and blind Black racism, seeking revenge for past wrongs (some 50 years past, since 1968, over 2 generations), not present victimization, and falsely claiming moral superiority (just like that blurb above about Bowman’s book “Honor”, which slyly imputes honor to Muslims but not to western, presumably Christian, countries — totally false, and it tells me Bowman’s “insights” are worthless, i.e. without the honor he purports to know about.

  5. Calling Mark Steyn a ‘trenchant’ authority on manners, and quoting him at length in re: kneeling during the anthem is one of the funniest things I’ve read in awhile. This is the same Mark Steyn who wrote the not-all-disrespectful-towards-Americans-unlike-those-uppity-football-players article titled, “Welcome to the United States of Losers and Bozos”, in which the author mocks the US authorities inability to stop the Atlanta Olympic Park Bombing, right? Am I missing something? It really just goes to show that despite the intellectual pretension of the article (like quoting an obscure English Lord), the actual treatment of the subject matter is astonishingly shallow. Some rightwing Canadian spends his early career mocking Americans as bovine morons, then sees the light post-9/11 (out of purely moral, mannerly reasons no doubt) and squeals enthusiastically from North of the border for a war that may very well be the US’s greatest blunder and crime of the past 50 years. But hey, he’s got some ‘acute’ observations about NFL or whatever so better listen up. He’s like a character out of an Iannucci show –
    some Canadian who cultivated the most stereotypical European contempt for American culture until he realized his media career would fare better during the Bush years if he mouthed the appropriate jingoist slogans. You should send him a link to your blog post. He’d love it, I’m sure.

    1. Mike,

      “Calling Mark Steyn a ‘trenchant’ authority on manners,”

      First — This is difficult for firm ideologues to believe, but folks that you disagree with can be smart too!

      Second, you are making stuff up (a classic sign of Ideologue at Work). The quote is given as an interesting observation. There is nothing – zip, nada — implying he is an “authority on manners.”

      Third, as typical with ideologues, you don’t show any sign of understanding what was said (even if you disagree with it) — let alone giving a rebuttal.

      So you can continue to waddle down the tracks of life, eyes firmly closed to anything that doesn’t meet your little politics, seeing what little can see thru your blinders. Enjoy!

  6. The Man Who Laughs

    “Lacking the ability to look at alternate timelines, we cannot tell if the marches helped or hurt the Civil Rights cause. We do know that support for ending the post-civil war legal oppression of Black Americans had been building since WWII — and that the first of the great civil rights bills passed 3 years and 2 months after that poll.”

    I think that in a lot of cases they helped, but keep in mind that a lot of civil rights protestors were very careful about their messaging and how they presented themselves. You can find pictures of people protesting wearing suits and ties, holding up … well, here’s a pinterest of some old pictures


    These people are basically saying “We’re just like you. We were born in the same country, grew up just down the road from you, fought in the same wars as you, , and we’re being subjected to treatment that you wouldn’t want for yourself, and it’s not right.” That’s a powerful message, They were appealing to their fellow citizens, and they were there to claim the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

    The guys kneeling in the stadiums ain’t Rosa Parks. The Klan is not waiting to beat them bloody when they order lunch at a white only counter. Bull Connor is not going to set the dogs or the firehoses on them. Even someone sympathetic to the Freedom Kneelers should be able to see that the messaging is off. This is not how it’s done. You can end segregation, you win the right to vote, you can pass and enforce antidiscimination laws, and you even protest police brutality. But you can’t force people to buy tickets to watch you protest and act up during the anthem. That’s a bridge too far,

    I don’t think NFL will ever entirely come back from this. Too many people are going to see it as ghetto.

    1. The Man Who Laughs,

      In general I agree with you on all points. I have often used such pictures of the Civil Right marches (and similar ones of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement).

      But we can’t see them as the people of 1955-1965 saw them. For example, the had in the minds pictures of mass marches by the Left and Right in Europe — none of which ended well for those nations. Personally, I am not a fan of mass marches. I believe the odds of them proving productive to be low, and the odds of them are high that they lead to bad things. I’d like to see a large-scale study of this social phenomenon. Perhaps it has been done, somewhere.

  7. The Man Who Laughs

    I think you reservations about mass marches are valid. AT least it would take a rasher man than I to say that you’re wrong. Maybe in some cases mass marches could be a lagging indicator. There was a lot of water under the bridge by the time the marches of the 50s and 60s happened. Blacks had worked in the factories in WW II, and had served in large numbers with honor and distinction. Harry Truman had desegregated the military by executive order. The federal government had means of enforcing civil rights law that were unavailable in the 19th Century. Were the marches a cause of change, or an effect of the fact that the country was ready for change? I’m not sure I have an answer to that one.

    1. The Man who Laughs,

      I agree on all points, and don’t believe any firmer conclusions can be drawn.

      We can — speculatively — work the question from another perspective. Mobs marching — however well-dressed and orderly — have too often led to bad outcomes for society. We need not look far back in history for examples. So a built-in dislike or skepticism by many or most people towards them seems reasonable — and justified, imo.

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