Gwen Berry did not salute the flag! And Fox News wants you to think that this is pure insanity. And Caitlyn Jenner jumped on the band wagon to claim some patriot points. And Hannity is getting worked up again. And the left-wing response is idiotic. And the comment section is filled by angry patriots….. So what happened? It might be good to recall explicitly, since the internet moves with an utmost unreflective speed.
The 26th of June 2021, American athlete Gwen Berry got third place in the hammer throwing trials for the Olympic games in Tokyo. This means she qualified to represent the US in July.
When there was a small ceremony after the trial, the National Anthem started playing. Since Gwen Berry partakes in a common form of protest, involving not saluting the flag during the playing of the anthem, she did not salute the flag. Instead she twisted around awkwardly. The main idea behind doing so is very well expressed by Berry herself:
The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.Berry during interview. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/jun/27/gwen-berry-national-anthem-protest-hammer-thrower-us-olympic-trials
Of course Berry’s motivation is easy to follow. Racial injustice is an issue, and not saluting the flag or kneeling during the anthem is traditional American style of peaceful protest. It showed up during the First World War, the Vietnam War, during the big Civil Rights protests, and so on. It is also (for reasons much worse yet similar) a common practice under Jehova witnesses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._national_anthem_protests).
The associative optics is easy to read: the flag represents the current situation of the country, yet this current situation is one in which unfair suffering and injustice exists. Saluting the flag would then be associated with resigning to the current situation, while not doing so would draw attention to the change that is deemed necessary.
Even though the playing of the anthem was not connected to the ceremony at all (they don’t play the national anthem at the ceremonies during the trials), some athletes understandably did salute the flag when it started playing. This made Berry stand out. And this explains the picture you have probably already seen.
Of course, none of this is unexpected or spectacular. The actions of everyone involved make a lot of sense. Her fellow athletes probably understood what Berry was doing. Berry probably understood what they were doing too. The entire event might just have been ignored. And a month later it already feels largely irrelevant. But that is not how the media coverage went down. Let’s take a reflective turn and look at the master-narrative.
Fox media coverage
If we focus for the moment on the Fox News Instagram page, this little incident during an Olympic Trial (completely in line with what we might expect of Berry and wholly understandable even by Fox’s own standards and reporting) got blown up into a story worthy of weeks of enraged coverage. Of course bodily movements of an individual does not explain this. Neither does the protest by Berry, which is understandable and in any case globally speaking a movement in the margins. So Fox News tried to spin the incident into an apocalyptic narrative in which ‘a black female does not salute the flag’ was used as evidence that thr world as we know it is being destroyed and we are in great peril.
The consequence, by the way, being that attention shifted away from issues of social justice which motivated Berry, and instead moved to concerns only marginally related to Berry’s actions. For instance:
- on June 28th McEnany stated that Berry disrespects the entire US and everyone who ever died serving in the military (https://video.foxnews.com/v/6261427095001#sp=show-clips)
- on June 28th a politician, Dan Crenshaw, demanded Berry would be removed from the Olympic team. Another politician, Jim Jordan, said Berry is blindly going along with the ‘woke crowd’.
- on June 29th Joshua Nelson did an interview connecting Berry to the fate of the entire Biden administration (https://www.foxnews.com/media/gwen-berry-flag-protest-olympics-jake-bequette-biden)
- on June 29th Meghan McCain suggested Putin would use Berry to create a ‘real security risk’ for the US (https://www.foxnews.com/media/meghan-mccain-flames-gwen-berry-flag-protest)
- on July 3rd Jeanine Pirro (who is not a judge) said that anyone who thinks America is unfair should be excluded from representing America (https://video.foxnews.com/v/6262247427001#sp=show-clips)
- on July 18th, Caitlyn Jenner argued Berry is part of a ‘deterioration of love for our country and patriotism’. She also criticized ‘wokeness’, whatever that might mean (https://www.foxnews.com/media/caitlyn-jenner-says-america-must-move-forward-with-love-of-country-and-being-a-patriot)
I call this narrative apocalyptic because it seems somewhat unable to differentiate between a protesting athlete at the fringes of celebrity and the end of the entire world as we know it. As far as I am concerned, the prime example of wokeness is a teenager refusing to watch a specific movie starring a specific actor.
The game Fox itself is playing of course is clear and rationally demanded by the current media landscape: the narrative plays into vague fears to produce outrage and subsequently use the outrage to generate more clicks. The detoriation of modest media claims has been well recorded as a consequence of the end of paif subscription news services.
(We know from our own national intelligence that McCains statement in particular is tragically hilarious. Russia actively aids US media to spin apocalyptic narratives like those of Fox in an attempt to undermine the US. We will ignore this for now. But compare: https://resolvement.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/fox-news-got-mind-snatched-by-a-foreign-government-the-recently-declassified-report-of-the-national-intelligence-council/).
This narrative is recognizable. The critique is always partially true but substantially false and besides the point. A very well-written and nearly perfect example of such a construction: https://bobkingsley.com/2021/06/30/drop-the-hammer-on-gwen-berry/. Another one here: https://libertyproject.net/2021/06/30/berry-a-patriot/.
A somewhat messy but interesting critique of this familiar narrative can be found here: https://apadanamedia.org/opinion-gop-hypocrisy-on-gwen-berry-and-the-national-anthem/.
The missed opportunity
It would be most fruitful to not try and sidestep the concern Berry has. A situation lead to protest. So should the situation change? This is not how the question was posed.
But we can also deconstruct the master-narrative a bit. For instance, some people have noted a different interpretation of Berry’s protest is possible. Its strategically hilarious and idiotic that left-wing actors did not pick up on this.
This interpretation is the following:
- The American Dream is about fair opportunity. The Constitution is about equal and inalienable rights for everyone. We might call this the Promise at the center of the American experiment.
- It is extremely clear that the protests by Berry spring from facts of injustice and unfairness. This means her commitment to values of justice and fairness seem very clear.
- Promises define what something is.
- Patriotism means being American
- So if America is what it claims to be, Berry is a patriot.
And from that point onward we might start asking a different set of questions. Partially these might be legal questions concerning the nature of the Olympic Games.
And it’s completely weird to me that a website so esoteric that there is nothing for me to understand there, mixing astrology with political commentary, still seems to have the exact right focus: https://star4cast.com/gwen-berry-throwing-out-a-protest/
(I want to note here that the media coverage by Fox is disappointing and polarizing. We’ve noted this before, when intelligence showed Russia tried to manipulate the right-wing narrative. We noted it again when the Kremlin report leaked that Russia actively tries to use social media narratives reproduced by Fox to destabilize the US. And we noted what it would mean for contemporary patriotism).