Celebrated author of the graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick may seem to have little in common except for their respective fame and success in their fields.
But Spiegelman’s recent experience with Marvel Entertainment has exposed a much more significant parallel, as Spiegelman concludes about having his work excluded by the company for being too political:
A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political… just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.
This moment of being policed for being too political experienced by Spiegelman has been Kaepernick’s life outside of the playing field for the past three years.
Kaepernick’s NFL sin leading to his being banished from the Gridiron of Eden that is professional football was protesting during the National Anthem—an act often cast as protesting about the National Anthem and thus rejecting the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Despite their fame and success, Spiegelman and Kaepernick are embodiments of workers in the U.S., and thus, they share the burden of workers to be apolitical.
Yet, the context of those demands are important to emphasize: Marvel Entertainment chairman Perlmutter, like many of the owners in the NFL, is allowed his politics of donation.
Politics, then, in the U.S. is reserved for the wealthy and the powerful because the term itself is code for the status quo of power dynamics. The wealthy and powerful must protect their ability to maintain the status quo (that’s their politics regardless of party affiliation) by demanding that workers remain subordinate through taking always the apolitical (thus, non-threatening) stance.
When the owner class claims to be apolitical, that argument represents how “politics” in the U.S. is about what has become normal (thus “apolitical”) versus what is being unmasked (thus “political”).
During the Kaepernick controversy about protesting during the National Anthem, for example, little was noted about the political nature of the anthem being played at a sporting event, about the role of U.S. military endorsement deals with the NFL.
U.S. women’s soccer national team captain Megan Rapinoe and athletes at the recent Pan Am games have also chosen to protest during the anthem and ceremonies—often receiving the same sort of framing by political leaders and the mainstream media: The acts of protest are political (and disrespectful) but the anthems and ceremonies are left as if they are themselves apolitical (since they are normal, common).
If we pull back from that dynamic, this helps characterize why remaining silent about systemic racism or individual acts of racism are not themselves labeled “political,” but naming and confronting racism tend to be cast as not only political but radical, dangerous.
In the U.S., it remains more disruptive to confront and name racism than to be racist.
Racism, sexism, and politics are all matters of power, and we must resist simplistic framings of the terms and their consequences.
The irony of Spiegelman’s and Kaepernick’s experiences is that they are simultaneously punished for being political while those in power doing the punishing are themselves exercising their politics—directly the politics of their status and wealth and then tangentially their partisan politics that they prefer to be ignored if not outright hidden.
Concurrent with Marvel policing Spiegelman’s politics and Kaepernick’s three-year anniversary for being banned from the NFL as too political, the owner of the Miami Dolphins actively campaigns for Trump while a player for the Dolphins exists in the expectations that he remain apolitical (no protesting) and even apologizes for criticizing the hypocrisy between that owner’s claimed ideals and the realities of Trump’s politics and personal bigotry and misogyny.
As a lifelong educator, first in K-12 public schools and then at the university level, I have lived an entire career steeped in the demand for objectivity and somehow teaching in an apolitical mode.
While teaching often includes this directive as central to how we are trained and then how we are monitored and evaluated, nearly all workers exist under these norms while the ownership class maintains very direct and powerful political lives that they want to be, again, ignored or hidden even as their businesses and personal actions benefit from and perpetuate that politics.
Much of this is cloaked in respectability politics and a sort of business culture that is grounded in layers of “proper,” “professionalism,” and “appropriate” for so-called work environments.
Kaepernick, you see, as a professional must exist while at work as if the real-world around him doesn’t exist.
Like a majority of the NFL, Kaepernick as a young black man, then, cannot acknowledge or use his unique influence to confront this:
About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops.
The analysis also showed that Latino men and boys, black women and girls and Native American men, women and children are also killed by police at higher rates than their white peers. But the vulnerability of black males was particularly striking.
“That 1-in-1,000 number struck us as quite high,” said study leader Frank Edwards, a sociologist at Rutgers University. “That’s better odds of being killed by police than you have of winning a lot of scratch-off lottery games.”
The number-crunching by Edwards and his coauthors also revealed that for all young men, police violence was one of the leading causes of death in the years 2013 to 2018.
Kaepernick and NFL athletes are also supposed to defer to societal expectations of power as expressed by the Attorney General:
After telling the crowd that “we need to get back to basics,” Barr said that public figures in the media and elsewhere should “underscore the need to ‘comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.'”
“This will make everyone safe — the police, suspects, and the community at large,” he said. “And those who resist must be prosecuted for that crime. We must have zero tolerance for resisting police. This will save lives.”
Yet, human existence is perpetually a state of politics.
What Spiegelman’s and Kaepernick’s experiences represent is that those with wealth and power see the world as theirs and seek to maintain the rest of us as their working class—passive, compliant, and apolitical.
The politics of wealth and power is expressed in a demand that everyone else remain silent and passive, that everyone else conform to being apolitical.