As American popular culture gets more and more entangled in the political divisions that are rending our country, it may appear to be increasingly difficult to teach cultural analysis without risking painful classroom conflict. Take the current controversy over Nike's Colin Kaepernick campaign: it simply begs for semiotic attention, but how can it be accomplished without having the whole thing blow up into yet another headline on Inside Higher Education, or any other national news outlet?
I wouldn't be writing this blog if I thought that the thing couldn't be done or if my best advice would be to steer clear of the whole matter and anything like it. No, if you have adopted a semiotics-based methodology for your class, you have to engage with the full range of popular culture. And if you stick to the fundamental semiotic axiom that, while a personal opinion can be built upon the foundations of a semiotic analysis, semiotics itself is not an expression of an opinion, the thing can be done.
So, to begin, let's start with the obvious significations of the Nike/Kaepernick campaign and the reaction to it. The first is the way that it joins an ever-growing list of signifiers revealing a widening political gap in America, especially when it comes to anything having to do with race. This one is so apparent that it doesn't require any further explanation, but it does merit recognition.
The second (also quite obvious) signification is that symbols matter. Whether the symbol involved is the American flag or "Silent Sam," deep emotional attitudes towards objects can be just as passionate as attitudes towards people or policies. This too is so obvious that it doesn't require any further explanation, but does need to be mentioned.
The third is that the traditional (and constitutional) right to free speech in America is a shield protecting social protest, until it isn't. On the one hand, juridical rulings on free speech grant to individuals the right to say almost anything short of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater (remember the successful ACLU defense of the Nazi marchers in Skokie?), while, on the other, the courts have allowed employer retaliation against employees who break the speech codes in their places of employment. Such a lack of clarity is a contributing factor in the Nike controversy.
But let's step away from the most obvious significations and get into some more subtle ones. The first I'd like to consider is one that I have seen very ably explored in a Washington Post opinion piece by Michael Serazio, who argues that the Nike campaign isn't a gesture on behalf of social justice; it's simply another expression of the hypercapitalistic nature of America's consumer culture. Here's how Serazio puts it: "At one point in human history, products were bought and sold for their utility. Now, because of the massive and unchecked expansion of corporate power—in terms of not just market share but mind share—products must represent values, lifestyles and, in the age of President Trump, political ideologies." In short, the Nike campaign can be seen as a signifier of the hegemony of consumption in a consumer society.
But Serazio is hardly the only cultural analyst trying to parse the Nike affair. Consider the following two articles, also from the Washington Post. First, there's Megan McArdle's Nike bet that politics would sell. Looks like it was wrong, an op-ed that cites public opinion polls from all sides of the controversy to conclude that Americans are not responding favorably to the Nike/Kaepernick campaign, while arguing that this is a good thing because "as America has divided into distinct camps—geographic, demographic, political—more companies have started chasing explicitly political identities. Starbucks's leftward lean has famously roused conservative ire, but many on the left still haven't forgiven Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy's remarks opposing same-sex marriage a few years ago. The result is a world in which every decision, even what kind of fast food to buy, has taken on a political aspect. That's not healthy for America, which needs more points that people have in common, not more ways to divide into separate teams."
But then there's Amy Kittelstrom's counter-argument, which comes to a very different conclusion. Noting that by "[b]urning shoes and snipping swooshes, some white Americans think they are punishing Nike for re-signing Colin Kaepernick, the unemployed quarterback known for quietly kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to anti-black police brutality. In reality, Nike will profit. The more these angry consumers attack the company, the more attractive they make Nike in the far bigger global market—which is a vital part of why Nike launched the campaign that centers on Kaepernick."
Now, the interesting thing about these articles is that each, in effect, jumps the gun on the future by asserting long-term outcomes that are by no means as certain as their authors argue they are. You may say that Trump started it with his exultant tweet about Nike's stock price decline at the opening of the campaign (Nike stock has, as I write this, fully made up the drop), but, whoever engages in such predictions, making them at all always runs the risk of speaking too soon, of letting one's desires (i.e., the way one wants things to turn out) supersede the available facts.
I'm reminded here of an editorial in the Richmond Examiner from July 7th, 1863 that predicted inevitable victory for the Army of Northern Virginia in its invasion of the North—published three days after Lee's defeat at Gettysburg but two days before news of that defeat reached Richmond. But then again, in 1861 there was a lot of "On to Richmond" confidence in the Union press as well. In the end, as Lincoln sublimely noted in his second inaugural address, neither side got what it expected out of the war, which grimly contradicted that American tendency (which rises to the level of a cultural mythology) to expect that everything will always go the way we want it to—a fundamental cultural optimism that Barbara Ehrenreich calls "bright-sidedness" (you can find her exploration of this peculiarly American tendency in chapter 7 of the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.).
And so, in McArdle's and Kittelstrom's dueling certainties about an uncertain future I find a signifier of something that is profoundly American; but unfortunately, when a divided people are equally certain that everything will go their way, everyone, in the end, loses.