Big Brother is a free agent.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Nike pulled the release of what the Wall Street Journal described as “a U.S.A.-themed sneaker” that had been slated to be released on July 4. The sneakers, which featured the circa-1770 “Betsy Ross flag” on the heel of the shoe, were shipped to retailers and then recalled. “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July,” Nike said in a statement, “as it featured the old version of the American flag.”

The Journal revealed that this was not quite the embarrassing quality-assurance blooper that the company’s statement suggested, reporting that blackballed quarterback and Nike spokesperson Colin Kaepernick had objected to the use of a flag that flew while slavery was still practiced in the United States, and that Nike had withdrawn the sneakers in part at Kaepernick’s behest. Nike still hasn’t addressed that, although its initial statement was later upgraded to, “Nike made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.”

What happened next was more or less what happened the last time Nike and Kaepernick appeared in the same sentence. The people you’d expect to lose their shit—the people whose entire politics resolve to always losing their shit over trivial Mad Libs mini-outrages like this—vigorously and seemingly quite gladly went on to lose it again. This bottomless capacity and eagerness to take this kind of theatrical offense over things like this, and to just absolutely go to town on whatever superheated slop is dished out by the partisan media ecosystem that exists to serve it up, is by now both a sort of political identity and identity politics unto itself. This performance of being upset, which is both consciously performed and seemingly also in total lizard-brain earnest, fills the vacuum of the broader moment—specifically with the smell of burning sneakers and the sound of offended people wailing about how offended other people are.

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The spectacle of all that is still strange, because the specifics of it are, just on their basic merits, so goofy. The shit-losing community yowls about how offensive and ridiculous they find the offense that they presume other people to have taken; they do this into the front-facing camera on their phones, or into a webcam they’ve set up on the dashboard of their car, or into the cursor blinking on some social media site’s little text box. They direct these complaints at a multinational corporation that manufactures athletic equipment, over literal or figurative piles of smoldering athletic socks and desecrated basketball shoes that they have just immolated/defaced. These people are not themselves upset—they are never upset, which is easily ascertained because of how reliably they insist upon that—but they are disappointed and embarrassed on Nike’s behalf, or just kind of laughing in a not-mad way at how upset other people get, and also how easily offended people are these days.

It doesn’t really matter that there is nothing really to this, and that it fundamentally resolves to people 1) insisting that it is unpatriotic to deny the American flag the right to appear on a tacky sneaker, and 2) saying “fuck Colin Kaepernick” for the umpteenth time. It’s not about Kaepernick’s reading of the flag, which can be both correct—“under the guise of ‘heritage,’ symbols of early US history have long been adopted by hate groups set on returning to a time when all non-white people were viewed as subhuman and un-American,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Keegan Hankes said, identifying the flag’s use in recent recruiting material from racist reactionary organizations—and maybe also a bit much. None of that really matters to anyone, because none of the people getting upset about this withering insult to Betsy Ross herself, or the bedrock constitutional right to put a flag on a sneaker so people will buy it or whatever really had an opinion on any of this before Colin Kaepernick had his.

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The whole story has had an almost algorithmic feel about it from the jump, like one of those text-jammed procedurally generated t-shirts you see on Facebook except that this one says You’re Damn Right I Will Defend Betsy Ross From Sneaker Companies And Free Agent Quarterbacks. It is hot outside and a lot of people are off work today, and yet this story continues to run smoothly even on autopilot. Various grouches and weirdos rise in turn to deliver themselves of speeches and sermons that consist of the same 50 words arranged in slightly different order. It is useless, or useful only in demonstrating which members of Congress are willing to tweet feet pics and which prefer to rely on ominous line breaks to make their point. All of them make the same point, which is not really a point at all so much as it is pretending to be oppressed by what some other person thinks or some sneaker company does.

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It is reasonable to wonder what a flag would even be doing on a shoe, where it could get dog shit mushed onto it or be dunked in a mud puddle or otherwise suffer the sort of indignities from which flags are generally protected. The short answer is that it was there because someone at Nike thought it might help the shoes sell, although that’s not a thing flags are supposed to be used for, either. But the way these symbols get used necessarily change over time, and to fit the interests of those using them. “In Betsy Ross’s time, the flag was strictly utilitarian,” Betsy Ross House director Lisa Moulder said. “It was a military tool. It wasn’t commercialized until much later. In the 18th century, flags helped troops on land or at sea identify each other, so you’d know if you were firing on military troops or an ally.” There’s always some war to find.

Additional reporting by Dan McQuade.