If you frequent the conspiracy-laden intersection on Facebook where conservative nutjobs meet Russian shit-stirrers—a realm of mistruths straight out of a weaker Twilight Zone episode—you might have seen a shocking picture of your favorite Seattle Seahawk dancing around a locker room with a burning American flag recently.
This is, of course, shoddy Photoshop. The real image was taken in 2015, and does not feature a burning flag (with no smoke).
But tell that to the Vets For Trump, or the 1500+ people who have shared this image on Facebook.
Actually don’t bother. What you’ll find if you dig into the comments (which were covered over at Paste Magazine) is a mix of rage, corrections, and then rage at the corrections: “I’m furious about this picture.” “It’s not a real picture.” “I do not care, I’m still furious.”
That the image was made at all is infuriating. It’s a crude Photoshop job that will only fool those who already believe Michael Bennett is a literal monster. That people realize it's fake and continue to spread it, believing that the image somehow speaks to a larger truth despite its falseness, is even more devastating. If we cannot ground our discourse in reality, we’re just so fucked.
Here’s what’s real: Michael Bennett, following Colin Kaepernick’s lead, has been using the National Anthem as an opportunity to raise awareness of racial inequality and police brutality. The President and his supporters are deeply invested in the continuation of that inequality. They have targeted people like Bennett, who was, himself, a victim of police brutality.
There are now two Michael Bennetts: the really good football player who is an activist for racial justice, and a cartoon villain who would turn impale our troops with a burning American flag if given the chance. That the latter has nothing to do with the real Bennett—and is an avatar created by white people to avoid reckoning with their complicity in an unjust system—hardly matters.
This stupid picture of Bennett is a microcosm of a shattered American political ecosystem. The real Michael Bennett is going to briefly protest police brutality and then play football on Sunday. This fake Michael Bennett is trapped forever in a moment of imagined villainy, waving a nonexistent burning flag. And the possibility for communication between the people who see the real Bennett and those who see only the fake one gets ever fainter as we descend deeper into the tragic reign of our awful president.