Political Behavior and Basketball Correctness

Like an elementary school, the United States has a permanent problem defining and enforcing the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It has reached a point at which every issue becomes focused not on general interest but on individual behavior, largely because the notion of social behavior appears to have been definitively lost.

Recent weeks have seen an acceleration of the trends associated with what is often called the “culture wars.” Politics itself has been increasingly reduced to accepting or denouncing someone else’s rules to live, work and breathe by. Ironically, in some cases, breathing itself has become the issue.

In a context in which the deprivation of one man’s breath has spawned massive and ongoing protests, the National Basketball Association (NBA), a sports league comprised of a majority of black players, announced that it would allow its players to display on their jerseys a message of solidarity in response to the questions raised by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman.

US Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri — a populist Republican in a state that not only has no NBA team but has, in recent years, been rocked by racist violence — audaciously stepped in to deviate the discussion toward themes he considers more legitimate. In the face of recent attacks against the tradition of slavery, Hawley has embraced the sacred cause of defending the memory of the Confederacy and its heroes. He accuses his enemies, the Democrats, of using the pretext of anti-racism to dismantle the police, neuter the military and erase the history of the Confederacy. In his mind, none of those three entities can be suspected of racism, not even the Confederacy, which was just about brave white people defending their traditions.

As a senator, Hawley has no authority over a sports league. But he does have access to public platforms, which he uses to promote his political agenda. He complained that the NBA “is limiting its social messages on jerseys.” Hawley wants the NBA to include in its list of authorized messages his own preferred political mantra, “Free Hong Kong,” which of course has nothing to do with the Floyd drama or with the players’ lives, or, for that matter, the US Senate.

One of the most respected commentators on the NBA, Adrian Wojnarowski, reacted on Twitter with a simple but deliberately impolite message: “F–k you!” What he meant was: You may be a senator but you have no stake in this; you don’t have the faintest idea of what it is about or what it means to the players, and, moreover, this has nothing to do with China or any other demagogic message you probably want to broadcast to your electoral base.

That might have been too long for a tweet. The two words he used conveyed the message much more succinctly.

Alas, for Woj (as the commentator is familiarly known), once Hawley expressed his shock at the crudity of the response, his employer, the sports network ESPN, suspended the seasoned reporter after making this statement on July 13: “This is completely unacceptable behavior and we do not condone it. It is inexcusable for anyone working for ESPN to respond in the way Adrian did to Senator Hawley. We are addressing it directly with Adrian and specifics of those conversations will remain internal.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Unacceptable behavior:

The expression of justified emotion toward an impertinent figure of authority by someone employed by an organization professionally dedicated to containing expression within a rigidly controlled framework that must avoid offending its audience

Contextual Note

Senator Hawley framed his message in populist terms, complaining that by refusing to mention Hong Kong, the NBA was stifling the players’ freedom of expression out of fear of upsetting the Chinese government and losing the lucrative Chinese market. In his letter to the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, Hawley claimed “that the league’s policy on social injustice messages ‘appears to stop at the edge of your corporate sponsors’ sensibilities.’”

Hawley remembers that the NBA’s delicate attitude toward China had briefly become a hot-button issue in 2019. It resonated with the populist anti-China sentiment pushed by the Trump administration. But that issue has since been eclipsed by something far more dramatic that directly impinges on the lives of players and their families.

As a senator and supposedly responsible citizen, Hawley should be aware that the NBA’s intention was not to turn players’ jerseys into a new open social media platform for the expression of random political opinions, but rather as an opportunity to express solidarity on an issue that affects their lives.

Hawley, the politician, sees it as an occasion to score a political point that has nothing to do with the question of racial justice. It would even have the effect of undermining its importance. Race is not a serious issue for Hawley, certainly not as urgent as protecting the political rights of the Hong Kong Chinese. He seems less concerned by the plight of the Saudis, who are far more oppressed.

As a response to such twisted reasoning, Woj found the best two words to use in the English language.

Historical Note

In a speech on June 11 from the floor of the Senate, Josh Hawley invoked Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and even called one of the most violent battles of the American Civil War a “shared struggle.” He seems to have retained the idea that when two groups of brave people spent four years massacring each other, they were engaged in an act of sharing.

In a fundamentally hyperreal way, Hawley has a point. Intolerance and even murderously violent behavior in the US have come to exist as a form of sharing to the extent that everyone willingly and often eagerly participates. His message about the Civil War seems to be that white people disagreed only to end up agreeing in the end, which allowed them to emancipate the slaves for the betterment of the nation.

This view of history implies that once that was done, the problem ceased to exist. That may be why Hawley feels that what the NBA should be focusing not on saving its season interrupted in March by the COVID-19 pandemic, nor on allowing its players to grapple with their racial identity in US society, but addressing the issue he considers vital for his constituents in Missouri: humiliating the Chinese government, if only to comfort President Donald Trump’s and other Republicans’ chances of being reelected.

In defending the tradition of the South’s role in the war, Hawley claims that his aim is “not to embrace the cause of the Confederacy, but to embrace the cause of union, our union shared together as Americans.” This is particularly ironic coming from a senator from Missouri, since the status of Missouri played a key role in provoking the Civil War. But, as Hawley notes, once the bloodshed and the sacrifice of more than 600,000 American lives was over, the nation came together.

As author David Rothkopf notes in an article in Haaretz, Trump “has embraced a defense of the losers in the American Civil War as a central theme of his campaign.” Hawley has stepped up to support both of those causes: defending the memory of slave-holders and reelecting Trump. “Let us work together … to build on the history and the responsibility that we share as Americans,” Hawley said. He never stops insisting that it’s all about “sharing.”

On July 16, Hawley asked for an investigation of a prosecutor focused on the needs of the black community. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, an African American, “has sought to reduce incarceration and low-level marijuana cases and has angered the St. Louis police union with her reform efforts.” Most objective observers agree that Gardner’s efforts correspond to the most basic reforms aimed at reducing the patent inequality of a system designed to disproportionately imprison members of the black community. Gardner described Hawley’s demand as “a dog whistle of racist rhetoric and cronyism politics.”

Some of the new “enlightened” populists on the right, such as the otherwise open-minded and anti-racist Saagar Enjeti, see Hawley as a hero, a defender of a working class that includes oppressed minorities. Adrian Wojnarowski begs to differ. A generation of descendants from former slaves probably feels the same way.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer

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