Earlier this week, Charles P. Pierce at Slate.com wrote up some thoughts on LeBron James as “the next Michael Jordan.” Well-timed, of course, given his spectacular take-down of Detroit – honestly, it was a single-handed take-down – and the first visit to the NBA Finals starting last night. I don’t much disagree with the author on assessing The Bron as bluntly non-political, but the very question is quirky. I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts…
The author can couch this particular criticism in safe terms. (Pierce draws largely on Jonathan Zimmerman’s article in The Christian Science Monitor from late-May.) It turns out that James failed to sign a smart and biting petition, started by teammate Ira Newble, condemning Chinese investment in Sudan. A protest of the violence and displacement in Darfur, especially relevant given China’s hosting the upcoming Olympics. In fact, the statement was quite strong in its language: “China cannot be a legitimate host to the premiere international event in the sporting world – the Summer Olympic Games – while it remains complicit in the terrible suffering and destruction that continues to this day.” Well-put, bold, and I totally agree. (We’d also have to ask a lot of other questions about China’s treatment of its own citizens in sweatshops, the people of Tibet, etc.)
First, Zimmerman’s article. It is interesting that Zimmerman phrases it this way: “But Lebron James, one of the best basketball players in the world, won’t lift a finger for Darfur.” I think the whole story is right there, both how odd it is to spill passions and ink on such a petition and what it says about our relationship to spectacular figures like James. I should say, just so it doesn’t get lost in this stuff, that I’m miffed why James wouldn’t sign such an obviously good and right sentiment. Then again, I don’t know James and don’t know if he actually knows – or cares – that it is an obviously good and right sentiment. Seriously. We gotta remember that. We don’t know much about his thoughts on much outside basketball issues. Zimmerman would do well to pause and consider the fact that James is a ballplayer. His “for Darfur” or “not for Darfur” means little on the ground. A rhetorical sensitivity to that fact is surely in order.
So, my real question: why do we think we have a right to know such thoughts and compel certain positions, statements, and the like?
Zimmerman cites Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali as past “role model” athletes for kids like LeBron James. Convenient. Heroic, though totally complex and conflicted (in Ali’s case, that is) social actors nonetheless. On such issues as Vietnam and South Africa, Ashe and Ali make real, important stands. Controversial and, from my point of view, totally right. (How could anyone have supported apartheid South Africa? A lot of folks did.) Do we have a right to ask that of James? Why or why not?
I imagine the reason “why” is pretty simple: he’s famous, so he should do and say something. With great power comes great responsibility and other such platitudes (most of which are true). I also image the reason “why not” is pretty simple: he’s a person with an immensely focused and busy life, so he might not be informed about or interested in such issues. In other words, The Bron might just be like other folks in the U.S.
Neither Pierce nor Zimmerman give a real account of either why James should “take a stand” or why we have a right to ask that of him.
But underlying both the Slate.com and Christian Science Monitor articles is a sense that this image – which is exactly what a star athlete is in this day-and-age – speak to all of our concerns and anxieties. Please don’t get high. Please don’t break the law. Please don’t be an asshole. Please be straight, married forevah, with a few children (not too many, please). And please be someone who says the right political things.
This takes me back to my remarks on Sam Brownback’s editorial ramble on religion v. science. Only in an age dis-anchored from material reality could we expect, want, even need expertise and analysis from folks far from such expert study. If they are present, they must speak. And speak in a way we like to hear them speak. In this way, we’ve moved a bit from Debord’s notion of the spectacle. For Debord, late capitalism makes us consumers-who-are-spectators. I get that, and it’s everywhere. But a case like this introduces a strange sort of spectator-agency, in which we see passively, yet act in order to see what we want to see. Perhaps this is Debord’s spectacular order after the remote control. Same image, same spectatorship, yet we switch to see and hear what we want to see and hear. Nice image, now say what I want…
If you claim a right to the remote control, you gotta have some reasons why you have that right. That’s not really an image. It is a real person transmitted as an image. So you’re exercising a right over someone. Who lives somewhere. With real thoughts (or lack thereof).
A couple of final thoughts:
First, I wonder if there isn’t a sort of racial economy here, where we in the U.S. compulsively want black people to be everything “we” want them to be. (I will leave the meaning of “we” open-ended.) Like I said, this often means married, small number of children, kind, heterosexual, politically informed and progressive. In other words, the antidote to all the racial anxieties we have in this country, the anxieties about all black people being single-parents, tons of children, rude…etc…we all know this icky list. Please be the one to whom I can point and say “see…he’s NONE of those things, so those things aren’t true…” Not an unfamiliar anxiety-produces-desire story, but all the more regrettable for its familiarity. I wonder – at the risk of raising the stakes just a bit too high – if this doesn’t rehearse in some fairly airy fashion an old and grotesque commodification of African-Americans in the U.S. We bought you, now do what we say – except that here we’ve “bought” LeBron James by being fans, buying the ticket and jersey, following his career, and so on. And so “we” imagine that we have all sorts of rights. In this case, to the intellect and conscience of a man named LeBron James.
Second, for those of us who want to work – or even locate some meaning – outside the spectacular order’s play of images, we have to take materiality in all of its complexity. In this case, that materiality might mean that LeBron James is a different person than we fantasize he is, has motives that are completely reasonable but that we find abhorrent, and so on. He just might not care about world politics. I’m thinking of Zimmerman’s recall of Michael Jordan’s remark that “even Republicans buy shoes.” Jordan said that in response to a question about his unwillingness to campaign against Jesse Helms. Could be a couple of motives, surely more. Jordan might have been honest here: I’m about making money, not politics, and this is how it “cashes out,” as it were. Abhorrent to only a few (let’s be honest: most folks live that way), but completely rational. Or maybe Jordan is a Republican and just didn’t say it. Nothing about being obscenely wealthy works against such voting trends… Again, here the material order (the person, their private motives and beliefs) interrupts the spectacular order (the image on our screens and our projection into that image).
The problem with interrupting the spectacle is that it breaks up our narcissism. Yet it happens all of the time. Even our most beloved people can come out with ideas, values, or theories that are totally unexpected. We hear them out, disagree, and let them be. Because we love them. Maybe The Bron – and everyone who plays this role in the future – deserves a little bit of love.