Last year an ESPN host opened an interview with him about his social activism by noting that his critics were demanding that he “shut up and dribble,” at which they both chuckled.
A year later, he finally agrees. From now on, at least with respect to Chinese totalitarianism, he’ll be dribbling and shutting up.
Watch the two clips below (the first cuts off before he’s done speaking) and you’ll find him making a simple point: Your willingness to speak out about one injustice doesn’t oblige you to speak out about all injustices. He hasn’t always felt that way, but certainly we all have issues that animate us more than others do. That logic is both a sword and a shield for James in his criticism of Daryl Morey. It’s a shield in that it lets LeBron off the hook for holding his tongue about China while criticizing police brutality in the United States. And it’s a sword against Morey, who jeopardized an entire industry’s presence in China for nothing more than a single glib tweet. We might (but probably wouldn’t) be having a different conversation if Morey were an ardent human-rights activist, if he had personal ties to Hong Kong, or so on. One might understand in that case why he felt so strongly about Hong Kongers’ rights that he’d gamble the NBA’s entire Chinese market on making his point. But to just toss off a lone tweet without a second thought? If Morey’s moral investment is limited to nothing more than sporadic slacktivism, it’s hardly worth the financial cost to the NBA to indulge him.
That is to say, self-interested silence about another’s oppression is a moral weakness but one which we’re all guilty of. We buy cheap Chinese goods knowing full well the cost in human terms. If Morey hadn’t tweeted, how many Americans would have objected to — or even noticed — the NBA’s preseason goodwill tour in China?
The problem with James’s take, as critics left and right have noted, is that he hasn’t observed silence himself this week. Instead of ducking questions, he’s acted as a grubby enforcer of Chinese censorship by criticizing Morey. “[T]here’s an important difference between having nothing to say about Chinese authoritarianism and the nuances of Hong Kong’s limited home-rule, versus reflexively condemning someone who does have something to say on the matter, because those comments f*** with your wallet,” writes Chris Thompson at Deadspin. “If it’s true that Morey didn’t consider enough the likely consequences of banging out a dipsh*t slogan 10 days ago, then it’s also true that LeBron didn’t consider enough the bedfellow he was taking when he finally came down the mountain.” At NRO, Michael Brendan Dougherty sighs that silence would have been preferable to the sorry spectacle that the NBA made of itself this week:
There is nothing “misinformed” about supporting the Hong Kong protestors, and deploring the Chinese Communist Party. China is still a country of forced abortions. It’s a country of open, systematic, state-led ethnic and religious persecution. It’s a country of social censorship. It’s a country of Kafkaesque social policy: millions of Chinese people who were born illegally as second or third children have no right to education or work, and some do not even have their births registered.
I think Americans actually would show some understanding and patience with NBA players and personalities that remained discreetly silent. The league’s lucrative involvement in China dates to a time when hopes for China’s liberalization seemed more realistic. And the league’s players may be correct in calculating that any protests against Chinese human-rights abuses from them would not have any salutary effect on China, and could possibly have an adverse one, making Hong Kongers look like subjects of American intrigue rather than genuine interest.
But LeBron’s political self-regard, his financial interests, and his silence simply paint a damning picture.
As you’ll see below, James repeated his insinuation yesterday that Morey was ill-informed about what’s happening in Hong Kong, saying at one point in the clips, “If you don’t have a lot of knowledge about it or quite understand it, I don’t think you should talk about it.” Morey’s tweet may have been glib but there’s no reason to believe he’s misinformed about what’s happening there. Between him and a bunch of self-consciously woke NBA superstars who seem to view China entirely in terms of shoe sales, whom do you suppose is better informed about what Hong Kongers are seeking politically and what they’re up against? There’s a reason Morey tweeted what he did, after all.
We’re about to encounter this issue of uncomfortable silence versus outright apologetics in a more overtly political context soon, with Trump at the eye of the storm:
China threatened unspecified “strong countermeasures” if the U.S. Congress enacts legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters, in a sign of the deepening strain between the world’s two largest economies as they attempt to seal a trade deal.
China’s foreign ministry issued the warning Wednesday after the U.S. House passed a package of measures backing a pro-democracy movement that has rocked the former British colony for more than four months. Among them was the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which subjects the city’s special U.S. trading status to annual reviews and provides for sanctions against officials deemed responsible for undermining its “fundamental freedoms and autonomy.”
While the legislation must also pass the U.S. Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump to become law, it already has strong bipartisan support in the Republican-run upper chamber. The Hong Kong measures were passed by the Democrat-controlled House by unanimous voice votes Tuesday.
Congress is about to pass the legislative equivalent of Morey’s tweet, a toothless but morally righteous statement of support for Hong Kongers. What will Trump do? If he chooses to veto it because it might upset trade negotiations with China, will he defend that a la LeBron by accusing Congress of being “misinformed” about Hong Kong? A few days ago, after he and China agreed on a “stage one” trade deal, he insisted that “great progress has been made by China in Hong Kong” and that “it really has toned down a lot from the initial days of a number of months ago,” even claiming that the standoff with protesters was “going to take care of itself.” It wouldn’t be hard for him to justify a veto on grounds that, supposedly, there’s no crisis at this point and, even if there is, we need to “see both sides” or whatever. Stay tuned.
I asked LeBron James on his response to the criticism on not speaking out on a freedom of speech/human rights issue. His response pic.twitter.com/3ub5hYsa22
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 15, 2019
.@KingJames on China/Hong Kong: “I won’t be talking about it again … we’re not politicians, I think it’s a huge political thing … it was a challenging trip for all of us in China.” pic.twitter.com/w2gLb7BgnV
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) October 16, 2019