Watching all these big sports clubs scrambling to appease the Chinese regime, and punish the coaches and players who don’t bow and scrape — Arsenal being the most recent of these — I find myself singing, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today / They’d send a limousine anyway.”
The meaning is so obvious: “The black clothes represent Hong Kong, the mask represents Hong Kong, the Molotov cocktail represents Hong Kong, what else here doesn’t represent Hong Kong???”
But the artist who drew this, Rafael Grampá, is Brazilian, and Brazil has had its recent moments of social unrest: Why couldn’t it be about Brazil? The comics company, D.C., is American: Why couldn’t it be about the various protest movements that have succeeded Occupy Wall Street? (Batwoman = black bloc.) Of course, the Hong Kong protesters have learned from those movements. They’re not the only ones, though.
Why couldn’t the image be about … Batwoman?
We don’t even know when the image was drawn, or the story it illustrates written. Since the appearance of my book The Year of Our Lord 1943, I have received several emails from people noting, either approvingly or critically, its obvious subtextual commentary on Christian participation in the political events of 2016. The only problem with this assumption: I signed the original contract for that book in 2013, and had largely finished it before the last Presidential election. People don’t think about matters like the time-frame for the publication of books when they discern correspondences with whatever is at or near the forefront of their minds.
Years and years ago a student told me that his high-school English teacher had explained to her classes that Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is about Santa Claus — Santa indulging in a contemplative moment before resuming his duties. For he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps. It all fits.
And it does fit. Sort of. Close enough for a reader to be pleased when she discerns the correspondence. Such a reader will be sufficiently pleased to stop asking questions, and will not wonder whether other interpretations might match the text equally well — or even better.
This is the curious doubled character of the human impulse towards interpretation. We delight in interpreting, but we delight even more in bringing interpretation to a satisfying end. We want to do it, and we want to be done with it.
I thought this day was coming, but I didn’t expect it to come so soon. I don’t believe Beijing expected it to come so soon either: the Chinese authorities were playing a long game, biding their time and building their power, and I do not think they were relishing an immediate confrontation with Western capitalism. But the Hong Kong protests forced their hand. Beijing clearly perceives these protests as an existential threat, and have decided that the moment has come to go all-in. They have pushed all their chips into the center of the table … and the capitalists immediately folded like a Chinese-made lawn chair.
NBA officials are bowing and scraping to Beijing and begging forgiveness while trying to tell Americans that they’re not really apologizing. (Adam Silver says he’s not apologizing for Daryl Morey’s exercise of free speech, but then what is he apologizing for?) ESPN/Disney is muzzling its employees. Apple is banning apps that Beijing wants banned, for whatever reason.
This has all gone better for Beijing than CCP officials probably dared hope, but in fact they held the strongest hand. Tim Cook, who got his job as Apple CEO after spending years proving that he was a wizard of the supply chain, knows better than anyone that China has a stranglehold on Apple’s supply chain, and it would take years or even decades to loosen that hold. I don’t know how much revenue the NBA gets from China, but even if it’s far less than they get in this country, that Chinese revenue can be cut off altogether in an instant; by contrast, not one American NBA fan in ten thousand will care enough about what happens in China to stop buying jerseys and tickets and League Pass.
If nothing else, this whole shameful display should put an end, once and for all, to the ridiculous idea that there is some natural and intrinsic connection between democracy and capitalism. There very obviously ain’t. When shareholders and the bottom line are not benefitted by democracy, then democracy gets flushed down the toilet. American big business has firmly decided for a totalitarian regime and against people who want democratic freedoms. The business of America really is business after all.
But here’s an interesting question: How woke will our woke capitalists remain if an emboldened Chinese regime starts to rail against moral perversion in the form of homosexuals and trans people?
“Believe me, the China situation bothers me. . . . But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money,” then–NBA commissioner David Stern said in a 2006 interview. He may not have known then where his allegiance to the bottom line would lead the league and the game he helped to grow.
To hear him tell it then, Stern was intent on turning the NBA into an exporter of American values. Under his leadership, the league began its “Basketball Without Borders” program, which initially sent NBA players to run basketball camps in geopolitically tense parts of the world. “NBACares” television spots dominated game breaks. “We’re going to keep right on showing them,” Stern told Sports Illustrated when asked about public annoyance with the frequency of the ads. “Because social responsibility is extremely important to us.”
You know it was an article of faith for Stern that “make money” and “social responsibility” could never come into irreconcilable conflict with each other. No doubt Adam Silver and Tim Cook have been similarly catechized. But their religion is in vain, so what will they do? They’ll keep making money and tell themselves that they are also socially responsible, no matter what happens on the ground. For faith is the evidence of things not seen.
UPDATE 2: Paul Farmer, in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, on WLs (White Liberals): “I love WLs to death, they’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves.” (More about Farmer, on related themes, here.)
Adam Silver is standing by NBA employees’ free speech rights, though he doesn’t sound happy about it. “Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right [to speak his political views] as one of our employees. What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.” He also made sure to emphasize how deeply he “sympathizes” with Chinese companies that angry.
Let’s be clear about what Silver sympathizes with. A Chinese broadcasting company replied to Silver’s statement thus: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.” That is, people who are citizens of countries other than China, who speak while in their own countries, should be governed not by the laws of those countries but by the preferences of China. That is the view that Adam Silver sympathizes with.
UPDATE: Ben Thompson makes a rather obvious point, though one I had neglected: The statement by Daryl Morey that so profoundly offended Chinese officials was made on Twitter — which is banned in China. Thompson continues by demonstrating how Chinese censorship works on TikTok, and near the end of the post writes,
The government response is also critical: I already argued that CFIUS should revisit TikTok’s acquisition of Music.ly; the current skepticism around all Chinese investment in the United States should be continued if not increased. Attempts by China to leverage market access into self-censorship by U.S. companies should also be treated as trade violations that are subject to retaliation. Make no mistake, what happened to the NBA this weekend is nothing new: similar pressure has befallen multiple U.S. companies, often about content that is outside of China’s borders (Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example, being listed in drop-down menus for hotels or airlines).
First, the Weibo accounts of prominent critics were ‘harmonised’ – in other words, deleted overnight. Then a conference was called for ‘Big Vs’, people with well-followed verified accounts, analogous to Twitter’s blue tick. At the conference, the newly formed Cyberspace Administration of China reminded the assembled big shots about their ‘social responsibility’ to the ‘interests of the state’ and ‘core socialist values’. Two weeks later, on 23 August 2013, the prominent investor and Weibo activist Charles Xue was arrested. He turned up shortly afterwards in a Chinese Central Television interview from his prison cell, weeping and apologising for his irresponsibility and vanity.
Such TV interviews have become a staple feature of the CCP’s internet crackdown, helped by a new law, passed in September 2013, which threatens three years in prison to anyone who shares a rumour that ‘upsets social order’ and is shared five hundred times or clicked on five thousand times. For people with Weibo followings well into the millions, the law effectively banned the posting of anything even potentially controversial. ‘Ever since, Weibo has been dead as a politically relevant medium,’ Griffiths writes. ‘Once, debate had raged there: sometimes wild, often polemical, clever if you were lucky – but always lively. Today, it’s as silent as the grave.’ Weibo continues to grow, mind you; it’s just that it’s now the usual entertainment news and celebrity bollocks.
Put all this together. Imagine a place in which there’s a police post every hundred metres, and tens of thousands of cameras linked to a state-run facial recognition system; where people are forced to have police-owned GPS systems in their cars, and you can buy petrol only after having your face scanned; where all mobile phones have a state app on them to monitor their activity and prevent access to ‘damaging information’; where religious activity is monitored; where the state knows whether you have family and friends abroad, and where the government offers free health clinics as a way of getting your fingerprint and iris scan and samples of your DNA. Strittmatter points out that you don’t need to imagine this place, because it exists: that’s life in Xinjiang for the minority population of Muslim Uighurs. Increasingly, policing in Xinjiang has an algorithmic basis. A superb piece of reporting by Christian Shepherd in the Financial Times recently told the story of Yalqun Rozi, who has ended up in a re-education camp for publishing Uighur textbooks in an attempt to preserve the language. One of his crimes was using too high a percentage of Uighur words. The system allows a maximum of 30 per cent from minority language sources; Rozi had used 60 per cent Uighur, and ‘China’ had appeared only four times in 200,000 words. Uighurs get into trouble for attending mosque too often or too fervently, or for naming their children Mohammed, or for fasting during Ramadan. There are about 12 million Uighurs in Xinjiang: 1.5 million of them have either spent time in a re-education camp or are in one right now.
To which Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA:
Actual quote: “We are dealing with a complex set of issues. And I will just add that the fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view.” A point of view — your opinion, man — the opinion that the people of Hong Kong have the right to demand democracy and that the Chinese communist government is determined at all costs to deny it to them — which Silver is quite explicitly disavowing by apologizing to the fans in China. The NBA loves it when their people are politically vocal, until being politically vocal costs the NBA money. Then they claim, as the owner of the Houston Rockets has, not to be political.
It’s interesting how little coverage of this issue there is on ESPN, and no editorializing — in text, anyway: maybe the on-air personalities are being more assertive. But my guess is that ESPN and the NBA are joined at the hip here, and are trying to figure out which way to jump. My second guess is that they’ll back the totalitarian Chinese regime.
And my third guess is this: The time will come when no major American media will tell the truth about what the Chinese government does, and my over/under on the moment when perfect silence has been achieved is five years.
UPDATE: Here’s what the NBA posted on Weibo: “We feel greatly disappointed at Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey’s inappropriate speech, which is regrettable.” Remember that “inappropriate speech,” in full, was: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
UPDATE 2: Since I posted this earlier today I have been browsing through the Twitter feeds of the major NBA reporters. Crickets. Not an opinion in sight, and these people have opinions about everything. There are two factors at work here, I think. The first is simple greed: NBA exhibition games are coming up in China, ESPN is sending crews there, there’s money to be had both in the near and in the far term. But the other factor is something I wrote about a lot in How to Think: Scott Alexander’s extremely useful categories of the Ingroup, the Outgroup, and the Fargroup. To people who run the NBA, how North Carolina portions out its public restrooms is A Matter of Vital Importance, because those Jesusland weirdos are the Outgroup. But the Chinese government persecuting and killing Uighurs? Whatever, man. Who am I to judge?
UPDATE 3: Brian Phillips:
There’s nothing edifying about any of this, except to the extent that it’s a useful reminder of where we are. We’re in a world where global capital feels perfectly comfortable teaming up with communist autocrats against democracy activists, as long as it keeps the cash registers dinging. Generally speaking, the hypocrisy of sports owners feels more depressing than the hypocrisy of other tycoon varietals, because sports owners represent a product that you’d like to believe has a meaning surpassing commerce. This is especially true about the NBA, because the NBA is so proud of its social conscience, or at least it was before its social conscience started threatening to cost it money.
For the most part, though, you’ll never be surprised if you assume that the devotion of sports owners to their own self-interest, and of sports leagues to their owners’ self-interest, is absolute. The NBA wants you to see it as politically progressive to the precise extent that your seeing it as progressive helps the bottom line and no further. Tilman Fertitta, the Rockets’ owner, occasionally goes on CNBC to praise Donald Trump, from whom he bought an Atlantic City casino in 2011, and to say things like “Obamacare does not work.” He has no problem then turning around and declaring that the Rockets are a “non-political organization” to make nice with China, because what he means by “non-political organization” is that he thinks hundred-dollar bills are nice, and also fuck you.
The Chinese have developed a state system run by a technocratic elite of highly educated bureaucrats under party control. This is China’s age-old imperial system in modern form. The attraction that western-style democracy and free-market capitalism may have exercised on this elite has now withered. They stressed the failure of western states to invest in their physical or human assets, the poor quality of many of their elected leaders and the instability of their economies. One participant added that “90 per cent of democracies created after the fall of the Soviet Union have now failed”. This risk is not to be run.
All this has increased confidence in China’s unique model. Yet this does not mean a return to a controlled economy. On the contrary, as a participant remarked: “We believe in the fundamental role of the market in allocating resources. But government needs to play a decisive role. It creates the framework for the market. The government should promote entrepreneurship and protect the private economy.” One participant even insisted that the new idea of a “core leader” could lead to strong government and economic freedom.
This is by no means an irrational take on the global state of affairs. I wish it were.
On his blog this morning, Rod Dreher publishes a fascinating letter from a reader in China, who suggests that the work of Xún Zǐ might be a good entryway into Chinese culture.
As it happens, I wrote about Xún Zǐ in my book on original sin. I introduce him after briefly describing the thought of Confucius’s disciple Mencius, who believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Here’s the relevant passage:
But some generations later there came along another great sage, one who also considered himself a faithful disciple of Confucius, who believed that Mencius had gotten it all wrong. His name was Xún Zǐ (310-237 BCE), and it is probably not coincidental that he lived in what has long been called the Warring States Period, when the unifying power of the Zhou dynasty was weakening and the social order crumbling. “The nature of man is evil,” Xún Zǐ wrote; “man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this tendency is followed, strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.” If we feel a pang of compassion or anxiety for a child falling into a well, that is because the life or death of that child does not affect our interests — we do not gain by it. If we knew that we would gain by that child’s death, then not only would we feel no anxiety, we’d give the kid a good push.
But then, someone might say, people often, or at least sometimes, do virtuous deeds. If our nature is evil, where does goodness come from? Xún Zǐ has a ready reply: “I answer that all propriety and righteousness are results of the activity” — this word carries connotations of creativity and artifice — “of sages and not originally produced from man’s nature…. The sages gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles, and thus produced propriety and righteousness and instituted laws and systems.”
So it would seem that the news from Xún Zǐ is not so bad after all, and not so different from the model of Mencius. Yes, we have an innately evil nature, and come into this world predisposed to greed and strife; however, these tendencies are correctable by the judicious enforcement of well-made laws. The one thing needful is that the sages, who have “gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles,” are the ones given charge of “laws and systems.” Philosophers rule — or should.
So for Xún Zǐ inborn evil is not so much a curse as an annoyance. Thanks to basic human intelligence, which allows us to see when things aren’t working properly and then take the necessary steps to address the problems, we can find sages (“sage-kings,” he later says) to establish laws and social structures that mitigate evil and build up good. And, not incidentally, Xún Zǐ believes that “Every man in the street possesses the faculty to know [humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles] and the capacity to practice them.” Therefore, almost anyone can become a sage; there is no reason why there should ever be a shortage of them.
It’s Xún Zǐ’s matter-of-factness that’s noteworthy here, and really rather attractive. What his philosophy indicates is that one can have a very low view of human nature without being what William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) calls a “sick soul”: a person tormented by consciousness of sin and helpless in the face of temptation. James spoke of such people as “these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth,” and it was almost axiomatic to him that their personality is antithetical to the confidence and assurance and warmth of what he calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” But Xún Zǐ, for all his insistence on the depths of our innate sinfulness, seems the very embodiment of healthy-mindedness. How is this possible? It turns out that what matters more than your view of “human nature” is your view of the relative importance of nature and nurture. For Xún Zǐ human nature is evil, but nature is also easily controllable and eminently improvable. All you have to do is put the philosophers in charge.