FD Guest Lecture: Love, Basketball and Imperialism
When it rains, it pours. Today, some far-reaching thoughts from Matthew Yglesias, whose eponym now calls The Atlantic home. And if you haven't already, take a look at Matt Ufford's ode to Adrian Peterson.
When I was approached about writing a guest post for FreeDarko my first thought was, naturally, "of course I'll do it, what an excellent opportunity to help promote my forthcoming book." Unfortunately, the book in question won't be released until late April and it's about American foreign policy. The good news is that all things in this world are connected — particularly sports and American empire.
In particular, the country is, at the moments, under the grips of a dubious false choice between baseball and football, between imperialism and isolationism. The term rankles many in the American context, but there can be little doubt that it fits. As John Judis argues in The American Prospect's current issue:
There were two kinds of imperial rule: direct, where the colonial power assigned an administrator -- a viceroy or proconsul -- who ran the country directly; and indirect, where the colonial power used its financial and military power to prop up a native administration that did its bidding and to prevent the rise of governments that did not. The latter kind of imperial rule was developed by the United States in Cuba in 1901 after Roosevelt's Secretary of War Elihu Root realized that direct rule could bring war and rebellion, as it had done, to the McKinley administration's surprise, in the Philippines.Not coincidentally, they play a lot of baseball in Cuba. Similarly, many of our Major League Baseball players hail from the Dominican Republic, a country also subject to indirect imperial rule through the US-Dominican Treaty for Assistance in Governing during the early twentieth century. On the pacific rim, too, one finds baseball in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan -- all states bound to the United States by military garrisons and close defense ties. Everywhere around the globe baseball follows the American flag or, more precisely, the American military as its tentacles reach out.
Eventually, the United States largely moved beyond imperialism as an instrument of national strategy, but baseball itself lagged on as a legacy of that period. Meanwhile, in January of 2001, George W. Bush found himself inaugurated as President of the United States. Most observers assumed at the time that his foreign policy judgment would track the sort of prudent statesmanship associated with his father, with Bush family retainer James Baker, and with incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell. A more insightful observer would have noted that Bush was the first former owner of a baseball franchise to occupy the White House and known accordingly that his election, in fact, heralded a return to the imperialism of the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations.
Thus, not only the invasion of Iraq, but also a broader project to impose upon the world a series of unequal bargains in which the United States and key proxies like Israel thumb our noses at the Non-Proliferation Treaty while threatening
World War III unless Iran is prevented not only from building a nuclear weapon, but even from gaining "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Meanwhile, the powers that be would like us to believe that there is only one alternative. As hawkish senator Joe Lieberman told my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg when he was reporting for The New Yorker, "A lot of Democrats are essentially pacifists and somewhat isolationist," with his particular beef in this instance being a Ted Kennedy proposal to deny Bush funding for the troop "surge" that took place earlier this year.
They want us to think, in short, that the only alternative to baseball's dreams of conquest is the splendid isolation of football -- America alone, padded and helmeted, marching to the beat of our own drummer while the rest of the world tries to figure out what a "yard" is.
The truth, however, is that an alternative does exist: liberal internationalism or, as they say in the sports world, basketball (hockey, of course, represents a dystopian vision of Canadian global hegemony, I don't know anything about soccer, and cricket is the rotting corpse of British imperialism) . Basketball, like baseball, is
a global sport but it rejects baseball's domineering imperial mien. Instead of spreading through conquest and invasion, basketball spreads through Joseph Nye's soft power, gaining adherents through the inherent appeal of this American cultural product, marking out of sphere of influence wider than the American military into the heart of rival great powers like the Soviet Union and Communist China.
Some would see mere coincidence here, but internationalism is in the game's very bones -- invented as it was by a Canadian living and working in the United States, basketball has always been a sport capable of looking across national boundaries and doing so in a spirit of cooperation.
And, indeed, basketball, like a foreign policy grounded in restraint, international law, and global cooperation through stable multi-national institutions has often been castigated as un-American, too dependent on funny-looking foreigners, counter-culture types (or both), and non-whites to succeed. The truth, however, is that these concerns reveal an untoward lack of confidence in American values and power. In the international arena, when the country has sought to rally the world around good causes -- the containment of Soviet Communism, rolling back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, closing the "ozone hole," saving the whales, eradicating polio, toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul -- it has not proven unduly difficult to do so through legitimate methods and with partners around the world. So, too, our finest sport acquires adherents without recourse to force of arms; adherents who flock to our shores and enhance our game.
What's more, when American and foreign join hands through pursuit of the hoop, they truly cooperate, working hand-in-hand on the court to pass, cut, drive, dish, pick, roll, and rotate. In baseball, players from around the world are brought together on a single team, but they remain an aggregate of individual performers, each pursuing his own interests and vision. On the court, by contrast, true cooperation is necessary. Nash and Amare, Duncan and Parker, Yao and T-Mac, aren't merely teammates but partners on the floor,creating an international coalition whose whole is the greater than the sum of its parts.
Since 1998 or so -- the year of NATO's multilateral use of limited force to advance global human rights norms, the year of Michael Jordan's sixth championship and second retirement -- internationalism, basketball, have fallen a bit into obscurity. But in today's perilous environment, we need them both more than ever.