It Was So Familiar Then
First of all, if you haven't been reading the comments section of my "post" on the Darfur/China/Olympics situation, you simply must. T., our man in China and one of the site's longest-tenured community readers, is absolutely killing it with perspective from inside that country, right now.
One thing he raised that stuck with me: No country likes being criticized by foreigners, especially not a budding superpower that's defensive about its place on the world stage. My whole argument hinged on both the complexity (read: elusiveness) of China's hand in the genocide, as well as how little it had to do with the NBA players expected to speak out against it. I guess in a perfect world they would've anyway, but we would've been holding them to a ridiculously high standard. One that, were there not a moral absolute like mass slaughters somewhere in the equation, might be viewed as meddling.
Just writing that makes me feel like a heartless relativist, but there's also a streak of pragmatism to it. Yes, in the eyes of idealism, pragmatism always seems like a form of resignation or compromise. Especially when Jerry Colangelo could be the mastermind behind it. And yet there's also a back-handed etiquette at play there, one that defers to others in a better position, or with a greater responsibility, to speak.
All of which brings me to T.'s point that, if anyone's in an ideal position to speak out, it's Yao. It's not ideal in that China still controls much of him, and his purse strings. He would do so at great risk. But "ideal" doesn't mean convenient, it means "perfect." And isn't the point of speaking out to do so with some leverage, to create a critical mass of tension and unavoidability?
I know that America is a beacon of freedom for all the rest of the world, and it's on our athletes to spread that particular gospel. That's another form of idealism, one that makes for good narrative but almost always collides awkwardly with the real world. If we were going to be honest with ourselves about who should be talking about Darfur, we have to not only admit that Yao's closer to the issue. He may not be among the persecuted, but at least his relationship with China is based on more than a web of international commerce. We also need to recognize that, while condemning genocide is easy and universal, Team USA has zero idea how to go about discussing the issue in terms that might make sense to the Chinese people—which, as guests of China, they would for all intents and purposes be doing.
Of course, all of us feel strange insistng Yao do such and such, precisely because it would be painful for him, while our Olympians would just find themselves in awkard situation after awkward situation. And that's exactly how meaningful change should feel, since it involves more than just semi-informed twenty-somethings saying that raping and burning is wrong. Yes, LeBron said he would, Kobe did a PSA, and Tracy McGrady and Ira Newble have made Darfur into the rare international issue that draws the interest of the NBA community. They are the most famous athletes in the Games, and by far the wealthiest. That and their basketball crusade has been from the beginning bound up in national pride, which brings with it all sorts of well-meaning, deeply-felt, and possibly empty platitudes—that bad kind of idealism again.
Or, on some level, did we all not look at these Redeem Teamers as the sons of Jesse Owens, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith? There's that superficial, perhaps sentimental, identification, as well as the persistent hope that the NBA—because its denizens are for the most part black, visible on the field, and play a game that has long been interpreted in terms of race—would develop a political consciousness. And hey, it just so happens that the people suffering in Darfur are dark-skinned—though calling for some kind of solution there seems like basic human decency, and Sudan about as far from anywhere in the USA as you could imagine.
And, as much as I hate to say it, there's the fantasy that that the bad-ass black dude will take a stand, with a presence that a big 'ol Asian could only dream of mustering. They are strong, and outlaws, and rebels, and Other, and always in the struggle, and should do the work that real power brokers are afraid to. Oh, and do so with style. Maybe that's racist, maybe it's laudatory, maybe some of both. Let's leave it at this: I'm not comfortable making Team USA the locus of Olympic activism if doing so is just an extension of domestic baggage.