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LeBron James and the Narrow Tribalism of “Social Justice”

All social justice is local.
October 22, 2019
LeBron James and the Narrow Tribalism of “Social Justice”
HONG KONG, CHINA - OCTOBER 15: Posters show Lebron James embracing a Chinese 100-yuan banknote as protesters gather at the Southern Playground in support of NBA's Houston Rockets' team general manager Daryl Morey, who sent a tweet backing the pro-democracy movement on October 15, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong stretched into its fifth month after the Chinese territory's government invoked emergency powers earlier this month to introduce an anti-mask law. Protesters continue to call for Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam to meet their remaining demands since the controversial extradition bill was withdrawn, which includes an independent inquiry into police brutality, the retraction of the word "riot" to describe the rallies, and genuine universal suffrage as the territory faces a leadership crisis. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Is the NBA’s cave-in to China really all about the money? When LeBron James speaks up about perceived injustices here in the United States but urges silence against a foreign dictatorship that is running concentration camps, is it a case of the NBA “bowing at the altar of the almighty Chinese yuan,” as Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke puts it?

Maybe. But I suspect there is also something deeper going on. As with the collapse of the Women’s March into tribal infighting, we’re seeing another example of the narrow, parochial form that so-called “social justice” has taken.

LeBron James came in for particular criticism because only a few months earlier he had tweeted out a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And now here he was, not caring about injustice if it happens somewhere else and urging us to stay silent about things that matter.

Yet that quote from King actually highlights what’s going on—because it’s so obviously counter to the spirit of today’s “woke” politics.

Today’s “social justice” politics no longer trades in such broad, uplifting, universal ideals. It’s not about recognizing the universal brotherhood of man and wanting to live in harmony with one another. It’s about recognizing “privilege”—a constant search for evidence that somebody, somewhere, is more privileged than someone else and must be torn down for it.

Identity politics is by definition narrow, parochial, and tribal. It is about obsessing over one’s “identity” as a member of a very particular victim group, fighting for the prerogatives of one’s group, and declaring one’s hostility or indifference to everyone else.

Take the Women’s March, a series of street protests against Donald Trump that was started predominantly by middle-class white women, and then disintegrated when its organizers decided that actually white women were part of the problem. The movement sought out “women of color” to be its figureheads—only to discover that these new leaders had a history of supporting anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Louis Farrakhan.

That’s the tribalist style of today’s “social justice” movement. They cannot make common cause among all women because they are too focused on the grievances that one particular group of women has against another. So what started out as a “women’s march” ended with bitter infighting between white women, “women of color,” and Jews.

Or consider the Democratic candidates’ recent LGBTQ Forum, where a question to Pete Buttigieg was interrupted by demonstrators who thought that letting a gay man ask questions was an insult to the transgendered. And then a transgender child was interrupted because letting a transgender child ask questions was an insult to black transwomen. How can you have an LGBTQ movement, when the L, the G, the B, the T, and the Q are so busy venting their resentment at each other?

These conflicts aren’t mere excesses of the overenthusiastic. They flow from the fundamental logic of these movements. They are what happens when you define everything by tribal identity, so that declaring your support for one tribe puts you in competition against every other tribe in a scramble for power and authority.

So why should we expect someone influenced by this “social justice” culture to stick his neck out for protesters in Hong Kong? By the lights of today’s “social justice politics” the people in Hong Kong aren’t brothers in a universal fight for freedom from oppression. They’re just some strangers in a far-off land. They’re members of some other tribe.

Athletes like LeBron James are outspoken about issues such as the Trayvon Martin case or widely-publicized police shootings because those are issues that affect people like them—young black men—and people who live in the communities many of them come from.

It’s perfectly natural, of course, to devote a special intensity to the issues that touch most closely on your own background and experience. But if this interest were not purely tribal, if it were grounded on universal principles and a belief in political equality and the brotherhood of man, then these athletes would feel a sense of shame in complaining about “police brutality” at home while running interference for a police state abroad.

At the very least, they would fear that such an inconsistency would undermine the case for their own cause.

In the absence of such a sense of universality, other considerations are allowed to predominate—and the prospect of money from the Chinese market, on which the NBA is uniquely dependent, provides an incentive to kowtow.

Tribalism is not limited to the “social justice” left. What else is Trumpism, if not identity politics for blue-collar whites? The NBA’s kowtow to China is a demonstration of the destructive consequences.

Tribal identity politics is easily exploited by demagogues, propagandists, and strongmen, both foreign and domestic. Identity politics becomes the means by which we sell our freedom to those who play on our resentments.

The only way to defend freedom is by reference to universal principles of individual rights that apply to everyone—principles that unite us through our common humanity rather than tribal identities that pit us against our fellow man.

Because Martin Luther King was right. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.