It’s been since 1973 that the New York Knicks won an NBA championship, one of only two NBA titles in franchise history (the other came in 197o). The last time they made the finals was in 1999. New York Knickerbocker fans have been languishing in the wilderness for quite some time. Last season, after adding Carmelo Anthony to the previously-acquired Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks finally managed to win more games than they lost for the first time since 2000. They made the playoffs, but didn’t win a game against their first-round opponent, the Boston Celtics. Still, the team has legions of faithful fans, not least film producer Spike Lee, a regular, and notoriously grating court side presence at home games, always willing and able to make a fool of himself in showing support for his team. Mr. Lee is an outspoken advocate for black causes, which has dovetailed nicely with his support of the Knicks, as it has been decades since the Knicks’ roster had stars of any other race. But things might get interesting for Mr. Lee going forward.
The Knicks are on a run, winning seven of their last eight games (a seven game win streak ended at the hands of New Orleans February 17th)—mostly attributed to the play of a point guard that was claimed off waivers a little over a month ago. Jeremy Lin scored 38 points in New York’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers that kicked the streak, started with a February 4th victory over New Jersey, into high gear. Lin outscored (38-34) and out-assisted (10-1) future Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant, in the match. Except for the defeat of the Lakers, none of the victories could be called “quality wins”, coming against teams like Utah, Washington, Sacramento and Minnesota. But as a Knicks fan might argue, so what? A win is a win. And as is often lost on sports commentators that aren’t so good at math, most of the victories piled up by division-leading teams have to come from lower-quality opposition. Division leaders can’t play each other every game, or they wouldn’t be division leaders. Regardless, so-called Linsanity is sweeping the nation, or at least, New York, which is the same thing, or at least, New Yorkers believe that it is, and arrogantly also believe that everyone else should, too. The Knicks fans have been wandering the basketball desert for so long, it’s not surprising that an upstart reserve, who had already been cut by two teams and was almost let go by New York, and who came off the bench to spark a seven-game rally, might quickly create a frenzy amongst the faithful. Almost like manna falling from heaven, Jeremy Lin arrived to point the way to the Promised Land. I bet even Spike Lee got a bit Linsane.
Jeremy Lin has an unusual biography for an NBA player. He is ethnically Chinese (the child of American immigrants from Taiwan), perhaps the sixth or seventh, out of a population of 1.3 billion, to make it in the NBA (there is actually a website devoted to Chinese players in the NBA, which curiously enough, fails to mention Mr. Lin). He played undergraduate basketball at Harvard. And he’s Christian. Which set a New York Times columnist all gaga in last Sunday’s (February 5, 2012) paper. Michael Luo’s article could have been posted pretty much anywhere in the paper, but it was carried in the sports pages, which actually hints at the melodramatic nonsense of team sports these days. Here’s an excerpt:
Like Lin, I’m a Harvard graduate, albeit more than a decade ahead of him, and a second-generation Chinese-American. I’m also a fellow believer, one of those every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the-Bible-and-pray types, who agreed with Lin when he said to reporters after the Jazz game, “God works in mysterious and miraculous ways.”
Being a believer can mean different things in different circles. In a lot of the ones Lin and I have traveled, it can mean, essentially, you are a bit of a weirdo, or can make you an object of scorn.
For me, as an Asian-American, the chants of “M.V.P.!” raining down on Lin at the Garden embody a surreal, Jackie Robinson-like moment. Just as meaningful to me as a Christian, however, is the way the broadcasters have hailed Lin as not just the “Harvard hero” but the “humble Harvard grad.” His teammates appear just as overjoyed at his success as he was. Both seem to be testaments to his character.
For me, as a non-Asian-American, the chants of MVP at the Garden embody the ability of sport to transcend race, rather than accentuate a contrived racial, religious and educational (?) subtext. Imagine, were there to arise a new white phenom in the NBA who had attended the University of Alabama and was devoted to an ecumenical view of God as not belonging to any particular theology (however improbable it all might seem), had I exclaimed, as a White-American and Alabama grad and ecumenicist how profoundly surreal it felt that one of my own—someone with whom I shared all my significant tribal markers—was being feted for the greatness of his ability and character. After the scoffs and guffaws subsided, I would be dismissed as some racist crank. But for Mr. Luo to do so is perfectly appropriate. Disregard for the moment the curious affinity Mr. Luo feels towards Lin because of his religion (perhaps understandable, given the Christian compulsion to evangelizing) and his alma mater (which I’ve never, and will never, understand—how does attending the same university cause a tribal impulse of affinity to arise?), it is the racist portion that is of the greatest interest. Mr. Luo’s comments as an Asian-American reveal the precarious state of racial relations in the US today, and has implications for how the US addresses challenges it will face in the international community going forward.
China has more or less adopted Lin as one of its own, presumably because of his ethnic Chinese background. Though some commentators claim that Lin is a “banana”, i.e., yellow on the outside and white on the inside (imagine a white American saying something similar about one of their race), by and large China is swelling with pride at his exploits on the basketball court (see the Bloomberg article by Adam Minter), believing it to be a manifestation of their racial superiority, or at least that it proves their race is not inferior, never mind that the court of inquiry has a hardwood floor made for bouncing balls in a child’s game. In other words, China is by and large a profoundly racist, or at least bigoted, nation.
Japan is quite similarly racist, believing itself superior to all others, including the Chinese, though its population was undoubtedly descended from the same mainland population that would later become China, and until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century, and Japan’s rapid modernization starting in the latter half of the nineteenth, had been a more or less vassal state of the Chinese empire for all of its history. Japan even borrowed its written language from China, and modeled its early imperial administration after the Chinese. Yet, Japan still believed itself racially superior, which was at least one reason for its suicidal imperial ambitions in the early twentieth century, and why it closed itself off to world interaction in the centuries prior to Commodore Perry’s visit, and is arguably why today, it allows practically no immigration. As its population ages and dies (Japan has the highest median age, at 44.7 years, of any nation in the world, and the fourth lowest fertility rate, at 1.3 children per female), its refusal to allow immigration simply hastens the impending demographic crash. Japanese racism will ultimately be the death of Japan.
But China’s success at state-directed capitalism over the last forty or so years is being touted as a model for development by more than a few economic commentators in the West, much as Japan’s was prior to its collapse in growth two decades ago. To understand how China is able to conflate economic growth and nationalism, much as Japan did decades ago, requires understanding a bit of history, not just of China and Japan, but of the general rise of nation-states.
For most of mankind’s history, there were no states. Homo sapiens lived in small family groups or clans, ranging the countryside, reducing to possession, except for a few personal items, only that which was needed for food. As man gradually discovered how to cultivate plants and domesticate animals, the idea arose that a particular plot of land, or a particular animal, could belong to an individual or a group. But the critical incident of ownership, of the idea of property, was, as is the case now, the ability to exclude others from the salient attributes the property owners were interested in protecting. Farming a plot of land was a fruitless endeavor if a neighboring clan could sweep in and steal the harvest at will. Thus with agriculture came the idea of property ownership and with property ownership came the need for protection, or defense.
Protection is a classic monopoly good—the marginal cost of producing one extra unit of protection declines along the output curve through a long range of production possibilities. (There is a point where the marginal cost curve begins rising, the exact location of which has varied through history, depending mainly on technological and geographical factors. Thus the Romans limited the expansion of their empire in the British Isles to Hadrian’s Wall—the cost of providing protection beyond the wall became too expensive to justify—as the ultimate abandonment after only twenty years of Antonine’s Wall, a post-Hadrian construction in Scotland, attests.) The compelling economics of the protection needed for agriculture forced families and clans to merge into tribes, which ultimately became nations. (Hunter/gatherers had instead the economic compulsion to cleave branches when the clan became too large to support in the local areas available for exploitation, explaining the rapid spread of humanity across the globe.) Nations arising from family/clan/tribe origins were quite pure racially, which is another way of saying that the members of the nation were more closely related to each other than they were to outsiders. A classic example is the nation of Israel in ancient Palestine that biblical legend tells us arose from twelve tribes that traced their lineage to the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel). Before agriculture, these tribes would have dispersed to separate lands, instead they cooperated to defend ownership of the Promised Land.
The Hebrew story was repeated many times through history, as mankind adopted the sedentary (i.e., stationary) lifestyle of agriculture. Both the empires of China (in roughly 200 bc) and Japan (about 900 years later) arose among closely-related peoples (i.e., “races”) because of the economics of protection. It was vastly more efficient for closely related groups living in close proximity to coalesce over a common protective scheme than to continue battling with each other at the margins of hegemony. In both instances, regional warlords gave way to emperors. Within each empire, people were more closely related to each other than they were to outsiders. The state that arose did so to enhance the survivability of its closely-related people, or nation. That which was good for the state was good for the Chinese or Japanese people, aiding in their survival prerogatives. Racism and nationalism described much the same sentiment.
But don’t misunderstand. Things were hardly as smooth as I’ve described in this thumbnail sketch. Though cooperative protection was an economically compelling arrangement, in every case great friction had to be overcome before it was finally adopted. The point is that the compelling economics of protection yielded larger and larger confederations until the nation-state arose among closely-related peoples, and because the peoples of these nation-states were closely related, the priorities and operation of the nation-state often resembled that of the clans and tribes from which they came. Clans and tribes were natural bigots, that is, they naturally, as a condition of survival, favored their own kith and kin over others. If anything, the innate bigotry was magnified with the arrival of nation-states. And the history of China and Japan roughly parallels that of Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as barbarian tribes closely related in culture and genetics slowly coagulated to form nations. The main difference is that the European tribes didn’t get around to serious nation-building until about fifteen hundred years after China’s was complete, which by then was itself entering a slow decline caused by the ossification of the centuries.
The US has a different history, more closely analogous to that of Rome than that of China or Japan. The US is largely a product of British culture, which was itself a product of nation-building originating mainly on the European continent. America’s history is not a process of gradual coalescence of families into clans, clans into tribes, and tribes into a nation. That had already been completed by its British forebears, and in turn, by their continental forebears. America’s colonization initially resembled something of return to man’s hunter/gatherer roots, but with all the culture of centuries of civilized development at its heel. Because of its polyglot origins, America was never a nation-state of closely-related people, sharing a common history and identity. The state’s purpose could not be conflated with that of a nation or race because there was no singular national identity. Even the majority British culture exported to it was derived, or at least heavily influenced, by nation-states and tribes on the mainland, and it was anyway diluted and merged with a cacophony of other European cultures such that the white majority of Northern European descent in America could hardly be considered a nation, such as the Chinese or Japanese cultures might be described.
From its inception, the main prerogative of the American state was to provide order and protection so that its subjects could peaceably set about to get rich, not to serve as the vehicle through which nationalist pride could be projected. Rome’s greatest export—the source of its strength—was the security it offered from the barbarous anarchy surrounding it on all sides. At least in the beginning, so too was America’s. Instead of the state arising out of tribal survival imperatives that recognized the economic value of cooperative protection, in Rome and America, the state arose solely for the purpose of leveraging the efficiencies that cooperative protection provided. By the time of its demise, even Rome was hardly Roman anymore, its emperors often being culled from the barbarian ranks. Likewise, there is today no such thing as a prototypical American. There exist within America today at least three main cultures or nations (blacks, whites and Hispanics) and a multitude of lesser ones. The US president is of Kenyan descent. America, like Rome in the latter half of its history, could not exist to serve any particular nationality.
But what does all this have to do with Jeremy Lin’s basketball playing? It reveals how compelling is the racial impulse, at least outside of the sports arena (though in this case it has been projected upon it), and the fact that the US is engaged internationally with a Chinese nation-state that carries a decidedly and profoundly different perspective of the state’s animating purpose than it historically has. For China, the state exists to promote the survival and propagation imperatives of a singular, quite racist, nation. For the US, the state has existed (at least until its recent history) to provide protection such that individuals within it might survive and thrive as they see fit (only lately did the notion of “individuals” include the blacks within its midst). The raison d’etre of the American state is protecting the economic liberty of its citizens (and now, also a great deal of the rest of the world). For the Chinese, the state as well must provide an economic infrastructure for its people (at which it so miserably failed during Maoism), but is also responsible for managing the collective aspirations of a people wedded by genetics and culture and over two millennia of shared history. The Chinese state represents the Chinese nation. The same can’t be said for the American state, for it has no singular nation comprising it.
Is this a strength or a weakness? Bonds arising out of genetic affinity (and their attendant cultural ties) are among the strongest in biology, human or otherwise. But affinity of the national/racial sort can be a recipe for disaster. Could the Chinese have been convinced to allow the Chinese Communist Party to turn their nation into an experimental ant colony during the Cultural Revolution had they not had the cultural and genetic affinity that came with being Chinese? It takes quite a lot of confidence in one’s fellow man—confidence that perhaps only arises with close familial and cultural affinity, to allow the starvation of twenty million or so people in the interest of the Revolution. Would Americans ever allow such a thing?
But what about economic competitiveness? China’s economic miracle is routinely hailed as the product of a state/business partnership that sees economic competitiveness as a national, i.e., in China’s case, racial issue. But China is enjoying the same economic miracle as did Japan, only Japan had about a hundred-year head start on China, and it might be pointed out, suffered a delusional period of suicidal empire building between its periods of rapid growth, and is now languishing economically because its economic system was devised to serve its nationalistic, racist impulses, and none others. And it is easy for an economic system to grow in aggregate by double digits when it starts from such a dismal foundation as did China’s (or Japan’s earlier), particularly when the creative energies of what had been a highly advanced society are suddenly unleashed. From the big-picture perspective, it could be argued that the Chinese government’s ability to suppress growth during its Maoist era was the truly remarkable, even miraculous, economic event. The Chinese are like people anywhere, always seeking to better their lot in life. That the Chinese government was able to hold them back so long while the rest of the world prospered is indeed remarkable.
The point of America has never been aggregate economic growth in glorification of the American nation, for there has never been one. While the impulse to economic expansion certainly existed within the American DNA, and more particularly, in the genes of its individual entrepreneurs and businessmen, the impulse to world hegemony and empire that seems to result when a nation-state embarks on a program of expansionistic capitalism, did not. But after the World Wars, which were really only European and East Asian wars (there was quite a bit of the world in which no war raged) among empire-seeking, capitalist nation-states, America acceded to the empires left abandoned because of the social and economic destruction wrought upon the warring nation-states by the conflict. America, its majority population culled over the years from the European nation-states that were embroiled in a race for empire at the turn of the century, eventually was all that was left standing of their imperial designs. At least outside of its own hemisphere, it could be argued that America did not seek empire; empire was thrust upon it. The massive expansion in American hegemony across the globe after the wars was certainly a boon to economic growth and prosperity at home, but the aggregate economic growth was a by-product of the empire that landed in America’s lap, not the point of acquiring it. Even today, America’s most valuable exports—security and stability for the world-wide economic infrastructure—are not meant to aggrandize a particular American nationality, but instead to foster the ability of American capitalists of whatever nationality to exploit the world’s resources in order that they might grow rich.
America must now, it seems, compete on the world stage with an economic system that sees itself as an expression of nationalistic/racist pride, yet has no such nationalistic, racial pride upon which it can rely to bolster its own competitive stance. Woe to America, right? Hardly. First, China is not a competitor as much as a collaborator, and needs America far more, at least for today and the near future, than America needs her. But more importantly, national or racial pride, while appearing to be a hard-wired human instinct, as pervasive as it’s been through the years, is not. Jeremy Lin, and sports in general, provides the perfect example as to why.
Racial and nationalistic impulses arise out of the same place as all other emotions—the abiding, relentless will to survive and propagate. But racial and nationalistic impulses are discarded as soon as they become an impediment to survival and propagation. They are not innate, and any group devoted more to racial bigotry than simply to excellence ultimately pays a steep price for indulging their prejudices. Racial bigotry impairs, rather than enhances, the prospects for success in sports, so it has been all but abandoned. Every key player (and most of the rest) on the University of Alabama’s BCS Championship football teams was black. Did anyone care, even in a place with a well-earned reputation for harboring a deeply racist soul? Of course not. Fans, players and coaches just cared that the best eleven the Tide could muster were on the field for every play. Success on the field depended on abandoning racial bigotry against blacks, and so it was, at least on the gridiron. Even Spike Lee could come to love Jeremy Lin if Lin proved the answer to the Knicks’ woeful basketball fortunes. Alabama still harbors a racist soul, as the recent immigration law stands in testament. But the racist law, directed this time against Hispanics, will in time prove to be inimical to success, in this instance economically, and will also ultimately be abandoned.
The only danger America faces racially is from within. So long as America’s government continues to take account of race, bestowing favor on minority races because of their race, it is traveling a path to racial Balkanization, ultimately leading to self-destruction. While there is no such thing as a white race (or really any race for that matter), there is created such a thing as a non-black and non-Hispanic race, if blacks and Hispanics are allowed to garner political favor because of their self-professed racial identity, as they now can through affirmative action. Eventually non-blacks and non-Hispanics will push back, and the whole thing will disintegrate in a heap of racial animosities. Social mores also have to change. It should be no more acceptable for a black radio host to berate his black radio audience to shut up and vote for Barack Obama because he’s black than it is for an Asian-American to praise one of his kind because he’s Asian-American, all the while prohibiting any sort of similar sentiments among non-blacks, non-Asians, etc. If America were ever perceived to exist as an expression of black or Hispanic national impulses, America would be doomed, not because blacks or Hispanic are inherently unworthy, but because nationalistic and racial impulses and prejudices generally are, as being contrived, and ultimately, inimical to success and prosperity. Racism is like currency. If one group is allowed to compete on the basis of its race, then all groups will, and competition on the basis of race will drive competition on the basis of merit from the public square. Bad currency always drives the good out of circulation.
In the meantime, the Jeremy Lin saga is fun to watch. Not because he’s ethnic Chinese, or a Harvard grad (ugh!) or a Christian. But because it turns out he’s a pretty good basketball player that three NBA franchises apparently overlooked. I wonder, was it because he isn’t black that they thought he couldn’t play?